Tuesday, 15 July 2008

What is complete illiteracy?

I’ve been thinking about Chris Jackson’s comment. In fact, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time going round and round the web, finding more and more to ponder…

Since I started teaching I’ve thought quite a lot about Skills for Life literacy levels and how they really compare to the survival, functional and operational descriptors they are matched with.
The screenshot right is taken from a PPT I used at Oxford Brookes in 2005 – it’s
still available on skillsworkshop.org site but be warned that many of the references and links may be out of date.

However, I admit that, despite being a literacy teacher, I had not previously reflected on what ‘complete illiteracy’ means; the image in my head was simply that of an anonymous figure signing his name with a cross.

My search for a single, superior definition has not been successful but I’ve certainly got a clearer image now than I had a week ago!

The first explanation (found via the ‘type-illiteracy-into-Google-then-click-the-definition-link’ route) was: The exact nature of the criterion varies, so that illiteracy must be defined in each case before the term can be used in a meaningful way.
"illiteracy." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Columbia University Press., 2003. Answers.com 12 Jul. 2008.

So… nothing new there then!

However the same source continues with some helpful history, explaining that in 1930 the US Census Bureau defined ‘illiterate’ as anyone over 10 years of age who could not read and write.

At this point, I diverted to the UK Statistics Authority and the UK-Census Online but could find only scant references to literacy – and certainly no UK definition of ‘illiteracy’.

So, I continued with the Columbia listing which went on to say that by the 1940s the idea of functional illiteracy (unable to engage in social activities in which literacy is assumed) was alive and well in the US and that in 1990 the US census results showed that 5% of adults were considered not to be functionally literate (which was then classed as the expected level of attainment after attending between 6 and 8 years of school).

Columbia continues with this: The United Nations defines illiteracy as the inability to read and write a simple message … ‘Ah ha,’ I thought, ‘now perhaps I’m getting somewhere! Although how do you define a simple message?’

Further use of Google took me to a table of statistics from the United Nations Statistics Division site. There was no mention of the UK in the table (or the US) and if you scroll down (below the footnotes) to the technical notes you will find a list of possible reasons:
For many countries or areas, literacy rates are not available for one or more of the following reasons: (a) illiteracy is believed to have been reduced to minimal levels through several decades of universal primary education, (b) it has not been possible to establish revised estimates following recent mass literacy campaigns, (c) not even a minimal database is available for making rough estimates, or (d) countries have preferred that no estimate be published.

But, hey presto, there was also some useful information in the technical notes: The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines a literate person as someone who can both read and write with understanding, a short, simple statement on his or her everyday life. A person who can only read but not write, or can write but not read is considered to be illiterate. A person who can only write figures, his or her name or a memorized ritual phrase is also not considered literate.

Now, as someone who loves the Language Experience Approach with beginning adult readers I rather like this definition of a literate person!

After this I got completely sidetracked (still on the UNESCO site) by information about the LAMP (Literacy Assessment and Monitoring Programme) project which measures reading skills over 5 levels in three different text categories (prose, document and quantitative). The ‘International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS): Understanding What Was Measured’, Irwin Kirsch (2001), PDF is an absolute mine of information on this and I hope to return to this in another post.

Finally, to get back down to earth, I tried Wikipedia. Functional Illiteracy is defined as ‘the inability of an individual to use reading, writing, and computational skills efficiently in everyday life situations’ and Illiteracy as ‘the inability to read or write simple sentences in any language’. (Note the mention of IT skills here).

By this time I’d almost forgotten that the original spark for this discussion and research was my uneasiness with Phil Beadle’s sweeping statement that ‘people who work in adult literacy’ say that complete illiteracy doesn’t exist.

So, I’m still not sure what ‘complete illiteracy’ means but I am very sure about something. Using any one of the six definitions listed, here’s one person who works in adult literacy that has never said that complete illiteracy doesn’t exist. Surely I’m not alone?

Sunday's Independent (July 13, 08) had an interesting article
'We've seen the future ... and we may not be doomed' which talks about a new UN report '2008 State of the Future' to be published later this month. What first caught my eye was the large accompanying world statistics graphic (unfortunately not included in the online report) in which one of the headings, under 'Where we are winning' (rather than 'Where we are losing') is Literacy. It says: '[Literacy] is a key factor in countries being able to move towards democracy and enjoy economic growth. The number of people aged 15 or above that can read and write has increased from 72 percent in 1985 to 82 percent today and is projected to reach 85 percent by 2017.'

So we've got that report (6,300 pages!) to look forward to as well as the upcoming Can't Read, Can't Write programme...


Chris Jackson said...

Sorry to have sent you round in circles, Maggie. It's a point that has long interested me. When I started as a literacy volunteer in 1982 I had just come back from teaching in Southern Sudan. I was fascinated with a published statistical map which suggested that Sudan was one of the more literate countries in Africa. I started delving into the statistics which disappeared into the sands of the desert as "estimated". I've since realised that most if not all third world literacy statistics are political, often tied to bids for aid. Not unlike our own dear government's recent trumpeting of two million plus level one or two passes. So when I read the quote in your blog my hackles rose. I'm one literacy worker who has often met complete illiteracy in this country. Chris

Maggie said...

Good! So now that’s at least two of us who don’t comply with PB’s views on "people that work in adult literacy".

That’s not to say that everything he says makes my hackles rise (to borrow your apt expression) – or at least not quite so steeply!

I see there is now a Channel 4 web site devoted to the programme.

Here’s a snippet from the Series Overview page
(Note to new blog readers here. You'll have to copy and paste the link into your browser as web links are not active in Blogger comments.)

Phil spends six months working as an adult literacy teacher and concludes that the Government's adult literacy materials are 'worse than useless'. Describing Government provision as a 'national scandal', he believes it deliberately makes no attempt to teach illiterate people to read and is targeted towards giving certificates to people who can already read; and that the claims that a higher level qualification is equivalent to a GCSE A-C grade are 'farcical'. 'Had I used the government's materials,' says Phil, 'many of my class would still be faced with the daily burden and barrier of complete illiteracy.' Can Phil do for adult literacy what Jamie Oliver did for school dinners?

Very interested in your comments regarding literacy statistics (third world or otherwise!). More food for thought...

Thanks Chris