The Definitions and Arguments of Literacy

The Definitions and Arguments of Literacy

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The word “literacy” conveys different meanings to different people. Some people may accept a single definition, while others may develop complex, multi-faceted meanings of the word. This essay explores a broad range of literary definitions, arguments and statistics to convey a clearer picture of how people embrace literacy. Throughout this essay, we will focus on three sources: the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) recently published “Reading at Risk” report, and two pieces by Nancy Kaplan, Professor and Director of the University of Baltimore’s School of Information Arts and Technologies.

The “Reading at Risk” report published in June 2004, proclaims the findings of a Census Bureau survey performed in 2002. Survey participants were asked questions over the telephone about their reading habits, participation in civic activities, TV watching and the like. The NEA holds that a gradual decline in reading over the past twenty years has occurred. Even more recently, they claim that a 10% decline has occurred within the past 14 years suggesting a more rapid decline in the years to come (NEA, 2004). According to this report, literacy is defined as the ability to read high quality works, which require increased intellectual capacity, dependent upon a reader’s education, culture and social skills. The report doesn’t mention that reading online, whether news or novels, is acceptable; therefore, it would seem that they are ignoring a large percentage of where and how people are doing reading today. In fact, it appears that the NEA supports the notion that with the rise of the Internet, literacy declined as people began “surfing” in favor of reading literary works, which supposedly require more detailed cognitive skills to absorb.

One of the things “Reading at Risk” does well is offer statistics: People who read are 3 times more likely to go to a performance event and 4 times more likely to visit a museum; People who watch no TV are 1.475 times more likely to read 12+ books per year; 59.4% of people who make over $75k a year are literate (NEA, 2004). Yet it discounts modern mediums, such as the internet, other hypertexts and online publications, a bone of contention for people such as Kaplan. Kaplan holds that traditional society might harbor some ill will toward these online publications and consider them threats, but she goes on to further assert that these texts are growing up with the times—fast-paced, ubiquitous and evolving dynamically (for the better).

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Kaplan concedes in “Literacy Beyond Books” that the concept of literacy is more of an interpretive act, emphasizing the connections and information that readers glean from the literacy experience (Kaplan, 2000). “Reading at Risk” largely ignores any sense of connectedness between acts, in favor of statistical regurgitation. Why does someone who attends more cultural or performance events read more? These and other questions are never answered in “Reading at Risk”, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions about why these things are so. Kaplan repeatedly emphasizes the use of cues in hypertexts and how these cues (links, symbols, etc.) are interpreted into meaningful concepts by the user. This idea is expanded in Kaplan’s “E-Literacies: Politexts, Hypertexts, and Other Cultural Formations in the Late Age of Print”. “Reading at Risk” simply doesn’t connect the lines—the Internet is not considered a “serious” venue for literary work. If the report had folded these modern mediums into their definition of literacy, perhaps there would have been a higher percentage of “literary” folks and less of a decline in literacy across the nation over the past twenty years.

As previously mentioned, both reports site some sense of connectedness between the literary work and the mind of the reader. The reader forms meaning as a result of how the author composes the work. In a printed text, there is little left to the imagination—books are read line by line, left to right, with an occasional picture thrown into the mix. Hypertexts or other online literary works may contain many nodes and links, from which users can create their own path through material. Hypertexts, as Kaplan points out effectively in her “E-Literacies” project, give everyone, not just the author a voice to be heard. “Reading at Risk” provides its subjects with no such voice, only responses to simple questions with little room to expand on the answers. Why is it that women read more? Why do white Americans read more, but Hispanic males read the least out of all ethnic groups surveyed? It’s tough to say based on the data in the report. One could defend the notion that a variety of cultural influences are giving rise to these statistics in some way and in order to solve the problem, society must learn the roots of these causes.

Could time and its availability also play a role in literacy? It is quite possible. As “Reading at Risk” asserts, watching more than 4 hours of television per day has a negative impact on one’s ability to read, and watching no TV has a positive one. Yet, also in this section, the NEA claims that people who do read literature watch an average of 2.7 hours of TV per day, while people who do not read watch 3.1 (NEA, 2004). This seems to be a fairly small difference. Perhaps movies, videogames and the Internet have displaced one’s ability to read literature. Although this is suggested in the report, evidence is not conclusive. And, why if no one has time for literacy, did creative writing increase between 1982 and 2002? And why did books sales hold steady around 5.6% during 2001 and 2002? These activities do not support the NEA’s overall claim that literacy is on the decline, although maybe by the NEA’s definition they do. These statistics alone demonstrate the changing face of literacy—people are viewing more material outside of the printed word, but not necessarily reading less overall.

Despite the stability in the world of publishing, it seems as though reading as a whole is in decline. The lack of time factor may play a role; however, some claim that people today have more free time than ever. In “Literacy Beyond Books”, Kaplan mentions that print literacy will lose dominance (Kaplan, 2000). Many claim that this has already happened. Those that read the paper may now turn online for news. Those that read novels may take time e-mailing friends. It’s difficult to say what’s taking up all that extra time. However, as suggested by Kaplan, these new technologies that allow people to read are less “feared” than they were twenty years ago. Instead, it may be safe to say that many times they fade into the background of everyday lives. In the NEA report, the group with the largest decline in reading is 18-24 year olds. Would a likely conclusion be that this age group has grown up with technology as part of their lives, hence, they are utilizing it each and every day habitually? Reading literature, for some, may therefore be a learned skill, acquired in the middle or high school years.

This brings us to the discussion of education’s role in literacy—a core focus of the NEA report. Those with some college represent the highest percentage of adults who read (30%). The second highest percentage is college graduates with 23%. According to the NEA, those with a college degree are 75% more likely to read and those in graduate school are 240% more likely to read (NEA, 2004). Does this support the idea that the ability to read literature is assisted through higher education, where one is required, if not taught how to read and analyze literature? The easy answer would be “yes”. As Kaplan’s “E-Literacies…” hypertext points out, there are varying opinions on teaching in the classroom. Some, like Tuman, see computers as pulling students away from printed materials, instead of helping them learn to read them. Others, such as Postman, believe that computers will slowly force students away from open discussion and more toward solitary interaction with the computer. The real question is: Even though using computers in the classroom may support more individualized study, can these machines help students become more literate and learn how to engage with literary works?

As Kaplan sites in “Literacy Beyond Books”, some readers may become exhausted by online text rather than the other way around. This idea goes hand in hand with the NEA’s beliefs that reading a true literary work is more intellectually challenging. Perhaps reading online is more labor intensive, but as Kaplan points out (through the words of Postman), students may gather a great deal of information on world famous novels like Jane Eyre, but they may not have the wherewithal to read the entire novel, letting their imagination run wild (Kaplan, 2000). Does this make the reader who is viewing text online or gathering snippets of information “less literary”? Or does this simply mean that society has changed such that finding information is easier, thereby making it acceptable to gather bits and pieces of information and process them accordingly. Kaplan holds that advanced literacy, as defined by the NEA, is an “imprecise” and “fungible” concept, further supporting the idea that their definition is not the most contemporary (Kaplan, 2000).

The literacy debate has gone back and forth for centuries. Seeing no end in sight, new technologies will continue to emerge, having either positive or negative effects on a user’s ability to process literary works. One would hope these technologies would not be intrusive, but rather, they would weave themselves into day to day life unnoticed. As new technologies are accepted, the definition of literacy will change, paving the way for future debate.

Works Cited:

Bradshaw, Tom and Nichols, Bonnie (Producers). "Reading At Risk." National Endowment for the Arts, Research Division. June 2004. <http://>.

Kaplan, Nancy. "E-Literacies: Politexts, Hypertexts, and Other Cultural Formulations in the Late Age of Print." 1995-1997. < >.

Kaplan, Nancy. "Literacy Beyond Books." The Worldwide Web and Contemporary Cultural Theory. Ed. Andrew Harman and Thomas Swiss. June 2000: 207-232.
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