What is Literacy?

James Paul GeeIt is a piece of folk wisdom that part of what linguistics do is define words. In over a decade, as a linguist, however, no one, until now, no one has asked me to define a word. So my first try: what does “literacy” mean? It won’t surprise you that we have to define some other words first. So let me begin by giving a technical meaning to an old term, which, unfortunately, already has a variety of other meanings. The term is “discourse”. I will use the word as a count term (“a discourse, “”discourses, “many discourses”), not as a mass term (“discourse, “ “ much this course”). By “a discourse” I will mean: a socially accepted association among ways of using language, of thinking, and of acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or a social network.
Think of discourse as in “identity kit” which comes complete with the appropriate costume and instructions on how to act and talk so as to take on a particular role that others will recognize. Let me give an example: being “trained” as a linguist meant that I learned to speak, think, and act like a linguist and to recognize others when they do so. Now actually, matters are not that simple: the larger discourse of linguistics contains many sub discourse, differently socially accepted ways of being a linguist. But the master discourse is not just the sum of its parts; it is something also over and above them. Every act of speaking, writing, and behaving a linguist does as a linguist is meaningful only against the background of the whole social institution of linguistics and that institution is made up of concrete things like people, books and buildings; abstract things like bodies of knowledge, values, norms and beliefs; mixtures of concrete and abstract things like universities, journals and publishers, as well as a shared history and shared stories. Some other examples of discourses: being an American or a Russian, being a man or a woman, being a member of a socioeconomic class, factory worker, or a boardroom executive, being a doctor or a hospital patient, being a teacher, an administrator, or a student, being a member of a sowing circle, a club, a street gang, a lunch time social gathering, or a regular at a local watering hole.
There are a number of important points that one can make about discourses, none of which, for some reason, are very popular to Americans, though they seem to be commonplace in European social theory (Belsey 1980; Eagleton 1983; Jameson 1981; Macdonell 1986; Thompson 1984):
1. 1. Discourses are inherently “ideological”. They crucially involve a set of values and viewpoints in terms of which one must speak and act, at least while being in the discourse; otherwise one doesn’t count as being in it
2. 2. Discourses are resistant to internal criticism and self-scrutiny since uttering viewpoints that seriously undermine them defines one as being outside them. The discourse itself defines what counts as acceptable criticism. Of course, one can criticize a particular discourse from the viewpoint o f another one (e.g. psychology criticizing linguistic). But what one cannot do is stand outside all discourse and criticize any one or all of them-that would be like trying to repair a jet in flight by stepping outside it.
3. 3. Discourse-defined positions from which to speak and behave are not, however, just defined internal to a discourse, but also as standpoints taken up by the discourse in its relation to other, ultimately opposing, discourses. The discourse of managers in an industry is partly defined as a set of views, norms and standpoints defined by their opposition to analogous points in the discourse of workers (Macdonell 1986; 1-7). The discourse we identify with being a feminist is radically changed if all make discourses disappear.
4. 4. Any discourse concerns itself with certain objects and puts forward certain concepts, viewpoints and values at the expense of others. In doing as it will marginalize viewpoints and values central to other discourses (Macdonell, 1986: 1-7). In fact, a discourse can call for one to accept values in conflict with other discourses one is a member of-for example, the discourse used in literature departments used to marginalize popular literature and women’s writings. Further, women readers of Hemingway, or instance, when acting s “acceptable readers” by the standards of the discourse of literary criticism might find themselves complicit with values which conflict with those of various other discourses they belong to as women (Culler 1982; 43-64).
5. 5. Finally, discourses are intimately related to the distribution of social power and hierarchical structure in society. Control over certain discourses can lend to the acquisition of social goods (money, power, status) in a society. These discourses empower those groups who have the least conflicts with their other discourses when they use them. For example, many academic, legalistic and bureaucratic discourses in our society contain a moral sub discourse that sees “right” as what is derivable from general abstract principles. This can conflict to a degree with a discourse about morality that appears to be more often associated with women than with men in terms of which “wrong” is seen as the disruption of social networks, and “right” as the repair of those networks (Gilligan 1982). Or, to take another example, the discourse of literary criticism was a standard route to success as a professor of literature. Since it conflicted less with the other discourses of white, middle class men than it did with those of women, men were empowered by it. Women were not, as they were often at cross-purposes when engaging in it. Let us call discourses that lead to social goods in a society “dominant discourses” and let us refer to those groups that have the fewest conflicts when using them as “dominant groups.” Obviously these are both matters of degree and change to a certain extent in different contexts.
It is sometimes helpful to say that it is not individuals who speak and act, but rather historically and socially defined discourses speak to each other through individuals. The individual instantiates, gives body to, a discourse every time he acts or speaks and thus carries it, and ultimately changes it through time. Americans tend to be very focused on the individual and thus often miss the fact that the individual is simply the meeting point of many, sometimes conflicting, and socially and historically defined discourses.
The crucial questions is: how does one come by the discourses that he controls? And here it is necessary, before answering the question, to make an important distinction, a distinction that does not exist in non-technical parlances, but one which is important to a linguist: a distinction between “acquisition” and “learning” (Krashen 1982, 1985; Krashen and Terrell 1983). I will distinguish these two as follows:
Acquisition is a process of acquiring something subconsciously by exposure to models and a process of trial and error, without a process of formal teaching. It happens in natural settings which are meaningful and functional in the sense that the acquire knows that he needs to acquire the thing he is exposed to in order to function and the acquirer in fact wants to so function. This is how most people come to control their first language.
Learning is a process that involves conscious knowledge gained through teaching, through not necessarily from someone officially designated a teacher. This teaching involves explanation and analysis, that is, breaking down the thing to be learned into its analytic parts. It inherently involves attaining, along with the matter being taught, some degree of meta-knowledge about the matter.
Much of what we come by in life, after our initial enculturation, involves a mixture of acquisition and learning. However, the balance between the two can be quite different in different cases and different at different stages in the process. For instance, I initially learned to drive a car by instruction, but thereafter acquired, rather than learned, most of what I know. Some cultures highly value acquisition and so ten d simply to expose children to adults modeling some activity and eventually the child picks it up, picks it up as a gestalt, rather than as a series of analytic bits (Scollon and Scollon 1981; Heath 1983). Other cultural groups highly value reaching and thus break down what is to be mastered into sequential steps and analytic parts and engage in explicit explanation. There is an up side and a down side to both that can be expressed as follows: “we are better at what we acquire, but we consciously know more about what we have learned.” For most of us, playing a musical instrument, or dancing, or using a second language are skills we attained by some mixture of acquisition and learning. But it is a safe bet that, over the same amount of time, people are better at these activities if acquisition predominated during that time. The point can be made using second language as the example: most people aren’t very good at attaining a second language in any very functional way through formal instruction a classroom. That’s why teaching grammar is not a very good way of getting g people to control a language. However, people who have acquired a second language in a natural setting don’t thereby make good linguists, and some good linguists can’t speak the languages they learned in a classroom. What is said here about second languages is true, I believe, of performance; learning is good for meta-level knowledge (ef. Scriber and Cole, 1981). Acquisition and learning are thus too, differential source of power; acquirers usually beat learners at performance, learners usually neat acquires at talking about it that is at explication, explanation, analysis, and criticism.
Now what has this got to do with literacy? First, let me point out that it renders the common sense understanding of literacy very problematic. Take the notion of a “reading class.” I don’t know if they are still prevalent, but when I was in grammar school we had a special time set aside each day for “reading class” where we would learn to read. Reading is at the very least the ability to interpret print (surely not just the ability to call out the names of letters), but an interpretation of print is just a viewpoint on a set of symbols, and viewpoints are always embedded in a discourse. Thus, while many different discourses use reading, evening opposing ways, and while there could well be classes devoted to these discourses, reading outside such a discourse or class would be truly “in a vacuum” much like our repairman above trying to repair the jet in flight by jumping out the door. Learning to read is always learning some aspect of some discourse. One can trivialize this insight to a certain degree by trivializing the notion of interpretation (of printed words), until one gets to reading as calling out the names of letters. Analogously, one can deepen the insight by taking successively deeper views of what interpretation learning and not question. To the extent that reading as both decoding and interpretation is a performance, learning stresses the production of poor performers. If we wanted to stress acquisition, we would have to expose children to reading and this would always be to expose them to a discourse whose name would never be “Reading” (at least until the student went to the university and earned a degree called “Reading”). To the extent that it is important to have meta-level skills in regard to language, reading classes a place of learning might not be around any more, it encapsulated the common sense notion of literacy as “the ability to read and write” (Intransitively), a notion that is nowhere near as coherent as it at first sounds.
Now I will approach a more positive connection between a viable notion of literacy and the concepts we have dealt with above. All humans, barring serious disorder, get one form of discourse free, so to speak, and this through acquisition. This is our socio-culturally determined ways of using our native language in face-to-face communication with intimated (intimates are people with whom we share a great deal of knowledge because of a great deal of contact and similar experiences). This is sometimes referred to as “the oral mode” (Gee 1986b)-it is the birth right of every human and comes through the process of primary socialization within the family as this is defined within a given culture. Some small, so-called “primitive” cultures function almost like extended families (though never completely so) in that this type of discourse is usable in a very wide array of social contacts. This is due to the fact that these cultures are small enough o function as a “society of intimates” (Givon 1979). In modern technological and urban societies which functions a “society of strangers” the oral mode is more narrowly useful. Let us refer to to this oral mode developed in the primary process of enculturation, as the “primary discourse.” It is important to realize that even among speakers of English there are socio-culturally different primary discourses. For example, lower socio-economic black children use English to make sense of their experience differently than do middle class children; they have a different primary discourse (Gee 1985; 1986a; Michaels 1981; 1985). And this is not due merely to the fact that they have a different dialect of English. So-called “Black Vernacular English” is, on structural grounds, only trivially different from standard English by the norms of linguists accustomed to dialect differences around the world (Labov 1972). Rather, these children use language, behavior, values and beliefs to give a different shape to their experience.
Beyond the primary discourse, however, are other discourse, which crucially involve social institutions beyond the family (or the primary socialization group as defined by the culture), no matter how much they also involve the family. These institutions all share the factor that they require one to communicate with non-intimates (or to treat intimates as if they were not intimates). Let us refer to these as “secondary institutions” (such as schools, workplaces, stores, government offices, businesses, churches, etc.). Discourses beyond the primary discourse are developed in association with and by having access to and practice with these secondary institutions. Thus, we will refer to them as “secondary discourse.” These secondary discourses all build on, and extend, the uses of language we acquired as part of our primary discourse, and they [are] more or less compatible with the primary discourses of different social groups. It is of course, a great advantage when the secondary discourse is compatible with your primary one. But all these secondary discourse involve uses of language, either written oral or both that go beyond our primary discourse no matter what group we belong to. Let’s call those uses of language in secondary discourse “secondary uses of language.” Telling your mother you love her is a primary use of language, telling your teacher you don’t have your homework is a secondary use. It can he noted however that sometimes people must fall back on their primary uses of language in inappropriate circumstances when they fail to control the requisite secondary use.
Now we can get to what I believe is a useful definition of literacy:
Literacy is control of secondary use of language (i.e., uses of language in secondary discourses)
Thus there re as many applications of the word “literacy” as these are secondary discourses, which is many. We can define various types of literacy as follows:
Dominant literacy is control of a secondary use of language used in what I called above a “dominant discourse”
Powerful literacy is control as a secondary use of language used in a secondary discourse that can serve as a meta-discourse to critique the primary discourse of other secondary discourses, including dominant discourses
What do I mean by “control” in the above definitions? I mean some degree of being able to “use” to “function” with, so “control” is a matter of degree. “Mastery” I define, as “full and effortless control” In these terms I will state a principle having to do with acquisition which I believe is true:
Any discourse, primary or secondary, is for most people most of the time only mastered through acquisition, not learning. Thus, literacy is mastered through acquisition, not learning, that is, it requires exposure to models in natural meaningful, and functional settings, and teaching is not liable to be very successful-it may even initially get in the way. Time spent on learning and not acquisition is time not well spent if the goal is mastery in performance.
There is also a principle having to do with learning that I think true:
One cannot critique one discourse with another one (which is the only ay to seriously criticize and thus change a discourse) unless one has meta-level knowledge in both discourses. And this meta-knowledge is best developed through learning, though often leaning applied to a discourse one has to a certain extent already acquired. Thus, powerful literacy, as defined above, almost always involves learning, and not just acquisition.
The point is that acquisition and leaning are means to quite different goals, though in our culture we very often confuse these means and thus don’t get what we thought and hoe d we would.
Let me just briefly mention some practical connections of the above remarks. Mainstream middle class children often look like they are learning literacy (of various sorts) in school. Ut in fact I believe much research shows they are acquiring these illiteracies through experiences in the home both before and during school, as well as by the opportunities school gives them to practice what they are acquiring (Wells 1985; 1986a; b). The learning they are doing, provided it is tied to good teaching, is giving them not the literacy, but meta-level cognitive and linguistic skills that they can use to critique various discourses throughout their lives. However, we all know that teaching is not by say means always that good-though it should be one of our goals to see to it that it is. Children from non-mainstream homes often do not get the opportunities to acquire dominant secondary discourses, for example those connected with the practice what they haven’t yet got and they are exposed mostly to a process of learning and not acquisition. Since little acquisition thereby goes on, they often cannot use this learning-teaching to develop meta-level skills since this requires some degree of acquisition of secondary discourse to use in the critical process. Further, research pretty clearly show that many school-based secondary discourses conflict with the values and viewpoint in some non-mainstream children’s primary discourses and the community-based secondary discourse (e.g. stemming from religious institutions) * Heath 1983; Cook-Gumperz 1986; Gumperz 1982).
While the above remarks may all seem rather theoretical, they do in fact lead to some obvious practical suggestions of directions future research and intervention efforts ought to take. As far as I can see some of these are as follows:
1. 1. Settings, which focus on acquisition, not leaning, should be stressed if the goal is to help non-mainstream children attain mastery of illiteracies. This is certainly not liable to be a traditional classroom setting (let alone my “reading class”), but rather natural and functional environments, which may or may not happen to be inside a school.
2. 2. We should realize that teaching and learning are connected with the development of meta-level cognitive and linguistic skills. They will work better if we explicitly realize this and build this realization into our curricula. Further, they must be ordered and integrated with acquisition in viable ways if they are to have any effect other than obstruction.
3. 3. Mainstream children are actually using much of the teaching-learning thy get not to learn by to acquire, by practicing developing skills. We should thus honor this practice effect directly and build on it, rather than leave it as a surreptitious and indirect by-product of teaching-learning.
4. 4. Leaning should lead to the ability for all children-mainstream and non-mainstream- to critique their primary discourses and secondary discourse, including dominant secondary discourse. This requires exposing children to a variety of alternative primary discourses and secondary ones (not necessarily so that they acquire them, but so that they learn more about them.) It also requires realizing explicitly that this is what good teaching and leaning is good at. We rarely realize that this is where we fail mainstream children just as much as non-mainstream ones.
5. 5. We must take seriously that no matter how good our schools become, both as environments where acquisition can go on (so involving meaningful and functional setting) and where learning can go on. The non-mainstream child will always have more conflicts in using and thus mastering dominant secondary discourses, since they conflict more seriously with this primary discourse and community-based secondary ones. This is precisely what it means (by my definitions above) to be “non-mainstream.” This does not mean we should give up. It also does not mean merely that research and intervention efforts must have sensitivity to these conflicts built into them, though it certainly does mean this. It also requires, I believe, that we must also stress research and intervention efforts that facilitate the development of wider and more humane concepts of mastery and its connections to gatekeeping. We must remember that conflicts, while they do very often detract from standard sorts of full mastery, can give rise to new sorts of mastery. This is commonplace in the realm of art. We must make it commonplace in society at large.