L is for Literacy

9 12 2009

I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the treatment of literacy in An A-Z. This is how the entry goes:

“Literacy is the ability to read and write in a language, usually one’s own. However, increasingly learners of a second language, especially those living in an… ESL context… require native-like literacy skills in order to function effectively in the target culture. … Simply ‘doing reading and writing’ in class is unlikely to meet the special needs of such learners.” 

Ok, so literacy is more than reading and writing – it is socially-situated and functional. And it’s true, a lot of traditional reading and writing work was neither socially-situated nor functional, but was instead almost exclusively form-focused: Read this text and underline all the conditionals… Write about an industrial process using at least six examples of the passive….etc

But surely, when teachers ‘do reading and writing’ nowadays, and within the framework of a communicative approach, this is very definitely socially-situated and functional: Read this article and infer the writer’s attitude…. Write a letter to your local counsellor complaining about the lack of sports facilities …etc.   In other words, where does ‘reading and writing’ finish and ‘literacy’ start?  Is it the fact that it’s ESL-oriented, and addresses “special needs”,  that makes it literacy?  In which case how does literacy training differ from ESP? Or is literacy the converse of illiteracy, and does literacy training therefore imply that learners are not yet literate in any language?

Given these confusions, it seems to me that literacy is a bit of buzz term that has migrated into ESL (and even EFL) from mainstream education. (And even in mainstream education, I get the sense that literacy is a moving target).

In short, how can I improve my definition?



35 responses

10 12 2009
Marta Torres

Hello again Scott!

Are you changing letter of the alphabet every day? Literacy is the most important for our students to help them read and write in the exams every year. But I think it’s more important help them to speak and listen because they want to talk to people in English. Is speaking and listening also ‘literacy’, do you think? Or is this something different?

In the summer I did a course on TIC in the classroom and we also heard of new literacy like using computers and technology. So it’s possible you can improve your definition with such information?

Well, now it’s late and tomorrow I have class. What will the letter of tomorrow be? Bona nit i tapa’t! Marta

10 12 2009

Thanks, Marta.

You ask: “Is speaking or listening also ‘literacy’?” Good question. Strictly speaking, it seems not, and some scholars use the (rather unattractive) word “oracy” as an analogous term to capture speaking and listening skills. However it strikes me as somewhat simplistic to attempt to separate out the skills in this way, when in real use they are often interdependent. If literacy is indeed socially-situated language-in-use, then surely the ability to write (for example) a complaining email to your (useless) internet provider involves being able to process and re-code the (many costly and frustrating) phonecalls you made in advance of writing the email. To take just one example.

(No, I’m not going to post a new letter every day – I just wanted to get this blog up and running, to see how it might work. Thanks for your support!)

10 12 2009

Literacy training may entail working with learners who are either illiterate or poorly trained in L1. Certainly in a UK ESOL, I understand this is quite common. There is a danger in the assumption that all learners are “good readers and writers” in their L1 when in fact many aren’t. Personally, I’m still learning to write : D

The other complicating factor is that (if) we learn to read and write in our L1, we are doing so with a bank of language knowledge superior to that of many L2 learners. This is why Scandinavians don’t start learning to read until they are six or seven – they have mastered the language, so they just need to match it to its “code”.

No help at all in honing your definition!

10 12 2009

Thanks Darren, and, yes, this does seem to be one application of the term literacy in EFL/ESL – the teaching of basic reading and writing skills that the learner may lack in their L1. But this contrasts with the definition that – for example Diarmuid is using (see dfogarty’s post below) – that literacy is a relatively advanced skill, one that goes “beyond” the mere mechanics of decoding or encoding marks on a page.

10 12 2009
Nick Jaworski

I agree with Darren that many people don’t have high literacy abilities in their L1, however we define it. I’ve also found that, especially for writing, criteria vary widely from country to country. Many cultures simply don’t follow the same rules or have the same expectations. This gets into the broader definitions of literacy other commentors are talking about.

I tend to be pretty traditional here I guess. I like the simple definition of literacy as being able to communicate effectively through writing and to understand what others have written. This whole postmodern move to deconstructing everything and analyzing the pieces is great, but you can’t really get into this much until your learners have a very high level of English anyway, especially if these skills are not taught in the L1 originally. In the ELT context I think the point is perhaps more academic than practical. Thoughts?

10 12 2009
Rob (US)

Hi Scott,

Try this on for size: “Literacy is control of secondary use of language (i.e., uses of language in secondary discourses)”

That’s Gee (1989). If you can’t access the original article “What is Literacy?”, you can read more here: http://www.ed.psu.edu/englishpds/Articles/CriticalLiteracy/What%20is%20Literacy.htm

Congrats to you and Luke on your book making the ELTon shortlist!

10 12 2009

Thanks Rob, and thanks for the great link (which made me look up ‘literacy’ in Gee’s brilliant “An Introduction to Discourse Analysis, 2nd edn” 1999, 2005, but there’s no reference to it, nor to the notion of primary vs secondary discourses – has he moved on??).

On the other hand, Gee’s distinction chimes with Ron Carter’s two-pronged definition (in “Keywords in Language and Literacy” Routledge 1995) in which he distinguishes between – on the one hand – the mechanical sense of literacy, and – on the other – the big-L sense that Gee seems to be invoking, i.e. “literacy as a set of variable social practices within which particular skills are valued (and others devalued)” (Carter, p. 100).

Nevertheless, I’m not sure how this applies to ELT (since both Gee and Carter seem to be talking about L1 education) unless the language is considered as just another variable in the set of social practices. I suppose that – in the end – it makes not a lot of difference if the user’s first language is Gujarati or Scouse – they still have to learn to negotiate the dominant, prestige language variety.

But I’m still uncertain how this big-L literacy is reflected in classroom practice, except as a kind of advanced reading and writing program, and only in an ESL situation.

11 12 2009
Graham Stanley

Gee has indeed ‘moved on’, and most of his work now seems to centre on the importance of new literacies, in particularly those relating to computer games (see his book ‘What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy’ Palgrave, 2003). Here’s a quote from a more recent book of his (‘Good Video Games + Good Learning’, Peter Lang, 2007 page 135) :

‘Video gaming is a new “literacy”. By “literacy” we mean any technology that allows people to “decode” meanings and produce meanings by using symbols…Every literacy involves some set of relationships between consumption (reading) and production (writing)…consuming and producing – reading and writing – are closely connected in gaming as a literacy. It is interesting to speculate on the question of how much of this is true also for print literacy.’

Later, he continues, ‘Video games are only one activity today where young people are stressing production not just consumption. Indeed, modern digital technologies are leading us to an anytime, anywhere, anyone world of production…Such production may be, for many people, an important route for the acquisition of skills that are crucial for our modern, global, high-tech world.”

10 12 2009

Fascinating stuff, as one would expect, naturellement. I jumped over to a hugely respectable academic source, Wikipedia, where their entry starts of with the UNESCO definition of literacy:

“the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

I would suggest that we leave “reading and writing” behind the moment that our students “develop their knowledge and potential, and…participate fully in their community and wider society.” That is when I would suggest “literacy” takes over.

It seems to me that helping students get a better score in a reading/writing exam does NOT qualify as literacy training. This is an academic pursuit that takes into account the first half of the definition but ARGUABLY fails to take into account the second part. This objection applies even when the question types are functional and socially-situated.

Literacy is different from ESP because ESP is targetted learning whereas literacy has the goal of enabling “full participation” in wider society. Literacy is, of course, the opposite of “illiteracy” although it does not necessarily imply that the learner is illiterate in any language.

In short, a brief examination of the UNESCO definition might be a useful way of adding to your encyclopedic effort.

10 12 2009

Thanks, Diarmuid – that’s one of the most comprehensive and yet transparently clear definitions I’ve come across, and I’m encouraged to see the word “continuum” in there. And I think that the way you draw the line between reading and writing, on the one hand, and literacy, on the other, is plausible, given that, being a continuum, there is bound to be a fuzzy area.

A very fuzzy area, I can’t help thinking. Darren makes the point that literacy is often interpreted as “basic” literacy, and hence outside the remit suggested by Gee and co. And yet, surely, learning to shape letters and spell correctly is all part of developing the learner/user’s “knowledge and potential” so as to be able “to participate fully in their community and wider society”. You can’t participate fully if you can’t spell, or if you can’t sign your name.

So, again, I ask: why has this term been imported into ELT which (if we are to take the communicative approach at all seriously) is ALREADY predicated on the principle that the objective of language teaching and learning is functional language use in its communities of practice? Why, for example, does Camridge ESOL require a dedicated session on teaching literacy on its CELTA program, when there are already sessions that focus on reading and writing? Do I not detect a tiny whiff of PC here?

10 12 2009
Marta Torres

Hello again scott, and thank you for answering my comments. Maybe now I don’t need to do a course because I can come here and find all the answers to my questions about teaching! It’s good you offer this service to teachers like me because we don’t have training at the school and is very expensive to do a course and time-consuming.

Now (thanks to you!) I know we can speak of oracy, but which is the most important – is it literacy or oracy for the learners in the schools? I think is oracy, but when it comes the exainations everyone must test his literacy, I think. Don’t you agree?

Do you remember my question about the TIC in the class, about the technology lteracy? I don’t know if is important as the normal one, but now many people speak about it and on the course we read some articles and watched some webpages about it, so I think it can be important, no?

My friends are very jealous now I know you on your blog. For the moment they are very shy, but soon I think they will also come to ask some questions from you.

I hope you will have very good day. Marta :-)))))))))))))

10 12 2009

Hi Marta…

Regarding technological literacy – yes the term literacy has been co-opted (and made countable) to collocate with a whole range of modifiers. I just did a quick check of the Corpus of Contemporary American English (at http://www.americancorpus.org/ ) and these are the most common modifiers of literacy or literacies, in order of frequency: information, technological, media, computer, adult, early, enivronmental, cultural, science, emergent…

(The notion of “environmental literacy” seems particularly apt, as the Copehagen summit grinds on).

PS: Interestingly, the British National Corpus throws up quite a different set of collocates: adult, mass, computer, basic, media, cultural…

I was surprised that “visual literacy” didn’t figure high in either list.

10 12 2009
Sara Hannam

Hi Scott,

Perhaps it would be good to have a blog called “terms from other disciplines that have been imported into ELT” : )….I think it *is* misled notions of PC that confuse this issue and it is another sign of the higgledy piggledy identity that ELT has in its “pick and mix” approach which often misses the mark. I am all for multi-disciplinarity but it needs to be done thoughtfully and thoroughly – and in first level training courses like the Certificate, it barely scraches the surface.

ELT as you point out often sees literacy as an ‘ability’ (a rather outdated view) rather than a set of culturally inscribed processes and practices. I think Diarmuid’s definition widens this out much more usefully….but I would add a bit more.

In the field of educational studies ‘critical literacy’ is a huge area and relates just as much to modes of understanding the world as it does to actual reading/writing processes. They are linked through teaching in terms of the way that students are encouranged to view their position in the classroom, world and within language as potentially transformative. It encourages both the reading and writing of texts to be done in an active and reflective manner and to see ‘text’ as a potential source of official knowledge (and bias) and to move teaching methods towards deconstruction. All the better to understand experience and change it. Friere is a good place to start (in terms of history of CL) and I know you are already very familiar with his work.

Behrman says (ant this could be applied to teaching):

“These practices may include identifying multiple voices in texts, dominant cultural discourse, multiple possible readings of texts, and sources of authority where texts are used and critiquing and producing a wide range of texts” (2006, 491).

In Educational Studies ‘literacy’ is a moving target as how it is defined is primarily dictated by the world view of the person doing the defining. This is an area that goes back thousands of years so is bound to be deeply embedded in the way society functions and how literacy is attached to social advancement.

The deeper question that you ask is important. How can a potentially disempowered position in society (i.e. a state of illiteracy) become empowering and what is the role of the EL teacher and wider profession in that respect? This might be very differently answered depending on context i.e. it is totally different to be unable to read and write in English, but be completely competent in your own mother tongue, to not being able to read and write at all and learning a language other than your own as the first you become literate in. Something to think about.

I also wonder what “native like literacy skills” actually means? Can you clarify?

10 12 2009

Thanks Sara, for your thoughtful and articulate reply. I should have known you would bring the c-word into the discussion (as in “critical literacy”) and I was kind of hoping that you would. Like “discourse” (which I’ll be coming to later on in this series), there are at least three levels of meaning associated with literacy, it seems – the formal/technical level, the communicative/functional level, and the participatory/empanicipatory level.

By defining literacy in these terms and with these goals i.e. “it encourages both the reading and writing of texts to be done in an active and reflective manner and to see ‘text’ as a potential source of official knowledge (and bias) and to move teaching methods towards deconstruction”, I can get a feel for how literacy might be enacted in ELT classroom terms, but I’m still not convinced that it’s not just part of the “advanced reading and writing” syllabus, just as literature traditionally is. And, as Marta asks, why not ‘oracy’ too – doesn’t that also function at a participatory/emancipatory level? Isn’t it equally empowering to be able to *speak* in a wide range of registers, and to know how to use speech to achieve one’s social and political goals?

As for the “native-like” – you’re right in your insinuation that this is a very loaded, and ultimately meaningless, term. I think it has to go!

11 12 2009

As I mentioned before, having read Wikipedia, I now consider myself to be something of an expert as far as literacy is concerned. I note, then, that the enlightened Picts (aka the Scottish) include oracy within their official definition of literacy: “The ability to read and write and use numeracy, to handle information, to express ideas and opinions, to make decisions and solve problems, as family members, workers, citizens and lifelong learners.” That said, I think they might be stretching the term somewhat…in respect, at least to the etymology of the word, perhaps it should concern itself more with the reading of visual information…perhaps I’m just feeling more conservative at this time of the morning.

I think literacy IS different to the advanced reading and writing syllabus because I think it should form part of the BASIC reading and writing syllabus. I’m not sure I agree with the idea that first people master the basics and then they become enabled to take on the more subtle nuances of the language. I think that the subtle nuances of the language form part of the basics and will inevitably result in these taking longer to master.

There is no reason why a fairly basic learner of English cannot be asked to try and take a critical perspective on any written text. Who wrote it? How do they come across? How might the reader feel? What about other characters in the story? Do they see things the same way? How would this be different if it was set in your country? Would you have done the same things? How can you reply to this letter and show this person that you are NOT some “stupid foreigner”? Why do you think people write letters like this to the newspaper? etc.

Do you really have to be in the upper stages of your English language studies to be able to address these things?

Another question is whether this is how “literacy training” appears in materials. I can’t honestly say, not having had the pleasure. But I suspect not. I suspect that “literacy training” was a pre-exisiting term that was emptied of all meaning and ironed onto the reading and writing syllabus. I am basing this supposition on the god-awful approach that most coursebooks take towards the teaching of reading and writing (and listening and speaking).

11 12 2009

Thanks Diarmuid, for your comment. I totally agree that a “critical” reading of texts is possible at even low levels, especially in the ways that you describe, and that this is more likely to happen when the texts are genuine texts (as opposed to coursebook ones) and perhaps even selected by the learners themselves. But (as I comment to Carol, below) I am not sure why this is necessarily “literacy” as opposed to what some writers (e.g. Catherine Wallace in “Critical Language Awareness” ed. Fairclough, 1992) call “critical reading”. I guess my point is, does it help teachers – or simply confuse them – to label a part of the curriculum as “literacy”, implying that the other parts of the curriculum are *not* functional, context-sensitive, critical, empowering, or whatever?

10 12 2009
Carol Goodey

Hi Scott

Just popping in quickly to share the Scottish understanding of what literacy is as defined in the 2001 document Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Scotland (ALNIS). According to this, literacy is:

“The ability to read, write and use numeracy, to handle information, to express ideas and opinions, to make decisions and solve problems, as family members, workers, citizens and lifelong learners.” (ALNIS, 2001)

This definition allows literacy to be seen as being different for everyone according to the contexts in which they live and work and it encompasses the necessity of a critical awareness of how texts are used.

The Curriculum Framework which supports the ALNIS document and this definition is based on three principles:

“Promote self-determination among learners, helping them to make informed choices about how and what they learn and to take responsibility for their learning […]

Develop an understanding of literacy and numeracy with particular emphasis on critical awareness of how and why communications of all sorts are produced and how they are intended to have an effect on us. […]

Recognise and respect difference and diversity through making sure that programmes are responsive to learners’ preferred uses of literacy and numeracy and their values and contexts.” http://www.aloscotland.com/alo/files/ALNCurriculumFramework.pdf

Part of what I do involves working with Adult Literacy and ESOL learners under these principles and it is a thoroughly satisfying way to work. We are not preparing learners to pass exams but to better able to do what they want to be able to do in their various contexts.

This may, however, be too broad an understanding of literacy for your purposes, but I just wanted to chip in to give a wider of picture.

Where ESOL literacies in particular are referred to, this generally means learners who are not yet able to read and write (in terms of decoding / encoding) in English for what ever reason.

By the way, this is already a very interesting blog. Thanks for getting started.


11 12 2009

Hi Carol, thanks for the Scottish take on literacy. It does start to sound like there is a general consensus that literacy involves empowerment through language, especially in an ESL context. However, when you write that: “We are not preparing learners to pass exams but to better able to do what they want to be able to do in their various contexts”, I can’t help thinking that this is a definition of good teaching, and am not sure why it is dressed up as “adult literacy”.

11 12 2009
Carol Goodey

Hi Scott,

Yes, I’d agree! I was really just enthusing about the luxury of being able to respond to what learners are dealing with in the various contexts of their lives now, or what they want to be able to do in their near future (and that could, I suppose, include an exam!)

The definition of literacy I gave focuses more on the skills, knowledge and understanding required by the learners in their contexts at this point in their life, whereas if preparing for an exam then learners have to conform to an agreed set of competencies that they may be expected to use in the future.

On reflection, however, I feel that the definition I’ve provided really is the abilty use language critically and effectively in order to participate fully and as such is unlikely to be useful to you. Perhaps a new term is needed? 🙂

But, I should already have left the house…


11 12 2009
Carol Goodey

Just wanted to clarify that in my last comment, I meant that the definition is unlikely to be of use to you because it covers too much, rather than you wouldn’t be interested in critical or effective use of language! 🙂

I shouldn’t post in a hurry! (And I still shouldn’t be here!)

11 12 2009
Sara Hannam

Good morning one and all,

This is a great discussion thread – the contributions from Carol and Diarmuid have really expanded the whole concept of literacy, and I found the way ESOL works with this helpful. My first contact with literacy was teaching ESOL in Liverpool and I always appreciated the much more embedded criticality than that I encountered in the “EFL” classroom at the time.

So….Scott to answer a couple of questions.

Like Diarmuid I am not convinced that critical literacy cannot be started from very early if the following things are taken into account:

a) noone suspends their intellect whilst learning a language – the brain doesn’t work like this. Remember yourself as a learner of a language and I am sure that despite the restrictions linguistically at lower levels there were times when you/we were all able to express something important to us and sometimes that includes questioning the world around us – the support we receive from our teacher is essential in this process and seems very DOGME to me!

b) the view that critical literacy can only really be done with more advanced learners assumes an English only setting – if the classroom is bi-lingual space (which the majority of EL classrooms the world over are) then L1 and English can be used to create different levels of meaning and interpretation – have to be careful of biases that assume the travelling tefler or someone teaching in an anglophone country with visiting students as these are the exception to the rule.

c) it is possible to embed critical literacy in *some* of the activities that you do whilst also continuing with other more generic stuff that you had planned to do anyway (but always maintaining the belief that students have the right to question). I think it is best to avoid seeing it as an either/or situation, but to see the critical input as an enhancement.

Now I know that some other posters have expressed concerns about how this works in practice. And also asked the question what about speaking? To answer the last point first, personally I struggle to see language as a separate set of skills anyway and always have done as I think this disembodies it. So for me, critical literacy would always involve speaking as a means of discussion and interpretation. Scott I am not sure, however, that the aim should be to ‘teach’ students to speak in range registers as much as to make them aware of the registers available, what they represent in terms of status/cultural value, and then allow them to choose which ones they wish to utilise (though of course the process is by no means as supermarket like as that description suggests). This is a critical discussion in itself and can be done very successfully with students through comparitive work or sampling of spoken language, and consideration of the current goals of language testing (always a popular topic amongst those who have to take them).

Re: how to do this in the classroom. Well two simple approaches for lower levels would be using visual literacy to stimulate interpretative skills. This involves showing an image like, for example, the one here https://www.courses.psu.edu/wmnst/wmnst001_atd1/BeautyMyth/3mirrors.jpg – as is often the case a picture is better than a thousand words. Apart from the obvious pragmatic vocabulary required to discuss the image, there is a deeper issue regarding “body image” and the pressure on women to be thin in certain parts of the world. If this were combined with a short text on the power of advertising, it could easily form part of a lower intermediate lesson (with some simple statistics which are universally easy to grasp). Film, song and other mediums can be used just as well and TBH beginner students often know the lyrics to English songs ahead of any other control of the language.

Another activity I have found to stimulate critical thinking with lower levels is discussion of SIGNS. For example the sign “no women allowed” (when attached to a discussion on the fact women are not allowed to visit Mount Athos in Greece where I am based as it is a religious ‘area’ that is demarcated only for men) always works well with lower levels. Again combined with a simple text giving the reasons for this still being so in 2009.

I accept that with a complete and absolute beginner (i.e. no knowledge either passively or actively of English) you would have to really think hard about your approach but I believe critical literacy is a state of mind, and sometimes involved simply asking an extra question which, to quote the great words of the Bronski Beat says “it ain’t necessarily so” OR the Style council “you can actually try changing things”. So the extra questions would be a) does it have to be like this or is there another way or b) do you think this situation could be changed and if so how?

OK, off to get a cup o’ tea!


11 12 2009

Thanks Sara, for another generous and articulate posting – worth waiting overnight for! It seems that your comment, and my replies to Diarmuid and Carol, crossed – and some of what I said to them I think relates to what I would say in response to you. Essentially, I’m not criticising the notion of (critical) literacy – but, coming from the perspective of someone trying to provide a transparently clear definition of it, I’m simply trying to unpack the term itself. That is, I’m trying to distinguish it from such (apparently) related terms as “critical language awareness” (Fairclough 1992), “critical reading” (Wallace 1992), “critical pedagogy” (Pennycook 2001), “postmethod pedagogy” (Kumaravadivelu 2006), as well as more ELT-ish terms such as ESP and EAP. I sense that some teachers (and teacher educators, and methodoloy writers) are confused, even intimidated, by terms like “adult literacy” as applied to ELT, since (as we have seen in this discussion) it seems to embrace everything from teaching Roman script to unmasking the hidden agenda in texts. Am I completely wrong?

11 12 2009
Alice M

Thank you everyone for defining more and more closely what litteracy is. And thank you Sara for your ideas on how to teach complete beginners. I must say, as a learner of English, that I was not very sure myself of the true meaning of the word when I heard it uttered by my British colleagues.
But I still wonder with Scott how literacy differs with “good teaching”.
Do you still talk about “literacy” regarding fluent learners?
Finally, I am still unsure about the difference between “literacy” and “critical literacy”.
Bonne journée !


11 12 2009

Thanks Alice. Good questions.

For what it’s worth, here’s how Claire Kramsch defines ‘literacy’: “The cognitive and sociocultural ability to use the written or print medium according to the norms of interaction and interpretation of a given discourse community” (‘Language and Culture’ OUP 1998, p. 37).

(Might perhaps add “or digital” after “or print”, now.)

Perhaps “critical literacy”, then, is “”The cognitive and sociocultural ability to use and critique the written, print or digital medium according to the norms of interaction and interpretation of a given discourse community, and by so doing become a fully participating member of that community“.


11 12 2009
Sara Hannam

Scott hi,

I think the ‘problem’ here is that intellectually and theoretically we are living in the post-modern era (I say that with my own reservations about how far that reaches beyond the walls of academia and education!) . By this I mean your totally understandable search for a transparent term which will be evident to those who read it is hampered by the paradox that there are no uniform terms for anything theoretical anymore and that each term needs to be seen in light of other similar or contrasting terms as webs of meaning. I struggle with this myself as it does make the task of defining very hard which is the crux of your book : ) as you are always forced to take into account the differing possible positions within any one given term. Perhaps your concern with this is also to do with your own development since writing the last edition? I say this as the more we question, the harder it is to come up with simple answers, but the more we notice the gaps.

The way I would approach this is to start by looking at what unites all these concepts that have the word ‘critical’ in them and it is the concept of critical theory. Fairclough, Pennycook et al have much in common, but also use critical theory in different ways (Pennycook perhaps being more influenced by post-structuralist work and Foucault). A possible way out of this impasse is that you could (in your book) have one entry termed ‘critical theory’ which defines this and then says at the end ‘see also critical pedagogy, critical literacy, etc (which have separate definitions influenced by those pioneering those terms). I think under your definition of literacy (which is the one we are talking about here), you could offer an expanded definition as indicated in many of the comments above and then point out that contemporary definitions often incorporate the notion of ‘critical literacy’ and which cross references back to your fuller definition of ‘critical literacy’ (which references back to critical theory). This way the knowledge is part of a tapestry of connections (very post-modern!) which interrelate and enhance one another but no one term contains the unchangeable, unshakeable RIGHT answer!

I may well have made things more complicated for you here and if so I apologise. But I think that might be the only way (and perhaps you can find a simplified version) of doing these big terms justice and updating understandings of ELT to include newer developments.

11 12 2009

More complicated – not at all, Sara! I’m starting to see some light, and your insightful attempt to disentangle the terminology is a great start. I do have an entry called “critical pedagogy” in the A-Z (which is ripe for review and revision – watch this space!), and I will need to go back to this and – as you suggest – cross-reference it with ‘literacy’, the definition of which will now include a reference to ‘critical literacy’ (as well as – perhaps – other literacies such as ‘technological literacy’ and ‘media literacy’, insofar as they relate to ELT).

Thanks so much for the time and trouble you (pl.) have all put in to helping clarify these issues.

11 12 2009
Sara Hannam

My pleasure. Looking forward to reading the updated versions! I think the inclusion of all the literacies is the way to go!

11 12 2009
Alice M

MERCI Scott and Sara!
Scott, if I understand well, you can add “critical” to any aspect of learning? critical learning? critical listening and speaking skills?

Sara, I love this idea of a tapestry of connections to lead us to the awareness that there is no”unchangeable, unshakeable RIGHT answer”! perhaps this is my main problem as a learner, that I can see at work in some of my students too : I want the unshakable answer!

11 12 2009
Karenne Sylvester

I’m not sure if anyone else has already said this, unfortunately I haven’t been able to read all of the prior comments.

Literacy is the ability to use language in a way immediately understandable by those we are in communication with.

11 12 2009
Marta Torres

Hello Scott!

It looks like people give you some good ideas to make your definition longer and better. And will you make many definitions – one for TIC, one for media and all the rest, or can you combine all into a new definition?

Now, I have a question. All this talk and the book with the definitions of all these things I think is very interesting to me – but I want to know what it can mean for my students? I think it’s lots of talk and ideas, but I don’t see anything practical in your new book. Is your book only reference, or can it help teachers who work in classrooms?

Thank you Scott for your attention and have good weekend. Marta 🙂

11 12 2009

Thanks Marta.

A couple of things: (1) the book is not new – it’s been available since 2006. What I’m doing here is collecting ideas and suggestions for a second edition.
(2) As for how practical it is, I’ll let others be the judge!


11 12 2009
Marta Torres

Thank you Scott for your answers – this is a clever idea to ask the readers to help you write the second edition. I think it can be easier, but also more interesting when many people contribute. I hope I will contribute something to one of the letters, too!

Well, I look forward to hear from the others how to make it practical. For the moment I don’t see how, but I think all these writers will have some good ideas.

I will come back at the weekend to see if people have ideas to make it practical, or perhaps another letter has appeared! Marta :-)))))))))

13 12 2009

As this exemplary thread comes to a close, I just wanted to quickly thank contributors for their generosity when commenting. Marvelous.

13 12 2009

I’ll second that, Glennie! Thanks.

14 12 2009
Rob Haines

If I may, I’d like to reply to what Graham posted a while back:

“Later, he [Gee] continues, ‘Video games are only one activity today where young people are stressing production not just consumption. Indeed, modern digital technologies are leading us to an anytime, anywhere, anyone world of production…Such production may be, for many people, an important route for the acquisition of skills that are crucial for our modern, global, high-tech world.’ ”

It would be interesting to combine the research done by Swain (cf. Swain, M. 1995. ‘Three functions of output in second language learning. In G. Cook & B. Seidlhofer (eds) Principle and Practice in Applied Linguistics. New york: Oxford University Press, pp 125-144) on the important function of output (ie, production) and Gee’s ideas (cited above) – all within a framework that included the ZPD.

Sorry, that’s rather vague, but I just wanted to throw that out there for any takers.


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