Teach Better – What is Literacy?


Introducing definitions

Something that we need to do first is figure out what we mean when we talk about literacy and numeracy. Let’s look at some definitions. There’s at least six we need to cover.

  • Literacy
  • Numeracy
  • Embedded literacy and numeracy
  • Maori literacy
  • Pasifika
  • ESOL

(i) Literacy

These first two definitions are important for a couple of reasons. One reason is that when politicians and people in the media talk about literacy and numeracy, even if they don’t mention it by name, they are likely to be thinking about some research that happened recently.

This research has a long name but gets shorted to the PIAAC. This was a massive study that looked at literacy and numeracy levels in New Zealand, but also in other countries. If you hear people comparing New Zealand’s literacy levels to other countries, then this is what they are referring to.

What’s the definition?

Literacy is the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written texts to get everyday things done (p.4).

Where does this definition come from?

This definition comes from:

Ministry of Education and Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (2016). Skills and Education: Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). Wellington: Ministry of Education and Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment.

What are some key features?

  • Understanding written words and sentences
  • Making sense of text in charts and diagrams
  • Comprehending, interpreting and evaluating complex texts.
  • This definition is more focused on reading rather than writing

How is this definition relevant to my teaching context?

Here are a few reasons how this definition might be relevant to your teaching?

This definition of literacy allows us to talk about the “state of the nation” when it comes to literacy. This means that you can think about the ability of your learners in the same way that the researchers did when they surveyed thousands of people.

It gets quoted by political and educational leaders. But it’s not the full picture when it comes to literacy. So we need to be careful about how we use it. And how others use it. This won’t make you a better teacher, but it helps to be critical and aware of what others are saying. Then you can make up your own mind.

This definition allows us to compare ourselves with other countries or our own past performance. This also won’t improve your teaching directly, but it might help you feel better to know a couple of things. One is that most other countries like ours have a similar problem when it comes to literacy. Another one is that, on the whole, we’re doing pretty well.

It has a practical focus. In other words, it’s about using language “to get everyday things done.” This should help you focus your teaching. Literacy is about doing. If your approach to literacy is academic then drop it in favour of something else that encourages using and engaging with language.

One thought on “Teach Better – What is Literacy?

  1. Pingback: What’s under the hood? Frameworks for teaching better | thisisgraeme

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