There are several ways you can define literacy. If you take the short definition it means to have the ability to read, write and speak well enough to communicate clearly.
As a literacy teacher, however, I know that to define literacy is broader and more complex than that. Yet it is not difficult to understand.
People with good literacy skills are able to function in society. Not only can they read, write and speak competently but they are capable of doing basic math and using the technology required to manage in daily life.
and interpret what they read and hear
* speak and express themselves clearly so that they can communicate with others in a variety of situations
* use money on a daily basis, for example in the supermarket and to pay bills
* use a calculator to work out basic math tasks involved in running a household
* measure and weigh to be able to use recipes for cooking, and
repair/renovate around the home
* manipulate numbers adequately to work within a budget
* carry out basic tasks on a computer, for example send and receive emails and search for information
* use a mobile phone and be able to write and read text messages
* organise their thoughts into speaking and writing
In other words people with good literacy skills can function well enough on a daily basis to have healthy self-esteem and to reach their potential.
Many adults with poor literacy skills are unable to read or send texts on a mobile phone as they can't read or spell. This is often one of the first things they want to learn as they see their friends doing it.
Many of the people I work with as a literacy teacher, have no sense of self-worth and do not function well in society.
Here are some of the literacy problems they face.
* write their children's or partner's names
* read labels on medicines
* read to be able to follow instructions
* read a telephone directory
* read stories to their children
* read street signs
* make appointments over the phone
* read menus and order food in a restaurant
*write shopping lists
* fill in forms
* read bus and train timetables
* read maps
* work out a budget
* work an ATM
* check their change in a supermarket
* measure the ingredients to make a recipe
*use a mobile phone
My adult students tell me they are afraid to deal with bank tellers when they can't read or write. They prefer to use automatic teller machines like this instead. A friend shows them what to push and they follow the same pattern each time they use one. When anything is updated on the ATM and the layout changes, they panic!
As you can see, to define literacy is wide-ranging. Those of you who we can define as having good literacy skills ...and you must have or you wouldn't be able to read this ...may not have realised how difficult it is for those who struggle. We take so much of what we have learned in the past for granted.
Establishing and defining literacy levels in people who find English difficult doesn't have to be complex. It requires someone to work out what they can do, then help them with what they can't.
Let's look at what it is like for one of my
students. He is happy for me to share this with you.
Louis once told me he always took his wife with him when he knew he had to fill in a form.
I asked: "But what if you are asked to do it and she isn't with you? What do you do then?"
His reply: "I make up an excuse why I have to leave ...like I have forgotten my glasses ... and I just go and get her."
Louis would then drive 30 minutes from the city centre to collect his wife, together they would fill in the form, and then he'd drive her 30 minutes back home.
Filling in that form, when literacy is not defined as being a problem, might take five minutes. For Louis it took well over an hour out of his day.
Of course, then there is his wife. She dedicated huge amounts of her time to help him. He was constantly interrupting her life by requiring her assistance.
Everything takes so long for people with Louis'
problem and their supportive partners that between them they achieve very
little. Day-to-day living is enormously stressful.
When literacy skills are taught to people like Louis, the change in them is enormous. They are relieved of a tremendous burden. Everything about them changes.
They tell me every single time that improving their literacy skills improves every aspect of their lives, including their relationships with others.
Each partner become more independent, more confident and feels a huge surge in self-esteem. They tell me it is the greatest gift they will ever receive in their lifetime.
So to define literacy is hugely important. Literacy touches on everything we need to function in life. With it we have access to the world.
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