Research and Practice in Adult Literacy – a friendly group

What does it mean to be literate?

Title: What does it mean to be literate?

Subtitle: How literacy is currently perceived by policy-makers, literacy teachers and adult learners

Gwyneth Allatt, University of Huddersfield

Gwyneth is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Huddersfield. Her main role is currently as a tutor on the PGCE / Cert. Ed. (Lifelong Learning) programme, but until recently she also taught literacy teachers on the Additional Diploma in Teaching Adult Literacy course. After graduating with a degree in English from Lancaster University, Gwyneth worked as a college librarian for some years before becoming an English teacher in Further Education and then moving on to be a teacher educator. She is presently involved in doctoral research with a focus on adult literacy and the various ways in which the concept of literacy may be perceived and understood.

Concerns regarding adult literacy have been a common feature in UK educational policy and in the media since at least the 1970s, with a series of initiatives aimed at improving adults’ literacy skills. Previous research has explored these initiatives, identifying a range of attitudes towards and perceptions of adult literacy. For some, literacy is about social justice and the easing of poverty (Hamilton and Hillier, 2006). For others, it is linked to prosperity and economic success, both of the individual and of the nation as a whole. Notions of what actually constitutes literacy have differed over time, ranging from simply having the ability to sign one’s name (Gardner, 2004) or to be able to read and write with confidence, to the decoding of icons and the manipulation of documents in electronic formats. (Smith, 2005). Other writers have acknowledged a more diverse concept of ‘literacies’ recognising a broader range of forms literacy might take (Mannion et. al., 2007).

My interest in what it means to be literate has grown out of this earlier work, and through analysis of policy documents and interviews with literacy teachers and learners, my doctoral research aims to investigate how literacy is currently perceived and conceptualised by teachers, learners and policy-makers within adult literacy education in England, and to identify the factors that influence these perceptions. Early analysis of the data has identified a fairly rigid discourse of employability and functionality within current literacy education policy compared to a much more diverse response from practitioners and learners. Interview data, while acknowledging the link between literacy and employment and the ability to function in everyday life, present a broad range of issues such as independence, autonomy, empowerment, social inclusion and the development of critical awareness as factors involved in literacy. Relationships between literacy and technology, along with literacy and numeracy have also been acknowledged by interview participants.

My proposed contribution to the conference is based on this research. Using a poster as supporting material, I will present my findings so far and encourage conference attendees to share their own conceptions and definitions of literacy. Although my work has a UK focus, my literature review has included the international context and has allowed some comparison with ways in which literacy is understood in other countries. This global perspective will also be considered in my presentation.

I intend to generate discussion with conference delegates about what it means to be a literate adult in the 21st century and to explore with them their own perceptions and definitions of literacy.

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