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Defining Literacy Education

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

Words matter. Their definitions matter. In fact, as Gee (2015) writes, “Words are consequential … Words and the world are married” (p. 29). The way we discuss and enact policy, curriculum, and canon has repercussions that we may not readily see, but are nevertheless present, affecting the lives of our fellow citizens and students. This includes discussions by researchers, educators, and policy makers that define words such as literacy and concepts such as what it means to be literate. As Street (1984) argues, this term ‘literacy’ is not neutral, and if those in power try to make it so, it can have negative consequences for people. This is a concept also supported by Gee. Along with the concept of literacy, texts are also not neutral (Vasquez et al., 2019); they are “socially constructed from particular perspectives” (p. 307). Therefore, both literacy and texts cannot be separated from society or the culture of that society. They are intertwined. This has implications for those who work in education and who society tasks with preparing the future citizens of a democracy. The way they view literacy shapes their work. The way they define literacy matters.

Over time, literacy has meant different things to different people. For many years, teaching literacy “meant teaching and learning to read and write in page-bound, official, standard forms of the national language” (Cazden et al., 1996, p.6). Put simply: the ability to read and write made a person literate. And for the most part the focus was on reading, or decoding, and not producing, or encoding. This simplistic view of literacy was also treated as something that could be isolated from the very people and contexts where it develops. The autonomous model of literacy was en vogue, with literacy researchers studying the concept as an isolated variable, outside of cultural context (Street, 1984). But these views of literacy are problematic because they are divorced from the context and culture. Instead, literacy was seen only through the lens of the dominant culture (though it was not explicitly tied to it by the researchers). They labeled literacy as neutral and isolated (Street, 1984). More modern researchers have moved into definitions of literacy that both take context into account, as well as the various types of literacies people actually need to navigate society today. For example, the ideological model of literacy, as described by Street, connects literacy to social institutions and structures, the processes in which it is learned, and its social and political significance. Proponents of this model also contend it is more appropriate to refer to it as ‘literacies’ (p. 8). The researchers of the New London Group take this to the next level by coining the term ‘multiliteracies’ (Cazden et al., 1996), which moves to “negotiating a multiplicity of discourses” (p. 61). Rather than being monolingual and monocultural, this concept moves to look at multiple cultures, languages, and texts. Other researchers (Vasquez et al., 2019) define the term of critical literacy. This concept of literacy “involves making sense of the sociopolitical systems through which we live our lives and questioning these systems” (p. 307). These definitions connect literacy to larger contexts, additional languages, power structures, and step away from a singular focus on reading and writing paper-driven texts. They also focus on having students create, not just consuming texts, but producing texts, where they can “assume agency and act to make a difference” (Vasquez et al., 2019, p. 306). These new definitions of literacy connect more to the concept words and worlds that make up today’s literacies. They also center literacies within culture.

Culture is key to our understanding of literacy and meaning-making. It includes both a way of life and cultural practices (inclusive of texts, canon, etc.) (Nelson et al., 1991, p. 5). Stuart Hall (1997) describes culture as the “way we make sense and give meaning to the world” (0:57). It is a system of representations. Meaning is created through not only the event, but how people perceive that event. It’s constitutive. Meaning is what people make it (7:54). Therefore, researchers, educators, and policy makers cannot separate the text from the culture without falsely isolating that text from the very meaning it co-constructs with its audience. Writings, media, speech are cultural creations. They reflect the culture that created them. Those meanings may change or evolve over time. As cited in Nelson et al. (1991), Crimp argues that “we should never analyze an object alone and out of context” (p. 7) because the object, the creation, the text could have different meanings in different contexts. To look at a text, whatever kind, and not look at the larger context, is disregarding meaning. The same goes for when people view literacy through a myopic lens.

When people do dismiss culture from the literacy conversation it is often for their own benefit. This push to neutrality allows those in power to stay in power. It replicates the power structures. Graff, as cited in Street (1984), “argues that the presentation of literacy as ‘autonomous’ and ‘neutral’ is itself part of the attempt by ruling groups to assert social control over the potentially disruptive lower orders” (p. 11). As part of his criticism of the autonomous model, Street (1984) claims the researchers involved, who purported to be looking at literacy and analytical thinking, were “really writing about the superiority of their own academic traditions” rather than anything universal about literacy and cognition (p. 40). This further privileges the Eurocentric idea of literacy and disadvantages those who come from a different or non-dominant culture. This can set up a deficit mindset when teaching students who are not part of the dominant culture or may come with first languages that are not English.

In addition, what a society teaches or values can also help maintain the status quo. Gee (2015) looks at Marx's ideas about consumption and production to highlight the fact that societies have often put production of ideas in the hands of the elite and privileged while everyone else was supposed to just consume. This reinforces the reason reading and not writing has been the focus of schooling. As Gee writes, “This is why, across history and even today, reading (a form of consumption) is far more prevalent than is writing (a form of production)” (p. 10). Think about the fact that the state of Texas is just now beginning to assess writing every year. It was reading, not writing, that the federal government used to judge state school systems. The focus has been on consumption, not production. This focus has ramifications for the classroom, where teachers often spend more time and energy on tested content than non-tested content.

In order for us to truly make literacy education the powerful change agent it can be, we must acknowledge how the concept of literacy has evolved along with its connection to culture, society, and power structures. How do we as educators either reinforce or challenge the status quo? Do our lessons promote consumption or production? Do we embrace the many literacies students need today to be successful, or do we stay with the old-school definition of literacy? Educators could use a critical theory lens to drive curriculum, instruction, and assessment. This lens is “guided by the principles of democracy and justice in the instigation of social change” (Prasad, 2017, p. 175). If educators can take a deep, critical look at the concept of literacy and how it is used in school, it could influence their approach to teaching the literacies of today and helping support students to be literate citizens for the new century. We can also make sure we teach our students to critically question the world, modeling daily what it looks like to ask and wrestle with critical questions. For it really is on a daily basis that our definitions of literacy matter because they influence how we approach our pivotal roles in society. It affects the lives of our students. We cannot hold neutral our definition of literacy if we want to make the difference we aim to make, if we want to be the teachers we aim to be.


Prasad, P. (2017). Critical theory: Hegemony, knowledge production, and communicative action. Crafting qualitative research. (2nd ed., pp. 154-179). Routledge.

Hall, S. (1997). Definition of culture [Video]. YouTube.

Street, B. (1984). Cambridge studies in oral and literate culture: Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge University Press.

Gee. J. (2015). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. Routledge.

Cazden, C., Cope, B., Fairclough, N., Gee, J., Kalantzis, M., Cook, J., Kress, G., Luke, A.,

Michaels, S., & Nakata, M. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social

futures. Harvard Educational Review. 66(1). 62-92.

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