What Is Literacy?

As we get closer to the celebration of World Read Aloud Day on March 7, I want to take a moment to share why I think this is such an important day.
02/20/2012 03:38 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2012

As we get closer to the celebration of World Read Aloud Day on March 7, I want to take a moment to share why I think this is such an important day. The act of reading aloud is a symbol for us all of the power of literacy, and what literacy can and does mean for everyone around the world. Literacy is defined as reading, writing, speaking and listening. It is what I refer to as a "LitLoop". I am eager to draw people together in this discourse because over the years people have often become very polarized in "how to" teach literacy or even what literacy actually means. I've been very influenced by a book called Literacy as Social Practice. The writers note:

"More recently we have begun to think of literacy as sets of social practices. Social practices are particular ways of doing and being as well as particular ways of acting and talking that are rooted in life experiences. Since different people have different life experiences it follows that social practices are differentially available to various individuals and groups of people. This differential availability means that not everyone has equitable or equal access to literacy."

The researchers Luke and Freebody note:

"determining how to teach literacy cannot be simply scientific, but rather has to involve moral, political, cultural decisions about the kind of literate practices needed to enhance both people's agency over their own life trajectories or pathways, and communities' intellectual, cultural and semiotic or meaning-making resources in multimediated economies...this means that literacy instruction should ultimately be about the kind of literate citzenry and the kind of literate being that can and should be constructed to participate in our complex world."

In this world where we are co-constructing ideas about how literacy can be most meaningful and most rich with potential for benefit for human agency and the power of the local community, the speaking and listening components of the LitLoop are most critically important.

On World Read Aloud Day, we are calling attention to the interaction of the four elements, but especially these two components, for "reading aloud" can mean both the books we read but also the stories we tell.

At LitWorld, we encircle our work with the power of the child's own story, of the community members' desire to tell their stories to impact the lives of the children who will grow up to be part of the community.

We encourage our partner communities to use World Read Aloud Day as an opportunity to celebrate the power of story, of "reading" the world, as the great researcher Paolo Freire said, by "reading" one's own life and telling those stories aloud.

Recently, I met with a team of teachers from a school for the deaf. As our signs flashed towards each other through the air, I was reminded once again of the layers upon layers of what it means to "read", whether it is images, gestures, signs, stories, or the visual image.

World Read Aloud Day encompasses all these layers of literacy, all the depths of stories, that, when shared into the world become a transaction that can empower, inspire and connect.