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“Literacy” vs. “Reading”: 3 Questions to Consider This Fall

by Spencer Salas |

Greetings from The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where I’ll be writing this “teaching reading” blog for these next 12 months! To kick things off, I want to look a little at the categories of “reading” and “literacy.” To channel Shakespeare, “What’s in a name?”

Well, actually, there’s a lot.

The shift from the category of “reading” to  “literacy” has evolved (sometimes in contentious ways) over the course of my own 30-year career as a TESOL professional.

The Shift in Terminology and Thinking

Historically, for TESOL, reading was just one of four skills around which we centered our instruction. Back in the day, we understood reading to mean reading books both fiction and nonfiction, short stories, poetry, drama, newsprint, and whatnot. A teacher who taught reading was known as a “reading specialist”—probably working at the elementary school level.

That said, around 2015, the International Reading Association (IRA) officially changed its name to the International Literacy Association (ILA) and in so doing marked a huge change in the way scholars and practitioners conceptualized reading or making sense of words and the world.

The switch from IRA to ILA was something that started rumbling in the 80’s with a confluence of happenings. Vygotsky and Bakhtin were translated into English, ethnographies appeared looking at how communities took up language as identity markers, and a group of scholars primarily in the United Kingdom known as “The New Literacy Group” appeared. Eventually, people started recognizing a  “sociocultural turn” in second language teacher education.

Why It Matters: The Meaning of Literacy

So what’s the difference between reading and literacy—and why should we care? Here’re a couple of ideas:

Reading is more than decoding and texts are more than words printed on paper or bound into hardback or paperback books. Reading the Pacific as the Polynesians did as they crossed the ocean with only the sun and stars and currents and flights of birds as a text—is also a form of literacy. So too is the ability to negotiate the price of a kilo of tomatoes in an open market in Cusco, Peru. So too is defending a doctoral dissertation. Or even, for example, articulating one’s preferred gender pronoun—he, she, they.

In other words, the term literacy can mean making sense of words on paper or on a screen. But literacy also encapsulates knowing how to do things that are valued in a community of practice with all of its traditions and language specific to and highly valued by that same community. So nobody is born a “good reader.” Reading the word/world is something that takes time to learn and, ideally, something to which we are apprenticed by a more capable adult or peer in what Vygotsky called a “Zone of Proximal Development.”

How Should Educators Define Literacy?

But schools often frame reading/literacy as only words printed on paper, and what students already know and know how to do are marginalized as unimportant or less than. What it comes down to is that the challenge of teaching literacy in 21st-century contexts is  seeking a balance in what schools demand as a measure of literacy.

We know that students already come with vast literacy repertoires specific to their communities and families. How do we as teachers and as a profession embrace or dismiss these ways of knowing in our instruction or at the end of the year when we apply tests that don’t recognize anything else but reading in the traditional schoolhouse sense of the word?

As many of us start gearing up for a new school year, I’ll wrap up with a couple questions that might help us begin teasing out the  literacy/reading distinction in our own institutions and classrooms:

  1. What can you “read” and how did you learn to do so?
  2. How do the ways that we teach reading in schools dismiss, embrace, or something in between the ways of knowing and knowledge that students bring with them from home?
  3. How could we expand our curricula and the “texts” we use in classrooms to respond to a more expansive and inclusive definition of literacy? Why would we want to?

These are hard questions—and still much debated in academic circles, by the way. We’re still figuring it out. All this is to say that the switch from reading to literacy and IRA to ILA was more than an alphabet soup.

It mattered then. It still does.

About the author

Spencer Salas

Spencer Salas, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Middle, Secondary, and K–12 Education at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte where he leads the PhD in Curriculum and Instruction Urban Literacies/TESL subconcentration. An award-winning District of Columbia Public School ESL teacher (1994–2001), he has been a Fulbright Fellow to Romania (1998), Guatemala (2007), and South Africa (2013); and, a frequent U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2003–present). His scholarship focuses on Black and Brown teachers’ lives and the potential of humanizing dignity and care as K–16 best practice.

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