What is Literacy

What is literacy?

Literacy is a broad philosophical term, which describes the interactions and dynamics between an individual and others. Gee (2015) states, the “study of literacy is about how talk and text are socially distributed as founding elements of our social lives and institutions” (p. 13). Black (2005) speaks of it as a more up to date and personally relatable idea, “reading and writing aren’t discrete skill sets that can be learned without social interactions but as a dialogic meaning-making process that are acquired and embedded in specific social contexts” (p. 120). The study of literacy seems to be an ever expansive and changing field which helps to define the interactions between one person or a group to many others. There are many perspectives on the way languages work and the power that they carry, and linguistics is making sure that power is understood by the intended audience.

Literacy has evolved over time; to expand the idea of just being able to read and write. This “flat” perspective is described as Sousanis (2015) as a “contraction of possibilities” (p.6). He goes further to say that only having access to text or spoken word is 1 dimensional which isn’t enough to interpret all the ideas behind what has been heard or read. If literacy is considered as only being able to read and write, then an artist’s attempt to communicate through his art, music and “paintings”would be wasted. The images that Sousanis provides are an expansion of text to be taken in by more than one sense, “it is sequential and simultaneous (Sousanis, 2015, p.62)”. Although historically we began with images such as hieroglyphics, literacy seemed to have evolved to include only the ability to read and write.

Linguists, the people who study languages, and educators have created new avenues of thought and study, “The New Literacy Studies (NLS)” (Street, p. 77). NLS is consolidating old ideas and establishing a “more robust and less insular field of study” (Street, p. 87). This expansion is also recognized as problematic. The definition of literacy or what counts as literacy at any time and place is fluid and ever changing. As a student it’s difficult to recognize what counts as literacy if every interaction is a form of reading and writing. Just changing the vernacular typically associated with colloquial conversation is breaking down barriers that I didn’t know existed. Street goes on to state that you have to ask, “Whose literacies are dominant and whose are marginalized or resistant” (Street, p. 77). As technology advances, the new perspectives on linguistics have to expand to include them.

With everyone being able to create their own ideas, express them, and share them through the internet and websites, literacy is facing new opportunities. The multitude of available virtual communities, through email, chat systems, and forums prods the definition of linguistics along. Rebecca Black (2005) wrote about a fanfiction website, Fanfiction.net, and talks about the “notions of access and affiliation and formulated questions” (p. 119) when defining literacy. “The digital realm of explorations provides integral structure to literacy and meaning”, allowing adolescents the ability to express themselves and create new perspectives and ideas on pop culture such as video games and movies (Black, p.119). The advent of the internet, is a new way to spread discontent and create change. This spread of ideas to create change is power.

Expressing ideas to others is the basis of literacy regardless of origins. There is an inherent responsibility to wield that power as with any ability to impact the world around us. Janks (2000) and other critical literacy educators are concerned with teaching others to understand this relationship between language and power. Using sociocultural theory of language, they focus on the interdependence of dominations, access, diversity, and design of literacy through the use of language (Janks, 2000). Domination is defined as “power of language and other symbolic forms and discourses more broadly, as a means of maintaining and reproducing rights of domination” (Janks, 2000). Having access to these dominations, the diversity of presentation, and the design of literacies has the power to change the flow of information and acceptance of the “norm”.

Gee (2015) spends a lot of time trying to define the different schools of thought for literacy; social-cultural, cognitive, and critical. Critical is the most apparent, and easily understandable school of thought for me. He speaks about his mentor, Paulo Friere. Friere writes about how literacy empowers people to ask questions through an idea called emancipatory literacy (as quoted in Gee, 2015). It is the educator’s responsibility to hand over the text (“gun”) and the perspective (“the bullets”), and then accept the responsibility (Gee, 2015, p.46). Friere writes about how literacy brings power, and that power is supposed to be used by the many to resist the oppressions of the majority. This was reflected further in the movie that we watched, The Hand that Feeds (Blotnick & Lears, 2014). A documentary where undocumented workers used literacy in many ways, music, protesting, signs, flyers, etc., to fight the oppression of their bosses, who didn’t want to pay adequate wages, give benefits, or allow vacation time. Literacy, is that power to create change and resist the oppressors.

Literacy is an accepted form of communication between “the one and many” (Gee, 2015, p.13). All the information seems to support the power of literacy and the push to question the norms. Literacy is encouraging “the one” to break down the “barriers” that may block acceptance and access to new perspectives, destroying the flatness that we may be a part of. We ask “why”, and through that asking we can create a ripple that has the power to change. Literacy is about making sure that wave is pushed in the intended direction.


Black, R. (2005). Access and affiliation: The literacy and composition practices of English language learners in an online fanfiction community. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 49: 118–128. Retrieved 05/23/17. <https://resources.oncourse.iu.edu/access/content/user/mikuleck/Filemanager_Public_Files/L750%20Electronic%20Lang%20and%20Lit/New%20Forms/Fanfiction%20_%20English%20Lang%20Learners.pdf>

Blotnick, R. (Producer) (Director), & Lears, R. (Producer) (Director). (2014). The Hand That Feeds [Motion Picture]. United States: Jubilee Films.

Gee, J. P. (2015). Literacy and Education. New York, NY: Routledge.

Janks, H. Domination, Access, Diversity, and Design: a synthesis for critical literacy education. Educational Review 52 (2): 175–186. Retrieved 05/23/17. <https://docs.ufpr.br/~clarissa/pdfs/CLdifferentViews_Janks.pdf>

Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Street, B. (2003). The Implications of the “New Literacy Studies” for Literacy Education. English in Education 5: 1–14. Retrieved 05/23/17. <https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/d35d/71ecf9e68cd6f8b80a0be05cb2d595f73aac.pdf>

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