We recently started to study John Szwed’s “Ethnography of literacy” and UNESCO, trying to figure out what literacy actually means. Szwed introduces many challenging questions for us as readers. For example, he asks, what is literacy? How can we measure literacy? How do we define literacy? These are just a few questions that Szwed had for the readers, but his article poses more. Szwed’s focus, to me, was does knowing how to read and write make you literate and how can it be measured? Szwed’s article is explaining that literacy is more then just a simple answer and that it is in fact harder to measure than a yes or no. In class, we did a little group work to try and figure out what literacy actually meant and decided that literacy is a tough word to tackle, yet it seems so simple. Together we decided that literacy is the ability to read and write along with very basic math skills (Addition/subtraction).
We explained that literacy is a skill that we use every day no matter what we are doing. For example: driving a car, looking for directions, piloting new technology. But we couldn’t define literacy alone. We discussed in the class that there are different literacies for different things. For example, a welder doesn’t need to know how to cite his sources and an English major doesn’t need to know how to read a physics textbook. These are all points that each of the group members agreed upon. Some literacies change due to the environment.
We covered a few points like “Does social media count towards literacy? Like does a child reading Facebook posts rather than reading books make them literate?” More importantly, we discussed why aren’t our children in America more “literate.” We were confused because in the United States we have access to free education with almost limitless possibilities. Our group decided that there is a lot that plays into education. Whether it is poor teaching, students not understanding, or socioeconomic reasons, we discussed that poverty could impact literacy. I explained that I am from a little town called Clearlake that is predominantly poor. My graduating class was roughly 177 people and maybe 20 of us went to college. We all agreed that poverty definitely ties into literacy but we kept asking the question as to why. Another thing that we discussed is the lack of school funding that keeps changing.
Szwed explains that literacy is extremely difficult to measure and just as difficult to define in his text, but he does a pretty great job breaking it down. Szwed brings in the idea that we shouldn’t be focusing on one way to test people like with standardized test. Szwed states: “It is not only the single standard that we must question, but also the assumption of a single learning progression.” We each agreed that standardized tests are a bad way to test reading, writing, and math and we all agreed that there should be a new way to test each skill.
Author Bio: Benjamin Mann is originally from Clearlake, California. He’s an English Education major at CSU, Chico who works full time and has one child and another on the way. His plate is full. He spends most of his time outside of school and work either relaxing at home or at Bidwell Park, swimming with his fiancé and son.