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The debates about literacy and reading

What constitutes “literacy” is not a self-evident matter as the very concept of literacy has been hotly contested amongst academics and literacy and reading practitioners.

Most people involved in the training of literacy educators working with children or adults are aware of the existence of debates about the very nature of literacy and the teaching of reading and writing.

Debate one: Is literacy a [mental] technology or an ideological practice?

Over the last few decades it was commonly argued that there were basically two understandings of literacy, namely the traditional or technological (of which the scholar Walter Ong was a noted advocate) and the ideological (of which the anthropologist Brian Street and the school of “New Literacy Studies” was associated). In the traditional view literacy is an (ideologically relatively neutral) mental technology that may significantly alter how our minds work. For Street it was very much an ideological practice (as was elegantly outlined in his famous book of 1984, Literacy in theory and practice, in which he defined literacy as the social practices and conceptions of reading and writing in a given society that are already embedded in a specific ideology).

Recent research on literacy and cognition powerfully suggests that literacy has profound impacts on the brain and, whatever the usefulness of looking at the contextual and ideological concomitants of literacy, the traditional view is much more scientifically robust. The readings in the collection include a number of scientific papers outlining this research as well as a number of literature reviews by Helen Abadzi summarising this research and its application to literacy acquisition (for example, Abadzi (2008)).

Debate two - Literacy or literacies?

Though most definitions of literacy stress the ability to read and understand printed text and to communicate through writing, many “New Literacy Studies” definitions state that literacy is always relative to varying contexts and to skill and knowledge requirements. Hence the talk of “literacies” with widely differing purposes and relationships to scripts, texts and institutional frameworks. Kell (2004, p. 28) argues, for example, that people are made literate not so much that they can deal with texts as that they can be enabled to take part in social practices within which specific texts are embedded. Literacy is therefore not even to be seen in a context – it is a context. However in the more extreme forms of these ‘New Literacy Studies’ the term “literacy” ceases to have much meaning as an ordinary descriptive word about reading and writing.

Take this list of literacies – is it really “literacy” in any other than a metaphorical sense?

  • Bibliographic literacy (which is the ability to research secondary sources and search primary sources through secondary sources)
  • Communication literacy (which is the ability to communicate actively and adequately and to present information)
  • Cultural literacy (includes the skills and abilities for life in modern societies such as driving motor cars, operating electronic equipment, and automatic machines and to orientate oneself in a complex urban environment)
  • Global literacy (which is the ability to use information sources from other parts of the world and to participate in international technical communication and international scientific research)
  • Media literacy (which is the ability to use sources in various formats and media, assess media content, and design and create media content and presentations)
  • Network literacy (which incorporates abilities to work in a network environment and to work with searching instruments)
  • Technological literacy (related to the ability to work with technologies and use them actively and to construct new resources on new media through these skills)

This is far from the more common sense conception of alphabetisation which is about instruction in a fairly universal script-based technology that can be used for reading and writing in a huge variety of contexts (though to which contexts it must obviously bear some relation if it is to be meaningful).

This, more commonsense position, is essentially the position adopted in the Kenya National Adult Literacy Survey which states that “Literacy is about understanding written texts.” (Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, 2007, p. 19).

Debate three: A narrow or expanded definition of literacy?

Definitions of literacy can be narrow – it is about reading and writing in a narrow technical sense – or they can be broad – the skills of reading and writing can be used for a wide range of individual and socially desirable achievements. These expanded definitions owe much to the perception that literacy was useful for development (as in many UNESCO definitions) (UNESCO, 2006) and from the influence of the thought of Paulo Freire and his contention that literacy was a powerful force for [political] “conscientisation”. Expanded definitions have often been associated with development and training consultants arguing for literacy instruction to be packaged together with some other desirable development activity of a skills training or income generating nature (and for that instruction to be tailored to the context and vocabulary of that activity).

Debate four: How do we teach reading?

Over the recent decades there was, certainly in North  America and the United Kingdom, a reaction against the traditional phonics approach to teaching reading (also called the synthetic or bottom up approach) and a valorisation of the whole language (or analytic or top down) approach (which stressed meaningfulness from the start). Unfortunately the analytic whole language approach did not seem to work very well (particularly for poor people)!

During the latter part of the 20th century, an enormous amount of scientific research was conducted on the subject of reading instruction. Several formal surveys of this research were conducted and all of them reached the same conclusion, the whole language approach simply did not work. Jean S. Chall surveyed the entire body of reading research available on three occasions (1967, 1983, 1996). Chall concluded that comprehensive, systematic, phonics-first instruction was overwhelmingly supported by the vast majority of the research. Her final conclusion was that (Chall, 1996, p. 307):

The research ... indicates that a code-emphasis method - i.e., one that views beginning reading as essentially different from mature reading and emphasizes learning of the printed code for the spoken language produces better results ... The results are better, not only in terms of the mechanical aspects of literacy alone, as was once supposed, but also in terms of the ultimate goals of reading instruction - comprehension and possibly even speed of reading. The long-existing fear that an initial code emphasis produces readers who do not read for meaning or with enjoyment is unfounded. On the contrary, the evidence indicates that better results in terms of reading for meaning are achieved with the programs that emphasize code at the start than with the programs that stress meaning at the beginning.

In 1990 Marilyn J. Adams also surveyed the entire body of reading research. She reached the same conclusion that Chall did that (Adams, 1990, p. 416):

In summary, deep and thorough knowledge of letters, spelling patterns, and words, and of the phonological translations of all three, are of inescapable importance to both skillful reading and its acquisition. By extension, instruction designed to develop children's sensitivity to spellings and their relations to pronunciations should be of paramount importance in the development of reading skills. This is, of course, precisely what is intended of good phonic instruction.

In 2000, the United States of America National Reading Panel issued the following statement:

In the largest, most comprehensive evidenced-based review ever conducted of research on how children learn reading, a Congressionally mandated independent panel has concluded that the most effective way to teach children to read is through instruction that includes a combination of methods. The panel determined that effective reading instruction includes teaching children to break apart and manipulate the sounds in words (phonemic awareness), teaching them that these sounds are represented by letters of the alphabet which can then be blended together to form words (phonics), having them practice what they've learned by reading aloud with guidance and feedback (guided oral reading), and applying reading comprehension strategies to guide and improve reading comprehension.

Generally there is now a large scale reversion to the synthetic phonics approach and it has been officially espoused by government policy in the United Kingdom.

The debate is also now over because of the conclusive proof that literacy acquisition is essentially phonetically based (Rayner et al, 2001, 2002). There is also increasing evidence that the analytic approach is heavily dependent upon a richly textual environment (i.e., a wealthy middle class one).

In practice there is a strong logic to combine the core elements of a synthetic phonics approach with early meaningful reading.

The following summarise common recommendations arising out of the research:

  • Teach phonemic awareness explicitly. Although there are some children who have an implicit understanding of phonemic awareness, almost all children benefit greatly from explicit instruction. Phonemic awareness is a prerequisite for successful subsequent phonics instruction.
  • Teach every letter-sound correspondence explicitly. Research supporting this idea is simply overwhelming. Children who have been trained explicitly to decode words are far more likely to read successfully than children who have had limited training or no training.
  • Teach high frequency letter-sound relationships early. Successful curricula tend to involve students in activities in which they can experience immediate and ongoing success. A successful phonics program gets children reading as soon as possible by teaching the highest frequency relationships early and presenting students with stories that consist of words containing only the relationships that have already been taught.
  • Teach sound-blending explicitly. Students do not necessarily understand how to connect the phonemes in unfamiliar words. Students with explicit training outperform those who have had little or no training.
  • Correct every oral reading error. All children, and especially children with reading difficulties, benefit the most when they receive corrective feedback regarding all reading errors, regardless of whether those errors influence the meaning of the passage (many meaning-emphasis programs encourage teachers to correct only errors affecting meaning).
  • Use code-based readers rather than ordinary literature during early instruction. Any curriculum whose early reading experiences consist only of exposing children to ordinary literature will almost certainly induce a high failure rate, and consequently lead to initial discouragement and confusion among students. Programs which compensate for this failure by encouraging the use of context (i.e. guessing) actually hinder reading development. In contrast, curricula that induce and sustain a high level of success through careful, systematic design produce the highest levels of reading success and self-esteem.

Towards a commonsense view of literacy

For most practical purposes this more common sense view of literacy can be accepted with the obvious caveats that of course contextual relevance and meaningfulness are necessary and that any literacy that is only functional and meaningful within a schooling environment is inadequate. The definition in the Global Campaign for Education’s International benchmarks on adult literacy (2005) is helpful and comprehensive:

Literacy. is about the acquisition and use of reading, writing and numeracy skills, and thereby the development of active citizenship, improved health and livelihoods, and gender equality.

This definition combines both the simplicity of UNESCO’s 1958 definition:

A person is literate who can with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his or her everyday life.

with more recent ones, such as that of the World Declaration on Education for All of 1990, which see literacy as an essential learning tools to enable people to survive, participate and develop in the world, and the UNESCO generated one that informed the Kenya National Literacy Survey:

The ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuous learning to enable the individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society.

On the relationship of the concept of literacy to adult basic education, alphabetisation (which in certain circumstances can be done relatively quickly), is not the same as basic education (which includes, inter alia, quantities of content knowledge as well as life skills). Age and experience also enter into the equation (the “basic education” possessed by a twelve-year-old  (Grade 7) pupil is clearly different from that possessed by a schooled or unschooled 40 year old!). But, for practical purposes, alphabetisation/ literacy is for most people an essential prerequisite for gaining access to education material inscribed in texts and for communicating knowledge to others. Above all, literacy is a prerequisite for gaining access to formal and non-formal education and training in modern societies.


Abadzi, H. 2008. Efficient learning for the poor: new insights into literature acquisition for children. International Review of Education, Volume 54, Nos. 5-6, November 2008, pp. 581-604

Adams, M.J. 1990. Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press

Chall, J.S. 1996. Learning to read: The great debate. Third edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers

Global Campaign for Education. 2005. Writing the wrongs: International benchmarks on adult literacy. Johannesburg: Global Campaign for Education

Kenya National Bureau of Statistics. 2007. Kenya National Adult Literacy Survey report. Nairobi: Kenya National Bureau of Statistics

Kell, K. 2004. Writing wrong: conundrums of literacy and human rights. Convergence, Vol. 37, No. 3, pp. 27-40.

National Reading Panel. 2000. National Reading Panel reports combination of teaching phonics, word sounds, giving feedback on oral reading most effective way to teach reading. Press release 13 April 2000. Rockville, Maryland: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Rayner, K., Foorman, B., Perfetti, C., Pesetsky, D. & Seidenberg, M. 2001. How psychological science informs the teaching of reading. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Vol. 2. No. 2, November 2001, pp. 31-74

Rayner, K., Foorman, B., Perfetti, C., Pesetsky, D. & Seidenberg, M. 2002. How should reading be taught? Scientific American, March., pp. 84-91

Street, B.V. Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984

UNESCO. 2006. Literacy for life. Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Paris: UNESCO
http ://portal.unesco.org/education/en/ev.php-URL_ID=43283&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html