Areas of illiteracy often exist within supposedly “literate” individuals. I use myself as a case in point. Am I literate? Yes. Licensed to teach reading at all levels and English at the secondary level, in possession of an MFA in writing, and committed to being a life-long learner, I am literate. Or, am I?
However, as my middle school students know, I am functionally illiterate in the realms of music and sports. I rely on them for guidance and knowledge; I do not choose to heighten my literacy in either of these areas. Considered from this angle, that literacy applies to areas broader than simple decoding of words but to actual application of concepts, my cultural illiteracy doubtlessly extends beyond the worlds of music and sports. Yet, I can overcome my shortcomings.
Faced with an area of knowledge I wish to study, my first strategy is almost always to apply my print literacy in order to understand information that is new to me. When researching the topic of gender identity in preparation for writing a book on the topic for teen readers, I spent a summer immersed in the literature of gender. As I became comfortable with the concepts, I broadened my method of inquiry to include film and social gatherings. I daresay that I felt in command of the information, or literate in the subject, when I began to write. After I finished, if one’s writing can ever actually be “finished,” I found my subject literacy scrutinized by reviewers. For the most part, I passed [eew, pun intended], although I am convinced that some readers will ever view me as an interloper into conversations about gender. For me, my skills in print literacy open doors.
For any person, I cannot consider a person to be illiterate if they can function in a given arena acceptably. I am reminded of an adult student I once had who could not read the words “Disney on Ice,” but could navigate enough of the world to be an effective single parent. This man, who had managed to fake his way into the 10th grade in my local public schools, was able to cook and follow picture directions until his son entered school. When his son began to read, my student felt moved to master the printed word. Was he illiterate when his son was born? Many would say yes, but I will only acknowledge his illiteracy in the realm of printed words. As a citizen participating in society he functioned tolerably well, and from him I learned a good deal.