Definition of Literacy

Literacy Why is literacy of such interest to postsecondary teachers of writing? If “literacy,” as it might be defined by someone outside the field of English studies, is “the ability to read and write,” then why are we interested in it when our own students presumably acquired this ability in the distant past, about the time they learned to tie bows in shoelaces? That we are interested in literacy, I take it, is obvious from the proliferation of books with the word in their titles, of conferences on topics in literacy (the Modern Language Association has now held two), and of review essays such as this one, commissioned by the editors of a journal that purports to deal in issues relevant to “composition theory” and “advanced composition” at the college level.

Defining Literacy I might answer my opening question by redefining “literacy” from within English studies in such a way as to make it more complex and problematic, and thus to question the presumption that college students have already acquired it. Indeed, in these proliferating discussions of literacy, its simple definition as the ability to read and write is usually rejected at the outset. But in attempting to go beyond the simple definition, scholars begin to diverge. Consider, for example, the variety of essays collected under the title, The Right to Literacy (1990), a title which implies a unitary conception of literacy and a contest only over who possesses the desired object. In this volume, Andrea A. Lunsford, Helene Moglen, and James Slevin collect twenty-nine papers from the 1988 MLA “Right to Literacy” conference. Most of the essays, therefore, are short; and ranging through them, one gets a sense of the heterogeneous mixture of topics that accrue for English.

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  1. Discourse Community.” Curriculum Inquiry 12 (1982): 191-207. —. “Literacy in Culture and Cognition.” A Sourcebook for Basic Writing Teachers. Ed. Theresa Enos. New York: Random, 1987. 125-37.
  2. Brandt, Deborah. Literacy as Involvement: The Acts of Writers, Readers, and Texts. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990.
  3. Hirsch, E.D., Jr. Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. 2nd ed. New York: Vintage, 1988.
  4. Kintgen, Eugene R., Barry M. Kroll, and Mike Rose, eds. Perspectives on Literacy. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1988.
  5. Lunsford, Andrea A., Helene Moglen, and James Slevin, eds. The Right to Literacy. New York: MLA, 1990.
  6. Stuckey, J. Elspeth. The Violence of Literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton, 1991.
  7. Taylor, Denny, and Catherine Dorsey-Gaines. Growing Up Literate: Learning from Inner-City Families. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1988.

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