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2002 Gwen Gawith: Re-defining research

2002 Opoho School: "The Opoho Possum Hunt"

2001 Gwen Gawith: "Infobliteracy" - Part 2.

2001 Gwen Gawith: Responding to "Into a Further World" by Elwyn Richardson.

2001 Carolyn Coil: Teachers make the world of information become knowledge.

2001 Gwen Gawith: Why Read?

2001 Gwen Gawith: "Infobliteracy" - Part 1.

2001 Linda Selby and Maureen Trebilcock: A call for teacher-librarians

2000 Gwen Gawith: Information Literacy: theory into practice - Part 2

2000 Gwen Gawith: Information literacy: problems and solutions.

2000 Alan Cooper: Information literacy; the past is not enough.

1999 Gwen Gawith: The origins of information literacy.

1998 Graham Prentice: Knowledge architects.

1998 Gwen Gawith: Getting a handle on information literacy.

1997 Gwen Gawith: NEMPing through information literacy.

1992 Gwen Gawith: learning for the future.

1987 Gwen Gawith: Information skills for an information age.

1986 Gwen Gawith Information skills for an information literate future.

1984 Gwen Gawith: Getting a handle on information skills.


information literacy:
definitions & discussion

Keynote paper delivered at the Whangarei Reading Association inaugural seminar Saturday 10 March 2001


Beyond the cliches of reading and information literacy.

Gwen Gawith

'Literacy' is a buzz word at the moment. We're even advertising courses in 'assessment literacy'. Literacy has never been more important, and there would be few who would challenge the need for all types of literacies including the need for all children to be able to read, understand and interpret information, to become information literate.

Reading is a key component of information literacy - being able to read, not just letters and words on page or screen, but to 'read' diagrams, pictures, figures, multi-media presentations, TV, adverts… We want all children to become lifelong learners and lifelong readers, people who read for pleasure as well as 'information'.

But it's only when we get beyond the cliches, the rhetoric of empowerment and lifelong learning, and get beyond the over-simplifications of categories like 'fiction' and 'non-fiction' and really   start asking 'Why read?' that we start to see that reading is not negotiable. It isn't just learning to read. Get short term loans from In City Loans site. There are three integral and inter-related aspects - what, how and why.

We have focused far too much on the 'how', forgetting that it's not just a question of whole-language versus phonics, phonetics or phonemics. If, as a child, I can't see any purpose for reading, I'm not likely to do any more than I have to.   'What' and 'why' provide the context for 'how'.

The damage done by oversimplification was summed up by a notice I saw in a school. Non-fiction, it proclaimed, is true. Fiction is not true. I see, so why are we asking children to read lies?

When I wrote the original New Zealand edition of Reading Alive! in 1989 I said in a section entitled 'Why read?'

Before you can promote something, you need to know what exactly it is that you are promoting, and why. To the convinced reader and lifelong book addict the question WHY READ? may seem as relevant as asking 'do fish need water?'   but it is precisely those of us who are convinced readers who need to clarity for ourselves and our students why reading is important and relevant for everyone.

I concluded that,

As long as our society is print-based (whether that print is on a screen, on fiche or in a book), the ability to read competently, confidently, flexibly and fluently is POWER. To choose not to exercise that option is your right. If you cannot do it, you do not have the option of choosing, and your power in society is reduced.

I saw reading as power, as knowing, as seeing the world through other eyes, as experience, as feeling, as expanding your horizons, as other worlds, as giving you a handle on past, present and future, as food for the mind and imagination.

But that was then, this is now, a dozen years and an information revolution later.

I think all these reasons for reading are still valid, but that several additional reasons need greater emphasis because of what a generation of digital obsession has done to children's print literacy.

These 'reasons for reading' which need greater emphasis in this fragmented, frenetic society of electronic connectivity and social disconnectivity include:

·                         LANGUAGE

·                         HEROISM

·                         KNOWLEDGE

·                         DISCRIMINATION

·                         VICARIOUS EXPERIENCE

The common denominator is imagination.

I also want to tackle an underlying assumptions integral to this society - that new is always better; that we always look ahead, or abroad, for panaceas. These often arrive in the form of overseas gurus who deliver Powerpoint presentations with enormous pizzazz and leave us wondering whether it is our personal inadequacies which make it so hard to translate into classroom practice what seems to obvious and so easy when Powerpointed.

We who believe in reading should probably spend more time doing just that because, reading some old, wise text. None of our problems seems particularly new, and the five additional reasons for reading are covered with intelligence and simplicity - which is more than can be said for many of our curriculum and guiding documents.

1.          LANGUAGE: Make language come alive for them.

Teachers have never had a more important role to play in bringing language alive. Inarticulacy is a problem not confined to any one socio-economic class or cultural group. Children who are seldom spoken to, read to, listened to and encouraged to formulate reasons and arguments; children who spend their out-of-school lives on Game Boys, Play stations, surfing the web, watching TV, whatever, are often inarticulate. Inarticulacy and illiteracy are both killers (for example, Botting 1999). Vygotsky reminds us that thinking develops language and language develops thinking. Computers have not improved speaking.

Words are the wardrobe of the mind. If teachers don't help to bring language alive, who will? Teachers who can read aloud with passion and share their pleasure with the sound and shape of words, showing kids how particular words clothe particular thoughts, are NOT dime a dozen. Many young teachers are, themselves, marginally literate and articulate. They don't seem to read, and their speech shows it. I am not talking about accent or spelling or punctuation. I am talking about restricted vocabulary, boring monotone voices - killing rather than bringing language alive.

The best source of language for reading and sharing is books. Most teachers have their favourite readalouds, but how often do we send a list of a few suggested readaloud books to parents? How often do we celebrate words themselves, rich, wonderful, funny, exciting words, with the children we teach?  

Margaret Meek (1977, p. 7) said:

Almost too readily we believe that, in our electronic age, the habit of storytelling has been lost so that we have stopped expecting it to operate. But it is still powerfully there, behind the news bulletin, the strip cartoon, the sports report.

Story: people, places, events woven into a coherent narrative with powerful language is what Barbara Hardy called a 'primary act of mind' (1977).

Reading to find out what happened next is as good a reason for reading as any. Book story develops, better than any other medium, language-rich, plot-rich, deep, profound, extended stories which truly invite us to interact with the minds, emotions, ideas, cultures, conditions, and lives of people past, present and future.

Interactive fiction is a tautology. All good fiction and non-fiction invites us to interact with the essence of what it is to be human - in ways I have never encountered with a computer program.   This leads to the second need for emphasis:

2.          GIVE THEM HEROES: Give them the power of the great elemental myths.

Elizabeth Cook (1969, p. 3) said:

The inherent greatness of myth and fairy tale is poetic greatness. The best stories are like extended lyrical images of unchanging human predicaments and strong, unchanging hopes and fears, loves and hatreds.

They are all the more important in that they do NOT relate to or reflect the immediate day-to-day reality of children's lives. Thank God, they are not 'relevant'. Cook says:

They are not realistic; they are almost unlocalized in time and space; they are often supernatural or at least fantastic in character; and the human beings in them are not three-dimensional people with complex motives and temperaments. These stories do hold a mirror up to nature, but they do not reflect the world as we perceive it with our senses at the present moment… in reading them we live in a Secondary World which is internally consistent (p. 2).

Precisely… in a fragmented, frenetic, de-constructed world they provide an elemental certainty, a psychological re-construction and coherence, which is hard to come by. And the best way to encounter them is to hear them read by a skilled reader. They stir the heart, they stir the imagination and the limbs. As Cook says,

Myth and fairy tales provide an unusually abundant choice of things to do. Largely because they are archetypal and anonymous… they will stand reinterpretation in many forms without losing their character. They can be recreated by children not only in words, but in drama, in mine, in dance and in painting. Action in them is not fussy, and lends itself to qualitative expression in the movements of the human body and in the shapes and colours of non-figurative painting (p. 9).

Simply, they are bigger than the petty reality of our days, and they leave a potent legacy in children's minds, hearts and imaginations.

Are the All Blacks the best heroes for our children? Recent times have revealed the clay feet of far too many people who make indecent livings hitting or chasing balls round fields. I'd rather they lived Boadicea, Ulysses, Galahad, Lancelot, Guinevere, Gawain, Icarus, Achilles, Joan of Arc, Beowulf, Cinderella.

3.          KNOWLEDGE AND IMAGINATION: fascinate them with facts.

It is not only the great elemental stories that leave a potent legacy. That poor deluded teacher who told her class that non-fiction was 'true' and fiction was 'not true' betrayed her own abysmal illiteracy. The NEMP tasks demonstrated that many children had a flimsy grasp of New Zealand geography. And we are supposed to be equipping them to become knowledge workers in a global society! Well, OK, why don't we dip into Iona and Peter Opie's The lore and language of schoolchildren (1959)and teach them to chant, dance and demonstrate on a map:

Long legged Italy

Kicked poor Sicily

Right in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.

Austria was Hungary

Took a bit of Turkey

Dipped it in Greece

Fried it in Japan

And ate it off China.

Anyone who heard Margaret Mahy's memorable talk on the sex life of the black tipped hanging fly delivered in her inimitable style on a moonlight night on the ferry, the Kestrel, on Auckland Harbour some fifteen years ago will attest to the power of facts to stir and feed the imagination. Knowledge is power. It isn't just a cliché. Contrast James K Baxter's marvellous poem 'The big black whale' with a recent non-fiction book on whales which is a pastiche of corny little characters, fragmented facts, speech bubbles - pandering to the worst of what we THINK will induce the digital child to pick up a book rather than surf the Net. It is obvious which conveys information more effectively.

Jean Key Gates (1974) cited Ulrich Neisser:

Information processing is not only something done only by modern machines; it is as old as man, and much older. The tracks of glaciers represent stored information… about the ice age…Information about still earlier ages is probably stored on the moon… Each man sees the world a little differently from any other, remembers it a little differently, uses what he remembers a little differently. We select, transmit, and store information in ways that are more and more unique as we grow up (p. 3).

When you've finished falling about laughing at the nice middle class white mum and her two scrubbed children on the cover, tell me where, today, you'll find such good common sense advice for parents written so simply and accessibly:

Every time you read aloud to the child or let him browse through a picture book, he sees that you are interested in reading. When you visit the library or invite him to tell about the library books he has borrowed, he knows that reading is important to you. From your example he will conclude that reading is a pleasure. In this receptive state of mind, he will learn more easily and quickly at school.

Equally important is the fact that through reading he grows and develops as a person. Even at pat-a-cake age, a child's personality begins to expand when he hears the old nursery rhymes. 

If you provide him with continuing delight in reading, you are helping him to develop as a happy, self-sufficient person. Through books he may visit different lands and different ages; he may explore science and art; he may fact up to critical issues. If you encourage him to ask questions and get to the root of what he reads, his reading will help him become a thinking citizen (Larrick, 1974, p. 1). 

Compare this with 'Curriculumspeak'. Here's one example:

"identify and discuss language features and their effects in a range of texts, and use these features in speaking and recording, adapting them to the topic, purpose and audience."  

Yeah, yeah, yeah! I know we need a curriculum but when I read the curriculum Statements I wonder how I ever got through school.  I find these words intimidating and de-humanizing - against everything I believe language and learning and knowledge building to be. Personally, I'd rather rely, like Margaret did, on theScientific American account of the sex life of the black tip hanging fly to fuel my passion for language, story AND factual knowledge. Like Margaret, I love language, I love reading and I LOVE learning and knowing and knowledge. Is this a sin?

4.          DISCRIMINATION: the art of detecting garbage, assessing truth, accuracy, opinion, evidence and value

There's a rash of really poor stuff purporting to test or develop information literacy. For example, in discussing the new PAT tests developed for the NZCER, Brown (1999) asks how information literate our kids are and then depicts two shelves with letters and numbers (400 and 900, separated by A B C D) and asks where you'd find books at "number 522.2" and then asks "in which section of the library would you find these shelves."

Is this for real? As a qualified librarian I'd be confused by any shelf which had numbers and letters the same size and I really wouldn't be able to tell you whether this belonged in fiction or non-fiction. I'd probably say "near the door." I tried it out on a university class. Noone could work out what was wanted, so what does this exercise test?

Brown might have been better addressing the NEMP finding that our children have a lot of difficulty, not just with critical thinking, but with simply applying fundamental thinking/ learning processes like comparing and contrasting information, sequencing, establishing cause and effect, linking, relating, analysing, synthesising and interpreting information. Instead of inauthentic non-tasks like these new PAT jokes, maybe PAT tests could assess probably the most important attribute of the information literate citizen today - the ability to discriminate, to detect nonsense, bias, to challenge fact not grounded in evidence; to distinguish between informed opinions and ignorant ranting; to compare Kim Hill and Paul Homes.

The bottom line is that discrimination depends on KNOWLEDGE. Simply, if you know nothing how do you know whether something is true or not, biased or not? Discrimination is based on being able to analyse, compare, synthesise and make inferences. And to do that you need factual knowledge in your belly. You need to know how to work with information, to transform it into knowledge.

Information is just signs and numbers, while knowledge involves their meaning.  "What we want is knowledge, but what we get is information".  Heinz R. Pagelse.

Information literacy involves sophisticated reading and cognitive skills. Ketih Gardner (1965, p. 3) said:

Reading has been called a basic tool. This is true, but it must be remembered that 'basic' does not mean 'simple' nor 'primitive.'

It would behove the NZCER to understand this before they dress up some basic, banal and confusing literacy task as 'information literacy'. The need for skills to analyse and interpret the ever-expanding body of information was noted as long ago as 1937 by Bagley:

But such are the countless ways in which knowledge is disseminated, so diverted into specialized channels, and almost submerged by torrents of fresh material the printing presses pour out every day, that one needs training to single out relevant facts from such a maelstron of knowledge (p. 9).

A rich resource of general knowledge, knowledge of how to find alternative sources of information and how to compare, contrast, analyse and synthesise are what will build an intuitive sense of discrimination.

The illiterate and inarticulate child is going to have a hard time developing what is, arguably, the most significant characteristic of the information literate person. The illiterate and inarticulate are the most likely to be sucked into scams and to not have the general body of knowledge which nourishes discrimination.

5. VICARIOUS LIVING AND LEARNING: Expand their horizons, their experience.

We can't all crawl on our bellies through the Amazon Jungle to see, first-hand, the sex life of the black tip hanging fly and while I'm sure it will eventually be on the Internet in infinite colours, I agree with Lilian Smith that:

The thing that makes a book a good book to a child is that it is an experience. The child who has read and enjoyed such a book has grown a little, has added something to his stature as an individual. He is a little more capable of enjoying new impressions and receiving new ideas which will illuminate his next new experience, whatever it may be. He has gained something permanent which can never be taken away from him (1953, p. 14).

Joan Cass (1967, p. ix) adds:

But by the magic of words and pictures, experiences of people, places and things lying outside the normal activities and environment of children can be brought close to them, and situations outside the arbitrary limits of their space and time can be presented to them for their inspection and assessment, in order that their insatiable curiosity may be satisfied. 

I've used some of the wonderfully wise authors of books on children's reading and literature to make the point that we need to think about these five things:

·        Making language come alive for children

·        Giving them heroes and the power of the great elemental myths

·        Fascinating them with facts, stirring their imaginations and love of learning and knowing

·        Teaching them discrimination

·        Expanding their experience, their horizons, their boundaries, their worlds.

I'll finish by reinforcing this with two quotes from contemporary authors well known to you:

These writings soldered the wiring parts of my mind such that there are times when I feel with their fingers, think with their words, tap my toes to their rhythms. Joe Bennett

We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.  Ursula le Guin


Bagley, W. A. (1937). Facts and how to find them…  London: Pitman.

Brown, G. (1999). Information skills: how information literate are new Zealand children? Paper delivered at the NZARE/AARE Conference, melbouren Nov. 29 - Dec. 2, 1999.

Cass, J. (1967). Literature and the young child. London: Longmans.

Cook, E. (1969). The ordinary and the fabulous: An introduction to myths, legends and fairy tales for teachers and storytellers. Cambridge: CUP.

Gardner, K. (1965). Towards literacy: An introduction to the teaching of reading. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gates, J. K. (1974). Guide to the use of books and libraries. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill.

Larrick, N. (1964). A parent's guide to children's reading. 2nd ed. New York: Doubleday.

Meek, M., Warlow, A, and Barton, G. (Eds.) (1977). The cool web: The pattern of children's reading. London: Bodley Head.

Opie, I. and P. (1959). The lore and language of children. Oxford. OUP.

Smith, L. (1953). The unreluctant years: A critical approach to children's literature.  Chicago: American Library Association.