Literacy as Involvement: The Acts of Writers, Readers, and Texts

Literacy as Involvement: The Acts of Writers, Readers, and Texts

Literacy as Involvement: The Acts of Writers, Readers, and Texts

Literacy as Involvement: The Acts of Writers, Readers, and Texts


In Literacy as Involvement, Deborah Brandt examines the cultural and social roots of the acts of reading and writing. The book asks, for example, whether literacy is a natural growth of or a radical shift from orality. It questions the contrary views that literacy is either the learning of the conventions of language or is better understood as heightened social ability. Finally, it raises the possibility that knowing how to read and write is actually understanding how we respond during the acts of reading and writing.

This examination of literacy as process is also offered as a critique of prevailing theories of literacy advanced by such scholars as Walter J. Ong, S. J., David Olson, and E. D. Hirsch. They depict literacy as a textual experience that is socially and linguistically detached. Brandt critically examines the underlying assumptions from research on writing processes and argues that they call for a major reformation of prevailing conceptions of literacy. Specifically, she analyzes several expository texts from a process perspective to establish the interaction of reader and writer in even the most seemingly formal and detached writing. In her conclusion, Brandt brings together the major findings of her study to address pressing literacy issues, including the problem of illiteracy in our schools.


"Literacy," according to William Frawley, "is equivalent to textuality" (33). What he means is that literacy is culturally dependent on the invention and continued existence of the technology of text. Literacy is the heat generated by the fire of textuality. Frawley also means that literacy lies in one's relationship with texts. Literacy, he says, is "the ability of individuals to deal with texts" (37).

This definition captures the essence of what can be called a "strong- text" explanation of literacy, an explanation that has been quite influential in shaping contemporary conceptions of literacy development and the causes of literacy failure. Strong text perspectives accord an extremely activist role to written language in precipitating and shaping literate orientation, both social and cognitive. In this view, people become literate by coming to terms with the unique demands of alphabetic writing, a technology that forces radical interpretive shifts away from oral discourse habits. Literacy, from this perspective, is said to entail a suppression of ordinary social involvement as the basis of interpretation and a reinvestment in the logical, literal, message-focused conventions of language-on-its-own.

This chapter traces the origins of strong-text assumptions, as they grow out of oral-literate contrasts generally and are represented in the work of a number of leading literacy theorists, including Jack Goody, Walter J. Ong, Deborah Tannen, and David R. Olson. My aim is to show how their characterizations of literacy are shaped with reference to written products, rather than to the acts (and actors) of writing and reading. As the major assumptions of strong-text theories are examined, it will become clear that they define the nature of literacy by working backward from the nature of texts. Most strong-text accounts give little consideration to the processes of writing and reading, to questions of how people actually accomplish literate acts in daily life.

When the focus moves from product to process, as it will in subsequent chapters, a much different picture of literacy emerges. From a process perspective, literacy does not take its nature from texts. Rather, texts take their natures from the ways that they are serving the acts of writing and reading. Further, from a process perspective, social involve-

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