Do your eyes glaze over when the topic of literacy comes up?
Join the club. Now, this isn’t to say that literacy isn’t important
– far from it – but we need to change the terms of the debate.
For far too long now we have been preoccupied with the ‘phonics
versus whole language’ debate – which is better for learning
to read? The simple answer is obvious – we need both. This is
supported by the bulk of the educational research in the area,
and also allows for the differences in learning styles of individual
students. It’s also basic common sense.
But the phonics/whole language debate is problematic for another
reason. It obscures the fact that literacy is about much more
than just reading and writing – important though these skills
clearly are. We live in a world that requires us to engage in
a wide range of literacy skills – computer literacy, information
literacy, media literacy, biliteracy (or bilingual literacy),
critical literacy, to name just a few.
So, perhaps the first thing in reformulating the debate on
literacy is to recognise and acknowledge that what we should
really be talking about are literacies rather than some singular
notion of literacy. If we approached literacy in this more pluralistic
way, we would immediately be able to make connections that go
well beyond (but do not diminish) the traditional reading/writing
debates that have so dominated the field in recent years.
And this raises another important point. Even when we are talking
about literacy specifically in terms of reading and writing,
we need to do so much more carefully than we do currently. This
is because what we mean most often here is reading and writing
in English (although we seldom ever say this explicitly). So,
when we’re discussing someone’s ‘literacy skills’, we invariably
mean their English language literacy skills.
I’m not just being pedantic. This is crucial because if we
use literacy to mean literacy ‘in English’ we assume that literacy
skills equate with, or are limited to English language skills
(wrong; there are many other forms of literacy, including literacy
skills in other languages). Even more problematically we end
up, by default, adopting a ‘deficit’ notion of literacy. In
other words, we judge our students by their literacy abilities
in English, often ignoring or devaluing the many other literacy
skills that they might have. This is particularly true, of course,
for students whose first language is not English, an increasing
feature of many of our New Zealand schools and other educational
As teachers, what we need to do, urgently, is rethink our traditional
understandings of ‘literacy’. As a starting point, we need to
ask how we can teach more effectively in classrooms that have
an increasingly diverse range of students. To do this, we need
to consider how we can recognise, and build upon the different
literacies that students bring to school, including those whose
first language may not be English.
One way this can be achieved, for example, is through bilingual
education. Recent educational research highlights how bilingual
education programmes, when properly implemented, allow bilingual
students to transfer their first language skills successfully
to a second language. In contrast, the long-held practice of
‘immersing’ students in English as soon as possible, at the
expense of their first language, has now been found to be the
least successful means of achieving literacy in English.
When these questions about literacy begin to be explored, it
immediately makes debates about literacy both more interesting
and more controversial!
Even more importantly, when viewed in this way, questions of
language and literacy become far more central to the work of
all teachers and educators (not just reading, ESL or English
Stephen May is Foundation Professor and Chair of Language and
Literacy Education in the School of Education, University of