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?