What is Literacy?

When my son was born, I couldn’t wait for him to read. I kept reading to him, but it took time until he showed any interest in books. I was so proud when he figured out not how to read, but how to turn the pages in a board book filled with baby faces and “read” to himself. He had learned that one page came after the other and started to look at the pictures in books.

Ong’s article, Orality of language, was a reminder of the primacy of orality. He explained that the term “preliterate” is problematic because we first learn to talk and only then to write. Many languages have never been written down and even those that have a writing system may not have been established enough to develop a written literature. Ong states, “oral expression can exist and mostly has existed without any writing at all, writing never without orality.” Once you are literate, you can’t feel what a word is without having some part of your brain imagining how it looks in print.

Ong discusses how written texts make study possible. In contrast, in primary oral cultures, knowledge is not acquired through formal “study,” but through apprenticeship or discipleship. This made me think about the time after my first child was born. I started to read books about child rearing. My husband, who grew up as part of a large family in Brazil, was baffled by this. In his experience, relatives and older siblings helped each other learn child rearing skills, a type of apprenticeship, these skills were not something to be learned from a book.

Last week on NPR, I heard an interview with Jordan Shapiro, the author of New childhood: Raising kids to thrive in a connected world. Shapiro quotes cultural critic Mark Taylor, “Oral culture was of necessity more communal than print culture; with print and the advent of silent reading, people could wrap themselves in their own cocoons.” Shapiro explains that parents lamenting children’s addiction to screens sound quite similar to critics of the Gutenberg press who were concerned that the move from oral culture to private reading would separate people.

Brandt’s article discusses literacy as both “piling up” and “spreading out.” Piling up occurs when education from successive generations accumulates and literacy practices from different generations are combined. New literacy practices develop alongside existing practices, such as the skill of writing for the web which is now necessary as so much reading and information seeking is now accomplished online. Spreading out involves literacy expanding to many different systems of reporting and recording across society. As an example of this spreading out, when I worked as a librarian at Camden Free Public Library, I helped a patron without writing skills apply for a job as a janitor at a local hospital. The job did not require writing skills, but it was impossible to apply for the job without filling out an extensive written application.

Brandt explains that “one generation passes on the fruits of its education to subsequent generations.” However, this passing on can go in both directions. There can be both “hand me downs” and “hand me ups.” My mom is a retired linguistics professor. From her, I have been handed down the compact Oxford English dictionary along with the necessary magnifying glass to read it. I still have some old cassette mix tapes and my children have “handed me up” the ability to make playlists with digital music to replace my cassettes.

Both the “piling up” and “spreading out” of literacy contribute to easy access to print which is hard to interpret. Brandt ends the article by stating that she agrees with M. M. Lewis that “problems with reading and writing are less about the lack of literacy in society than about the surplus of it. Being literate in the late twentieth century has to do with being able to negotiate that burgeoning surplus.”

This difficulty in interpretation makes me think of a recent comment someone made when I told her I was a librarian. She said the profession must be on its way out, as all the information you need is now available in the palm of your hand with a smart phone. While more information is easily accessible than in the past, this abundance requires negotiation. Information literacy skills are needed to help us sift through all of the information and figure out what is credible. Information literacy skills help students become savvy consumers of news, learn how to solve information problems in the workplace, and continue to learn after college.


Brandt, D. (1995). Accumulating literacy: Writing and learning to write in the twentieth century. College English, 57(6), 649-668. doi:10.2307/378570

Ong, W. J. (2002). Chapter 1: The Orality of Language. In Orality and literacy (pp. 5–15). Retrieved from https://lcc.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=lfh&AN=17442153&site=ehost-live

#orality #literacy #apprenticeship #informationliteracy

3 thoughts on “What is Literacy?

  1. While the profession of librarian is not on the way out, the job is completely different from when my mother was a librarian (She was grateful for Google since she could do things in an hour that used to take weeks!).
    I have also noticed that many library schools have changed their names to “School of Information Science” or something similar. So our discussion has to focus on not just what literacy is, but what it is now….

    1. The job is definitely changing. I took one elective class in web design in library school which led me to my current job at web librarian. I assume in library school now that digital skills are even a bigger focus than when I got my degree.

      When I graduated from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2004, I studied in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. In 2016, the name changed to School of Information Sciences or the iSchool. You can see the history of the name changes below.

      The word library is no longer part of the department name at Illinois and many other places to emphasize that there is information everywhere (not only in libraries) that needs to be collected, organized, shared, and preserved.

      History of School name changes https://ischool.illinois.edu/our-school/history
      1893 Founded as the library science program at the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago
      1897 Department of Library Science moved to Urbana; renamed Illinois State Library School
      1926 Renamed University of Illinois Library School
      1959 Renamed Graduate School of Library Science
      1981 Renamed Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS)
      2016 Renamed School of Information Sciences

  2. Suzanne, to your comment “Information literacy skills help students become savvy consumers of news,..” you should add “and determine the difference between real and fake news!”

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