Directions for Literacy Research and Education in the Millennium: A Framework for Library Connections

By Asselin, Marlene | Teacher Librarian, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Directions for Literacy Research and Education in the Millennium: A Framework for Library Connections


Asselin, Marlene, Teacher Librarian


At this year's convention, the International Reading Association drafted a resolution to support credentialed library media professionals in school library media centers through advocacy and legislation. This clear move towards a literacy-library partnership necessitates a mutual understanding of issues and trends in each field. Literacy researchers are carrying out their work in context of "New Times" when "major worldwide shifts in cultural practices, technologies, economic systems, and social institutions are challenging people's conceptions of what it means to be literate" (Luke and Elkins, 1998). This column introduces projected areas of inquiry that will shape conceptions of literacy and literacy education: what counts as literacy, whose purposes literacy serves, what counts as literate texts, and what literacy instruction looks like. The overview presented in this column will serve as a framework for subsequent columns suggesting ways to strengthen literacy-library partnerships in "New Times."

What counts as literacy?

Literacy has always been shaped by cultural forces and therefore is never static (Manguel, 1996). The creation of lists and simple tables can be traced to Sumaria in the fourth century B.C. as merchants and government workers used these forms to support the work of a developing society. During Medieval times, literacy was used by the church to control society's beliefs. Priests held exclusive rights to literacy in the form of reciting, reading and copying Holy Scriptures. In the 20th century, cultural forces of individualism and democracy went hand in hand with the movement towards a literate citizenry in the Western world. Literacy facilitated expression of opinions and choice of individual reading pursuits. Leu and Kinzer (2000) have proposed three cultural forces that will shape literacy as we enter the new millennium: global economic competition, cross-national public policies aimed at increasing literacy levels, and the generation of new literacy technologies. In New Times, as in other times,

   the literacies of today will not be the literacies of tomorrow. Literacy
   will not be measured simply by our ability to comprehend, analyze and
   communicate; instead, we expect literacy will be increasingly defined
   around our ability to adapt to the changing technologies of information and
   communication and our ability to envision new ways to use these
   technologies for important purposes (p. 118).

Whose purposes does literacy serve?

Literacy varies not only across time but place as well. Ethnographic studies of literacy have revealed the multiplicity of literacies that exist within and between societies. In her ground-breaking work, Heath (1983) described distinct literacies that intermeshed with normative social practices of family, community and work in each of the three Appalachian communities she studied. She also found a mismatch between two of the communities' literacies and school or mainstream literacy. Children from non-main stream communities were inexperienced in extended school-like interactions with adults (e.g., recounting events, demonstrating knowledge) and using language for epistemic purposes. Subsequent studies have detailed different literacies between genders, and within socioeconomic groups, adolescents and ethnic groups. These New Literacy Studies are based on "conceptualizing literacy not in terms of skills and competencies, but as an integral part of social events and practices" (Maybin, 2000, p. 197). These studies highlight the role of social and cultural contexts in becoming literate, school being one context. They also raise important and uncomfortable questions about school literacy as a tool for maintaining social inequities. Implications from this research focus on blurring the boundaries between a singular Eurocentric school literacy and students' diverse family, community and work literacies. As literacy becomes increasingly political and instruction increasingly driven by standards, educators must question whose society is being mandated and whose society students are being measured against. …

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