Making Literacy Work

Manila Bulletin, December 3, 2006 | Go to article overview

Making Literacy Work


Byline: Portia P. Padilla Assistant Professor, College of Education, UP Diliman Affiliate Faculty, UP Open University

LITERACY has generally been considered as a basic tool of survival in the modern world. This world has changed so rapidly that the meaning, forms and functions of literacy have changed quickly, depending on the time or place in which these are articulated. Thus, the traditional definitions of literacy no longer suffice. Now, literacy is not so much an end state as it is a continuous developmental process. It is no longer a matter of "being literate," but of "becoming literate." This is evident in the evolution of UNESCO's definition of literacy.

From its antiquated conception of literacy as rudimentary reading and writing, UNESCO's definition has evolved into one that includes practical usefulness in everyday life, an awareness of the need for the individual's and the community's development, and a recognition of literacy as a basic human right. In its evolved form, the UNESCO conception of literacy neither reduces it to what renowned Brazilian educator Paolo Freire refers to as the "mechanical act of 'depositing' words, syllables, and letters into illiterates" nor does it fail to "acknowledge their real-life experience." Respect for "illiterates" as active participants and a critical analysis of their reality are necessary components in the transformation of their oppressive state. The literacy process is a "cultural action for freedom." Thus, it must be so liberating that it will lead to the development of both the individual and the community. As UNESCO stated in 1988, "widespread illiteracy severely hampers economic and social development." However, illiteracy is not a problem of numbers; it is a problem of definitions. The problem actually lies in the way literacy, knowledge, and even development, have been defined.

It has been said that people should be able to read and write to be able to fully realize their potential as individuals and as members of the community. However, literacy does not necessarily result in this realization of potential. Literacy is not the solution to poverty. There are many countries with high literacy rates yet have low levels of development. According to internationally recognized Filipino educator Ma. Luisa Canieso Doronila, development cannot be assumed to be the logical consequence of literacy. Knowledge and literacy do not have intrinsic power. Nor is there only one model for development. There are underlying social meanings and practices related to these concepts that have to be taken into consideration.

Literacy is socially constructed and may be defined and redefined within and across different situations and groups. School literacy and literate practice may be different from those in the home. Thus, there is a need to examine whether the kind of literacy promoted in school is similar to the one practiced in the home and the community. Some studies on literacy among poor and low income children have shown that their interconnected home literacy events are very different from the decontextualized and fragmented activities in school, which are divorced from the real events of their daily lives outside the academic setting. Literacy is important because of the instrumental role it plays in the tasks, activities and events that are significant to the literate themselves, not because of the literacy policy and literacy standards imposed on them. Literacy is important not because the curriculum says so, but because the literate find it useful in their daily lives. And because it is socially constructed, issues of language, class and culture always influence the way children define and use literacy.

In this regard, it is noteworthy to raise the following questions: "Who are illiterate?," "Who will be taught literacy?," "What kind of literacy?," "By what definition?," "By whose standards?," "In what language?," "For what purpose? …

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