Thursday, July 22, 2010

Probing Definitions of Adult Literacy: A Duly-Hedged Synthesis

The operative principle at work here is that of achieving optimum alignment with experience – the best overall balance of informativeness (answering questions and resolving problems) with plausibility by way of negotiating with the claims, which, on the basis of our relevant experience, there is good reason to regard as true. We want answers to our questions but we want these answers to make up a coherent systematic whole. It is neither just answers we want (regardless of their substantiation) nor just safe claims (regardless of their lack of informativeness) but a reasonable mix of the two – a judicious balance that systematizes our commitments in a functionally effective way Nicholar Rescher (2001). Philosophical Reasoning: A Study in the Methodology of Philosophizing(p.96).

Distinctions provide for a higher synthesis of opposing views; they prevent thesis abandonment from being an entirely [italics in original] negative process, affording us a way of salvaging something, of giving ‘credit where credit is due’ even to those theses we ultimately reject. They make it possible to remove inconsistency not just by the brute force of thesis rejection but by the more subtle and constructive device of thesis qualification (p. 121).

Exploring the Interface Between Decoding and Meaning Making Definitions of Literacy

It is generally accepted that knowing how to read (decoding print text), comprehending meanings of texts at various literal and inferential levels, and applying knowledge gleaned from such texts to any number of contexts beyond the text are all essential aspects of adult literacy education. Without necessarily adopting the political orientation of Paulo Freire (1970), few adult literacy educators would reject Freire’s aphorism on the importance of “reading the word” in order to “read the world.” Problems begin when matters of emphasis are stressed in terms of (a) the relation of reading and writing to that of knowledge acquisition, and (b) and conflicting perspectives on how reading is learned most effectively. To the extent that learning to read and knowledge acquisition occur more or less simultaneously, distinctions are less problematical than when the technical processes of learning to read and write, and that of knowledge acquisition through a study of a given text are not occurring apace, which is the more frequent reality in adult literacy.

The concept of “multiliteracies” has emerged particularly in the New Literacy Studies (Barton, 1994; Merrifield, 1998), which, for the field of adult literacy has served, in part, as response to this dilemma. According to this school of thought, literacy is defined as a symbolic sign system in which print text is mediated through and within the contexts in which it is situated as one variable among others to be drawn upon to attain whatever knowledge is required or desired by a particular individual or group of individuals in a given situation. This viewpoint has had a prevailing influence in much of the theoretical work that has given shape to adult literacy studies over the past several decades (Auerbach, 1992; Fingeret and Drennon, 1997; Demetrion, 2004; Merrifield, Bingman, Hemphill and Bennett deMarrais, 1997; Quigley, 1997; Stein, 2000, and Sticht, 1997). Many of these studies have stemmed from, but moved beyond Freire’s (1970) political landmark, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

From this perspective the definition of literacy has taken on various forms that need not concern us here, but that draw upon a metaphorical interpretation of reading the world (Barton, 1994). These, in turn, have given shape to literacy programs that, while teaching basic reading and writing skills, have spent as much, if not more emphasis on helping adults in learning to learn, as well as on the more ineffable aspects of the learning process related to the stimulation of motivation and the enhancement of self-esteem. Some adult literacy educators view these latter areas as foundational in the laying out of an emotional basis to ground the hard work of progressively learning how to read in context-based formats (Lytle, 1991), while others, also focusing on the metaphorical definition, stress the attainment of specific outcomes, which, in principle, can be measured through quantitative means.

Whether emphasizing the emotional impact or the attainment of specific outcomes, many students and instructors who are attuned to the learning/teaching moment, point to the value of the metaphorical dimensions of literacy in leading to certain levels of satisfaction that very well may be ignored or marginalized without such an emphasis. Even still, students in phonemic-based literacy programs also often report on their satisfaction, particularly if the socio-emotional climate of the instructional program is supportive of their aspirations, which is not to minimize the symbolic nature of the learning/teaching process that also infuses programs of this type. Consequently, attitude and the culture of a learning environment may play the more significant role in adult literacy setting, irrespective of instructional methodologies and content foci, although exactly how so, for what sets of students (Kegan, Broderick, Drago-Severson, Helsing, Popp, Portnow, & Associates, 2001), and its relation to more objective measures of impact inside and outside the program requires much clarification (Beder, 1999). At the least, progress in research requires empirically supported study as related to perplexing or challenging problems, and the formation of sharply honed questions and hypotheses designed to probe into them.

For the problem at hand, an examination of the relation of learning to read to that of learning to learn in an adult literacy context, the credibility of a study would be enhanced through comparative analyses among diverse students and programs of some to be determined significant quantity. All things being equal that would be so even if much of the needed work consists of delineating variables through in-depth case-study analysis that then become sifted through comparative research even without the prospect of a randomized sample. The utilization of whatever methodologies and approaches that brings further clarity to the matter throughout all the stages of the investigation (fidelity to the scientific method) within the historical evolution of the problem itself is the critical factor.

Whether learning to read or learning to learn is, or should be the central focus of adult literacy education, is a matter of some dispute, which has not been resolved within the literature of the field. There is substantial middle ground within these perspectives via the medium of balanced reading theory and a context-derived educational program that focuses on employment, family education, civic literacy, and lifelong learning (Stein, 2000). Nonetheless, tensions between the operative assumptions of the New Literacy Studies and advocates of phonemic-driven approaches to reading are particularly sharp in their articulation of competing definitions of literacy. In moving toward a dialectical resolution that incorporates balanced reading theory within a context-based adult literacy framework, my working hypothesis, much clarification is required.

Supportive Hypotheses and Related Statements of the Duly-Hedged Synthesis

The provisional statements about adult literacy education below are based upon Nicholas Rescher’s “duly-hedged synthesis” as reflected in the opening quoted passages of this post. I present these as a first-cut resolution to the problem of defining literacy, which fuses elements of learning to read with that of learning to learn.

1. Literacy facilitates knowledge acquisition in the grappling with and mastery of print-based texts.
2. Literacy is enhanced to the extent to which individuals gain the capacity to read and write print-based texts.
3. Growth in literacy is experienced to the extent to which readers progressively comprehend and draw meaning from texts and appropriate them into their lives.
4. Literacy has a technological component in the mastery of reading, writing and the comprehension of texts and a metaphorical dimension that resides in transactions between the reader and the text in which meaning making and significance lies beyond the text into that of appropriation, however variously that may be defined.

Each of these statements, as working hypotheses of the “duly hedged synthesis” requires additional clarification, including the grappling with new contradictions that may arise as the investigative proceeds. Let us take these statements one at a time.

Literacy facilitates knowledge acquisition in the grappling with and mastery of print-based texts.

• Knowledge acquisition may refer to understanding and progressively attaining the skills and knowledge needed for the technical mastery of reading and writing.
• Literacy may refer to the enhanced ability to read to the extent of providing an independent resource that students can apply to texts that they encounter either in the instructional program or outside of it without assistance from others.
• Knowledge acquisition may refer to the mastery of the content of print-based texts at varying levels of literal and inferential comprehension.
• Literacy may refer to the knowledge needed for such acquisition regardless as to how much or how little a student learns to read.
• While both learning to read and learning to learn are valid indicators of literacy, educators need to determine where priorities should be placed in terms of various student need and ability and what focal points of concentration stimulate what aspects of learning for any given student or groups of students.

Literacy is enhanced to the extent to which individuals gain the capacity to read and write print-based texts.

• If not by definition, it is at least a strong inference among most adult literacy educators and students that literacy includes the ability to read and write print-based texts and may even be its main purpose.
• All things being equal, increased capacity to read and write texts enhances literacy, whether a literal or metaphorical definition of literacy is adopted.
• The extent to which adult literacy students increase their ability to read print-based texts varies widely. Such variability needs to be factored into the reading and writing aspects of a given program and corresponding modes of assessment and accountability regardless of reading methodologies and the instructional content selected.

Growth in literacy is experienced to the extent to which readers progressively comprehend and draw meaning from texts and appropriate them into their lives.

The capacity to comprehend and draw meaning from print-based texts in a supportive instructional environment does not depend on the ability to read the text independently.
• Students who have enhanced their ability to read and write have gained additional skills in comprehending and drawing meaning from texts in their ability to study independently. As a general rule, this capacity enhances a student’s mastery of the content embedded in printed texts.
• There may or may not be any intrinsic correlations between comprehending the authorial meaning(s) of a text and a student drawing meaning from it. While literacy may be enhanced through either, as a general rule, it is strengthened most so when reasonable inferences between the two can be made.

Literacy has a technological component in the mastery of reading, writing and the comprehension of texts, and a metaphorical dimension that resides in transactions between the reader and the text in which meaning making and significance lies beyond the text into that of appropriation, however variously that may be defined.

• Literacy, in the most comprehensive of definitions includes both the technological mastery of reading and writing, along with that of comprehension and deriving meaning from print-based texts.
• Taking the capacities of students into account, literacy progresses most when all of these dimensions are factored in, in which none of them serves as the privileged foundation of the definition.
• Even adults who remain at beginning levels of reading and writing ability who do not even come to approximating independent fluency can benefit as a result of the progress they achieve in the areas of comprehension and meaning making, although how durable such learning is and its significance requires much research.
• The extent to which even advanced students who progress in their reading and writing benefit in doing so also requires discriminating analysis. The salience to which gains in reading ability short of the GED certification open up opportunity structures for life improvement requires careful analysis in which the separation of variables may prove difficult.
• Even if little in the realm of opportunity structures is attained, being able to read, write, and comprehend print-based texts and appropriating such knowledge for one’s own purposes has a certain value in itself (although how much so remains in question) as a form of self development that may or may not have broader societal impact.
• What is determined as efficacious in relation to adult literacy education may have as much to do with values of individual students and programs that seek to support them as with specific impacts subject to objective forms of direct measurability.
• Literacy is a cultural metaphor of considerable pluralistic range and scope of knowledge acquisition that includes the technical capacity of reading and writing as an important, but undetermined variable of the broader definition encapsulated in the term, “multiliteracies.”
• Definitions of literacy that programs appropriate will be shaped by the sum total of cultural, social, political, economic, and intellectual influences interacting on them. In short, the cultural matrix as a variant in adult literacy education is unavoidable.

Concluding Note

These four hypotheses and 19 related statements presuppose a provisional acceptance of a “duly-hedged synthesis” that literacy is appropriately defined as a transactional relation between learning to read and write and broader content learning stemming from topics within and suggested by print-based texts. While both of these aspects of literacy are critical, neither is accepted as the foundational baseline of the definition. If anything is, based upon the precepts I have lain out, it is the tension between the radical particularity of student need, interest, and aptitude and the broader cultural matrix that gives shape to that which achieves social and political legitimacy through which definitions and purposes of adult literacy education are mediated.

In this respect, whatever value there is in adult literacy as an educational phenomenon, which, on my reading, is a great deal, I am also proposing that literacy, however it is defined, has a semiotic reference, which needs to be grasped as an ecological sign system manifested in a range of psycho-socio contexts (Barton, 1994). This is the case, I am positing even if one defines literacy as mastery of reading and writing in which the technologies themselves possess cultural symbolic reference, which include, but also point beyond their literal meaning. Consequently, there is no “autonomous” literacy outside a contextual frame, but a definition that is socially and culturally shaped all the way down (Street, 1988). On this claim I am radicalizing the logical assumptions of the New Literacy Studies in accepting both definitions of literacy proposed in this paper in symbolically significant mediational terms as pointing beyond themselves into the realm of their cultural significance (Barton, 1994).

To move beyond these core suppositions of literacy (the “duly-hedged synthesis”), including the 19 bulleted statements would be the beginning of shifting into an actual research project. That cannot be undertaken here, though merits further study.

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