Literacy Essay

The complications that arise when seeking a single definition of literacy are many. The debate over what is literacy and what isn t is one that is of critical importance to the education of our country s students. When originally asked at the beginning of this course about what literacy is, my initial response was the ability to read and write. While I suppose my answer wasn t wrong, it certainly wasn t entirely right either. Reading and writing are certainly important aspects of any persons literacy and are therefore one of the reasons why schools test in these areas frequently.

However, as the course progressed I came to understand that there maybe more to what I originally thought about what literacy is. I came to realize that coming up with a single definition would prove to be a tedious task since there now appeared to be so many things that can be considered literacy. Through reading articles pertaining to literacy and observing various settings where literacy is used, I have been able to come to a better understanding of what literacy is. Elliot Eisner, in his book Cognition and Curriculum Reconsidered, talks about forms of representation.

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He defines forms of representation as the devices that humans use to make public conceptions that are privately held. (Eisner, p. 39) He says that these can take multiple forms ranging from oral speech to music to images. Eisner gives the example of a painter who comes across a small mid-west town. Eisner suggests that if the painter were to want to express his private conceptions about the town to the public, he would most likely do so through the form of a painting. This is important because how a person expresses their selves is founded in their own personal literacy.

What if the painter was asked to tell someone about the town and he was not allowed to use painting as a form of representation? How would the painter then be able to do so to the best of his ability? What this proves is that multiple forms of representation are needed because every person is different in their literary preferences. Indeed, Eisner states that to be refrained from using a form of representation would eventually not only limit expression, but put the brakes on conception as well. (Eisner, p. 42)

Eisner makes an important point when he states that Every form of representation neglects some aspect of the world Not everything can be said through anything. (Eisner, p. 41) This is an important point because a form of representation that might succeed in describing one thing could be insufficient in describing another. Additionally, Eisner makes an interesting assertion that the forms of representation children have access to or are encouraged to use will shape the mental skills or forms of intelligence they will be able to develop.

These multiple forms of representation Eisner speaks of are important because they all relate to a given person s literacies. Having now identified the importance of possessing multiple forms of representation of literacy, one can now take the next step towards determining how literacy is conceptualized. One of the problems that arise when attempting to do so is determining who/what it is that society considers being literate.

Bernardo M.Ferdman, in Ethnic and Minority Issues in Literacy, focuses on literacy acquisition among members of ethnic minorities.  Ferdman looks at three perspectives that can be used to conceptualize how it is that ethnic minorities gain literacy in the U. S. The first approach is known as the functional approach. This involves primarily an individual-level perspective and focuses on the development of the simple skills and activities involved in reading and writing by individuals. (Ferdman, p. 6)

This approach looks at literacy as being either present or absent within an individual or group and can be seen as a fixed and observable quality. It often leads to characterizations of ethnic minorities as deficient or underachieving relative to dominant group members in ways that are focused on individual differences. (Ferdman, p. 96) The second type of conceptualization of literacy is called the sociocultural approach. This approach views literacy as a cultural construction that has meaning oly in a specified cultural context.

In this sense, it may be more appropriate to speak of literacies, or even multiliteracies. (Ferdman, p. 97) To be considered literate through this approach a person must be able to interpret cultural symbols and use them in a culturally appropriate way. This is where one of the great debates on literacy takes place, because this method implies that a member of an ethnic minority group may be seen as lacking literacy skills in terms of the dominant group s language and culture but may be quite literate in the context of his or her own group.

For ethnic minorities, the cultural differences between school and home serve to be more often than not as barricades to the acquisition of literacy. Jennifer E. Obidah provides an excellent example of this. She proposes that every person has their own literate currency made up from everything a person takes in from their home, school, and other surrounding environments. She provides the example of a teacher who is not able to understand the questions asked by her minority students and as a result discourages them.

The reason for the misunderstanding is due to a lack of understanding of the students literacies on the part of the teacher. The third approach to the conceptualization of literacy as outlined by Ferdman is known as the power approach. Here the focus is on the relationship between literacy and power. From this perspective, literacy can be seen as the degree to which a person possesses and displays those skills that are valued by the dominant group and/or the elite. (Ferdman, p. 7)

The approach additionally suggests that ethnic minorities may never be considered fully literate because they are not a member of the dominant group. In this sense, literacy works to maintain and extend social control and cultural dominance. (Ferdman, p. 97) Therefore, since literacy is a key to power, it may be in the dominant groups best interest to determine what is considered literacy and what should be suppressed and as a result the educational system is constructed to follow these guidelines.

Having described the faults that can arise in education as a result of different conceptualizations of literacy, it is now possible to look at how schools can improve based on this information. Sonia Nieto suggests that in order to do so our country must first challenge existing school policies that hinder the education of many of our students, especially those belonging to ethnic minorities. Educators may consider students difficult to teach simply because they come from families that do not fit neatly into what has been defined as the mainstream.

Nieto states that in recent studies, it has been found that school characteristics that yield a positive outcome on students include an enriched and more demanding curriculum [and] respect for students languages and cultures to name just a few. (Nieto, p. 27) It is imperative that teachers affirm students languages and cultures in order to promoter a better learning environment for all students. Nieto gives the example of a small group of Spanish speaking students in a classroom.

The teacher labeled them as mute because they never participated in classroom discussions. Nieto maintains that these children, while speaking a language that held no significance in the classroom they were in, came to school with a language, culture, and experiences that could have been important in their learning. Thus, we need to look not only at the individual weaknesses or strengths of particular students, but also at the way in which schools assign status to entire groups of students based on the sociopolitical and linguistic context in which they live.

In addition to having read texts about literacy, I have been able to observe its use firsthand in a multitude of settings. First, I have been observing an 8th grade class for the past month. What I have noticed about the literacy practices in the classroom is that for the most part, reading and writing take on the major form. Every day in class the teacher assigns in class reading assignments accompanied by worksheets about the readings. At times the class will read a text together, with each student taking his or her turn to read.

While reading and writing are important and represent the core of literacy, as an aspiring teacher I find it disturbing that the teacher conducts every class in the exact same fashion. This restricts his students in their literary practices and forms of representation. In addition to observing a classroom setting, I have also paid attention to the way in which literacy is used among my roommates and myself. In this setting, it is primarily through oral discourse that literacy is practiced. With the exception of informal, abbreviated notes left for one another, the primary means of communication is through speech.

One thing that I noticed when I began to pay more attention to our conversations is that if and outsider where to sit in, they may have trouble at times following our conversation for a number of reasons. For example, we all have nicknames for one another and in addition, the use of inside jokes would restrict a person unfamiliar with us in their ability to understand us. Just like the earlier illustration of students and teachers not being able to communicate, the same would hold true hear too. Perhaps more than any other place, a library can bear witness to the widest range of forms of representation.

In one trip to the library I observed students engaging in conversation, writing texts, reading, drawing, and working on group projects together that encompassed all of the aforementioned forms. Observing students in library really helped me to understand the many different ways in which literacy can be practiced. Having read a wide range of text regarding literacy and in addition observing literacy in practice in a number of different settings, I have come to develop my own definition of what literacy is.

I believe that a person is literate when he or she is capable of reading and writing texts and then possessing the ability to express what the have gained from these texts towards communicating with fellow members of their culture and society whether it be through speech, music, or any other form of representation. Not only are there more pressing reasons for ownership of literacy today than at any time in the past, there also are more socioeconomic pressures that effectively work against its realization.

Teachers face a constant struggle trying to communicate with their students who are unable to express what they are trying to say in a manner in which the teacher understands. The result is either the teacher giving up on the student or the student giving up on the teacher. Either way, the student is the one who pays the ultimate price. More than anything else, this project has broadened my understanding of what literacy is and how it plays a critical role in the everyday lives of each of us.