What does literacy mean today?

Saturday 18 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Library Creative Conundrums

‘We need to ensure we eliminate illiteracy and innumeracy in Britain in the same way as developing nations know they need to secure clean drinking water and eliminate malaria if their children are to flourish.’  So declared the then education secretary, Michael Gove, after last year’s OECD skills survey showed 16- to 24-year-olds in England have lower levels of literacy than their grandparents, and he has reiterated this on numerous occasions since. But are we sure what being literate actually means in 2014? 

From the last Labour government’s controversial Literacy Hour through to Gove’s phonics and relentless testing strategy, and the current preoccupation with the apparent insights of psychology and brain science, campaigns often treat literacy as a technical matter and promote reading skills rather than reading itself. Critics worry this reduces reading to a chore, rather than valuing reading for its own sake. Furthermore, ‘reading literacy’ has become just one of many ‘literacies’ deemed important. Schools bombard young people with lessons on financial literacy, media literacy, emotional literacy, cyberliteracy, visual literacy and so on. American public-policy expert Paul Taylor argues young people need ‘a set of new literacies that amount to mastery of networking and troves of information - social and otherwise - that stream into their lives’. In this view, traditional, literature-based English education is considered to be outmoded. The UK exam board OCR has thus radically overhauled its English Language and Literature A-level syllabus to include Dizzee Rascal’s raps and Russell Brand’s musing on drugs ‘to give pupils a better opportunity to analyse a range of texts … literary and non-literary’.

Even conventional literature is sometimes treated as a means of achieving non-literary ends. Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, argues: ‘There’s a really strong relationship between literacy – reading and writing – and social outcomes, whether it’s earnings, home ownership, voting, or a sense of trust in society.’ But what about reading for its own sake? How can we cultivate a real love of reading and encourage the young to read with discernment, for pleasure, into adulthood, becoming ‘literate’ in a deeper sense? Is it time to discuss literacy less as a skill to be instilled in the young and more as a virtue to cultivate in children and adults alike?

David Didau
former teacher; blogger, The Learning Spy; author, The Secret of Literacy

Toby Mundy
founding director, TMA literary agency; executive director, Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction

Orna Ross
author-publisher; founder, The Alliance of Independent Authors

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert
educator, writer, doctoral researcher

Roger Walshe
head of public engagement and learning, British Library

Dr Wendy Earle
impact development officer, Birkbeck, University of London; convenor, Academy of Ideas Arts and Society Forum

Produced by
Alka Sehgal Cuthbert educator, writer, doctoral researcher
Recommended readings
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Caputo’s postmodernists are sceptical about systematic attempts to classify the world

TIM CRANE, The Time Literary Supplement, 12 February 2014

Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer Annie Murphy Paul, Time, 3 June 2013

Review: “The Intellectuals & the Masses” Hilton Kramer, The New Criterion, January 1994


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