How does one Define Illiteracy

The author makes an interesting point that educators would do well to heed. Everyone is moaning about growing illiteracy, and until now, the phenomenon has been seen largely as a result of video games, trashy TV shows, an increasingly short attention span and an entirely distracting environment. The fact that the job market today requires more literacy than ever before has been overlooked, but makes perfect sense. It is the job of schools – no matter at what age level or in which country – to teach children to read and write and apparently, that commitment is not being fulfilled. Literacy has become a universal – nay, a planetary requirement – for comprehending and thus surviving in the world in which we live. Even the Maasai, Samburu and other nomadic tribes of Kenya, where I grew up, have recognized the fact that it is not enough for their children to know how to raise cattle and goats, or how to protect their livestock from predators, like lions and wild dogs. Their children attend schools and learn to read and write.

Most of those African teachers that I have witnessed teach literacy in the same way in which I was taught at the British schools in Kenya, and in which most adults of my generation – the baby-boomers, as we are called – were taught. Literacy was simply dinned into us. You learned how to spell by practicing spelling every single day. You learned how to write by writing every single day. You had dictation – does anyone remember that exercise, in which the teacher would read a sentence aloud that students had to write down and punctuate correctly? You practiced grammar every single day – the rules of the English language driven home again and again, just as one would learn any foreign language. As you grew older, you
were expected to be able to write an essay of at least three or four pages – not the “paragraph” that is today considered an “essay.” In poor countries, especially those that were formerly British colonies, I have seen this type of teaching replicated with generally good results. Those who are fortunate enough to receive any education at all generally come out of it being reasonably “literate” – that is, they can read and write in English and sometimes in their own tribal languages as well.

In the so-called more “advanced” countries, we have witnessed many experiments in the teaching of literacy. My own daughter was exposed to the Whole Word method, imported from New Zealand. It was all the rage twenty years ago because it encouraged very young kids in kindergarten to start writing and reading before they entered elementary school. The method was simple: they were rewarded for writing phonetically – correct spelling was completely ignored, and good grades were given for creativity and logic. Special, oversized books for Whole Language were developed, which had the text on the right page and an illustration on the left page. Children were trained to read what words they could and if they didn’t recognize a word, to guess it by looking either at the illustration on the left for clues or placing an appropriate word in the context of the story which would make sense, even if it was not the actual word on the page.

I was thrilled at my daughter’s progress! She could read by age four, and was a marvelous story-teller. Her best effort, written at age five, was called “Hoo de Mskt lfd” – meaning “How the Mosquito Laughed”. Her teacher was immensely pleased with this effort and I believe that, some 20 years later, it is still up on the classroom wall for all to see. The problem is that my daughter absolutely cannot spell, and as only a minimal grasp of the correct use of colons, semi-colons, possessive apostrophes or other grammatical symbols. Nor was this ever dinned into her during later schooling, so – like many others who were exposed to the same kind of teaching – she has been left with a real “disability” in today’s world.

The question is, of course, whether correct spelling and grammar have anything to do with “literacy.” As the author has pointed out, and Howard Gardner has researched, there are many kinds of intelligence, and thus many kinds of literacy in specific fields of interest which not of all us share. But surely we are in need of a universal standard of literacy that ensures everyone the same access not only to instruction but to information. We are the “information world”, are we not?

This question was raised on a recent trip to Senegal, where I was shooting a film about Tostan, a wonderful organization that brings human rights education to the people of Senegal and other African countries. When I talked to Molly Melching, the director, she told me that when she first started the program over 30 years ago, she was sure that the first thing they had to teach was literacy. Accordingly, her trained African staff was sent out into the field, where they offered free classes in reading and writing – often held under a tree or in a public arena. At first, people of all ages crowded into the classes, but after only two or three weeks, the numbers dwindled to nothing. When Molly asked why, people told her that it was too much work and took too much time and they basically could see no need to learn how to read and write. They received no newspapers, did not read books, did not have bank accounts, had no computers and simply found no instances in their lives where reading and writing were important. They were far more interested in learning about health and hygiene, democracy and other matters, which they learned through African methods of story-telling, dance, and drama, not by studying text books. So Molly understood that before she started introducing literacy, she had to create the HUNGER for it, the NEED that drove the DESIRE to learn how to read and write. After two years of discussions on human rights, democracy, problem solving and other issues, the people themselves decided that they needed to be literate. Now they wanted to be able to read the newspaper so that they could follow what their government was up to. Now they wanted to be registered as citizens so that they could participate in their country’s governance, to be able to vote for their leaders – and the registration papers were meaningless to them if they could not read them. Now they wanted to start up micro-financing projects which required record keeping which required them to be literate.

In a recent interview on NPR that I happened to hear while driving along, someone was saying that the numbers of Americans who are illiterate – or only read below 5th grade standard – is increasing at an alarming rate. He pointed out that in Medieval times, only the elite clergy and royalty could read and write, which gave them enormous power over the populace, and that the same phenomenon could reoccur here, today, if measures aren’t taken immediately to improve literacy. He also pointed out that other forms of literacy are improving – such as visual or computer literacy – and that perhaps we must alter our expectations for today’s society and recognize these newer forms of literacy as valued equally with reading and writing. I suppose that means altering our grading standards, our school tests and college entrance examinations to reflect these new standards.

It will be fascinating to see how this debate progresses and manifests itself within the educational community. I’m afraid I’m one of those people who go crazy if the apostrophe on the deli sign is in the wrong place, as in “Henrys’ best cheeses” – my most recent discovery – or when I see “a lot” written as “alot” or any of the other myriad errors one sees so frequently these days. And I must admit that I judge potential male partners by their ability to write a witty piece. But then again, perhaps “correct” spelling and grammar is really not so important, and not a tool by which to judge anyone’s “literacy”. A knowledge of Shakespeare or Brecht is similarly not a requisite these days. So is our new definition of “literacy” simply the ability to read and write? Or does it include the larger arena of having a working knowledge of the world’s classic literature and learning? I suspect that this last definition is definitely going bye-bye.

Oh well…must go – it’s time to get my latest film clip up on U-Tube.