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What is Literacy?

Written by Antero Garcia
May 10, 2013

 by Chelsea Geier, Nick Bonnet, and Fairon Bleam

When thinking about the question of what literacy is, it is important to define the elements of the “traditionally” literate student. Literacy has for a long time meant “the ability to read and write.” Technically, this encompasses 4 main elements for reading and writing skills:

  1. Phonology: the ability to recognize and reproduce speech sounds.
  2. Orthography: the ability to recognize and reproduce spelling patterns.
  3. Semantics: the ability to pick out the meaning of words.
  4. Morphology: the ability to recognize and reproduce the patterns of word formations.

 An educator today knows that, though these things are important, they are far from being the only markers of the fully literate student. This definition of “literacy” is simply the groundwork that needs to be established before the more critical pieces of literacy are added on.

As a class, we spent the first weeks of the semester working to come up with an initial definition for “literacy.” Some of the books we’ve been reading about literacy this semester are When Kids Can’t Read, What Teachers Can Do, Literacy: Reading the Word and the World, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child, and Reading Reconsidered. To communicate as a class of future literacy teachers, we have been responding to prompts on Google Plus about our thoughts on the readings and in-class discussions. In one of our first prompts this semester we discussed definitions of literacy overall (Literacy definitions.pdf).

One of the most important aspects in defining literacy first begins with attempting to define what literacy is not. Is there such a thing as not-literacy? Surely literacy involves reading of some sort. What our class spent time deliberating, though, was how we read. Is reading simply looking at words on a page, understanding what words those are, and putting those words together to make a sentence? How can meaning be drawn through the recognition of words on a page? As we started discussing the possibilities of what that looked like, our confusion grew. We discussed how to know if a student is below reading level. How can we as educators know when our students are not reading? We spent time in class developing reading assessment plans to address students with needs in reading. No matter how many textbooks we read though, those only provided suggestions. In the real world, when we enter into the classroom, we will not have a textbook for every students’ struggle. Some students will slip through the cracks without us even knowing, and what are the consequences for those students after our class?

As a class, we also said that literacy is a lot more than just looking at words on a page, it is discerning the meaning of things. Meaning making is a huge part of literacy. What our class is still struggling with, as a whole, is how do we teach students to make meaning out of what they read? Our role as educators is to show students the importance of literacy to their lives – whether that be understanding the meaning behind words on the page, or making meaning of the unwritten world around us.

Open Literacy definitions.pdf
Open Critical Literacy.docx

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