Literacy in the new millennium

By Michele Lonsdale, Doug McCurry Research report 28 June 2004 ISBN 1 920895 78 7


The conception of literacy is changing to reflect the profound economic, social, political and cultural changes of the past half century. In this report, the authors examine three broad literacy ideologies - cognitive, individual-based model, economics-driven model, and sociocultural model. While current research situates literacy in social practice, government policy aligns more with the cognitive and economics-driven models of literacy. The authors find the need for a new national literacy policy which is flexible and accommodates current and future literacies, and supports community capacity-building. They also find at practitioner level that all are teachers of literacy and need to be able to recognise and teach all of the different literacies needed by learners. The report also highlights implications for literacy testing. The report includes an overview (part 1) and discussion paper (part 2).


Executive summary

The world has changed profoundly in the past fifty or so years and, in the process, has challenged many of our long-standing assumptions about literacy and language, to such an extent that a rethinking of what is implied by literacy is urgently needed. How literacy is perceived has implications for policy-makers, practitioners, researchers and students. It has implications for governments, workplaces and institutions, for which aspects of literacy are favoured and supported, which research is funded, how literacy is measured and valued and the teaching and learning approaches adopted. How we define literacy can lead to different conclusions about the extent of illiteracy.

This project involved a literature review and subsequent consultations with a small group of key stakeholders whose different perspectives helped to inform this discussion paper. The main focus of the review was on work published since 1990. The purpose of the review was to identify the issues and changes which have occurred in thinking about literacy and to provide an intellectual platform from which further debate about the nature of literacy today can take place in an Australian context.

This paper examines some of the often contradictory ways in which literacy has been defined before considering how and why literacy conceptions have changed over the years. The final section of the paper outlines a number of implications for literacy policy and practice highlighted by the research.

What the research found

A paradigm shift

The literature search identified the diverse nature of literacy as a concept. While it has been most commonly used to denote elementary reading and writing skills, the term 'literacy' has also been used in other ways and for a variety of purposes. The literature makes it very clear that there is no universally accepted definition of literacy and that each definition is a product of a particular, albeit often unacknowledged and unrecognised, world view.

The theoretical developments which have occurred in the field of literacy need to be placed within the broader context of the profound economic, social, political and cultural changes of the past half century. These changes-described variously by theorists in terms of a 'post-industrial society', 'information society', 'information economy', 'knowledge society', 'global village', and so on-are all terms which this paper identifies as being characteristic of the 'postmodern' condition.

In this discussion paper the evolution of conceptions and definitions relating to literacy is explained in terms of a shift from modernity to postmodernity. Modernity and postmodernity are being understood here not as historical periods, but rather as ways of viewing the world. In this context therefore, conceptions and definitions of literacy are products of their cultural times. The consequences of this paradigm shift for literacy and education are substantial.

Conceptions of literacies

Literacy conceptions today are no longer limited simply to reading and writing. There is a general recognition that changes have so transformed the world in recent years that the concept of literacy needs to encompass a broader range of capabilities than in the past. Perhaps the most influential conceptualisation of literacy is that offered by Brian Street (1984), who distinguishes between an autonomous model and an ideological model of literacy. The autonomous model, it is being suggested in this discussion paper, is symptomatic of a 'modern' condition typically associated with notions of progress, linear history, logical thought and a psychometric tradition of testing. The ideological model on the other hand, is more closely associated with a 'postmodern' condition-typically characterised by sociocultural practices, attention to context, critical discourse and ethnographic studies.

Based on the research, there appear to be three main conceptions of literacy with currency in Australia today, with implications for policy-making and teaching/learning:

  • a cognitive, individual-based model associated with a psychometric tradition, quantifiable levels of ability, and a deficit approach to 'illiteracy', which is assumed to be both an outcome of individual inadequacy, and a causal factor in unemployment

  • an economics-driven model generally associated with workforce training, multiskilling, productivity, 'functional' literacy and notions of human capital

  • a sociocultural model which is most commonly associated with contextualised and multiple literacy practices, a valuing of the 'other', and a strong critical element.

In general, literacy today is perceived to be social by nature rather than merely an individual's set of skills, and there is consensus among literacy researchers that the meaning of literacy depends on the context in which it is being used.


The research undertaken in the course of this paper indicates that literacy can no longer be assumed to be either a universal or unitary concept, nor can literacy policy continue to be linked to the demands of a globalised economy and a national training agenda which sees adult literacy primarily in terms of vocational outcomes. In this context therefore, this paper has identified a number of important implications for literacy policy and practice.

For policy-makers

  • The research indicates the need for a new national policy which recognises the wider changing social, political, economic and cultural contexts and the emergence in recent years of ethnographic studies which challenge long-standing assumptions about literacy.

  • Such a policy needs to be flexible enough to accommodate current and future literacies and to explicitly recognise the place of non-print technologies in any new conception of literacy.

  • In keeping with the United Nations Literacy Decade guidelines and current focus on literacy as social practice, policies need to support community capacity-building and not simply individual skilling.

  • Government policies should reflect the fact that literacy needs change over time and according to age, gender, language, and the context in which these literacies are being used.

  • Policies need to be able to respond readily to society's changing needs as literacies previously dominant become displaced by newly emerging ones.

  • Governments need to accommodate and value the full range of literacies, regardless of whether these are currently the dominant literacies.

  • Any definition of literacy adopted must be broad enough to encompass the existing multiple literacies without being either so broad as to be meaningless, or indistinguishable from educational outcomes in general.

  • Government policies need to support initiatives that enable lifelong learning to occur in both informal and formal situations.

  • There needs to be an integrated approach at federal and state levels.

For literacy testing

  • Implicit in the current approach to national literacy testing is an assumption that those on the lower levels of attainment have failed to meet the national standard and are thus at fault in some way for their 'poor' performance. Instead of a deficit model which implies that individuals are to blame for their poor literacy skills, there needs to be a more productive approach which values local and other less dominant literacies.

  • The concept of multiple and situational literacies has implications for the use of benchmarking as a means of assessing individual levels of literacy skills.

  • More thought needs to be given to alternative monitoring and accounting mechanisms.

For practitioners

  • Practitioners need to be able to recognise and teach the different literacies needed by learners. They need also to value local literacies as well as the more dominant literacies.

  • In the case of current workplace literacy approaches, the dominant practices of workplace literacy encapsulate what employers, economists and government policy-makers perceive to be in the best interests of the economy. There needs to be a greater recognition of the diverse needs of adult learners.

  • All teachers are teachers of literacy. Once seen to be the province of language teachers, literacy is now recognised as being cross-disciplinary.

  • The full range of literacies possessed by learners needs to be valued. There may be acquisition of skills across the various literacies at different rates.

  • There is no single or universal method of teaching literacy.

A broad conception of literacy entails a teaching and learning process (including assessment) which is focused on meaning-making. That is, rather than merely reproducing uncritically what is taught, learners are able to make sense of the world and develop their own perspectives. This implies both an engagement with the world and the capacity to critique that world. If this broader conception of literacy is overlooked, then literacy becomes little more than the mastery of a series of sub-skills, rather than the genuinely transforming experience which current conceptions of literacy-as social practice, critical engagement, context-specific and multiple-suggest it should be.


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