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The Power of Story
pp. 28-33
by Joan Wink
Published by Libraries Unlimited/ABCLIO
Copyright © 2018 by Joan Wink
Chapter 1 – Loving That Literacy

What Is Literacy, and What Are Literacies?

Years ago I thought I understood literacy—simple, it was reading and writing? Remember when we thought that it was simple? It turns out that we were wrong. Perhaps our traditional assumptions of literacy were not just simple but maybe even simplistic. The world has changed. Schools have changed. Students have changed. Technologies and media have revolutionized our understandings of literacies, and they may even wonder about older technologies and find them to be quaint and peculiar. Students of today have never lived a “books only” world. The academic literature is alive with discussions of the breath and depth of meanings of the new literacies (Asselin, 2004), but for the students is not new—it’s the way it has always been. Tapscott (1998, captured this notion by telling us that the students have been “bathed in bits since birth,” and think of all of the children who have been born since 1998: Today’s kids dive with their devices into new depths of literacies, and new literacies takes us directly to new ways of knowing.

Previously, I wrote (Wink, 2011, p. 70; Wink, 2005, p. 47; Wink, 2000, p. 56;Wink, 1997, p. 44) about multiple types of literacies: functional(languages of the streets and of life), academic(languages of schools and universities), workplace(languages of our jobs), information(languages of technology), constructive(languages we construct with the printed word), emergent(languages constructed with the text before we are really decoding), cultural(language that reflects the perspective of one culture—guess which one), critical(languages that take us deeper into more complex understandings of the word and the world), and financial (language to enable students to handle their money more responsibly). However, the notion of new literacies continues to expand (Wink, 2011, 70-71).

Family literacies(Taylor, D., 1983, 1998; Taylor & Dorsey-Gaines, 1988) is not a new idea. Taylor coined the phrase in 1983 in her dissertation, and the idea has evolved in a huge area of study. Many schools today create family literacy programs to bring in children and family members to read and learn together—to celebrate literacy together. Community literaciesis also not a new concept, but it, too, has found a nourishing home within the notion of new literacies. Both family literacies and community literaciesplace high value on the co-construction of literacy and knowledge. Community literacy includes those processes outside of the traditional mainstream institutions:for example, it can include programs within adult education, lifelong learning, workplace literacy, or any literacy process which seeks to support marginalized groups with literacy development. These processes tend to focus on social and cultural context. Community literacy has its own journal, Community Literacy Journal,and conference now. Many state and communities actively celebrate communities literacies now. The Tucson Festival of Books, hosted by the University of Arizona in the spring is the most wildly successful celebration of community literacy that I have ever experienced. Another new literacy term, which we sometime hear, reflective literacies, which reminds us that literacy is not just decoding (reading) and encoding (writing), but also reflection, so that our literacies help us make sense of our world in order to transform our world.

New literacies are inclusive of new technologies of the 21st century, and the work of librarians and teachers revolves around integrating the new technologies with the new literacies. Information literacyhas primacy now in the daily lives of librarians and school librarians. It is recognition that we need more information, and we have the ability to find it, evaluate it, interpret it, and apply it. Web literacy is another focus of librarians and teachers; it includes digital literacy, multimedia literacies, and maybe even hacker literacies in combination with the understandings from the world of computer science.

I have long been interested in critical literacies, which enables us to see injustices all too clearly. This type of literacy helps us understand how and why knowledge and power are constructed by whom and for whom. It seems to me that the earlier notions of critical literacy are morphing to a new and evolving term, equity literacy (Gorski & Swalwell, 2015) which also challenges us to acquire the knowledge and skills to challenge inequity in our contexts, wherever we may be. Equity literacy asks librarians and teachers to bring in the voice of the other. If your class or community has families from other languages, cultures, ethnicities, and/or countries, do the literacy resources reflect them and their lived experiences? Our task is to create bias-free learning spaces for all (Gorski, 2014).

Junk literacy:OK, I just made up that term, but hear me out on this one. Krashen & Ujiie (2005) encourage us to rethink any old ideas we might have about light reading, which they refer to as junk reading—with tongue firmly placed in the cheek. However, light reading has value: You love it sometimes, and so do I. In addition, light reading often is a gateway to more serious reading—even the hallowed classical reading. Perhaps, if we use only classical and quality literature in reading instruction, we might want to consider that light reading does provide background knowledge, linguistic competence, and even the motivation of read more serious literature. When I think of junk reading, I am always reminded of José,a former junior high school student.

When I told him and his class that they could read anything they wanted, as long as I was not uncomfortable, he immediately challenged me, “Even the Tucson phone book?” he asked me in front of the other very interested teenagers.

“Yes,” I replied, “even the Tucson phone book.”

He immediately went to the back of the classroom to grab the huge tome, and he began reading on the first page. I ignored him, and soon the class lost interest. Within a day, he lost interest in the list of names and numbers and immediately moved on to a basal reading book, which had been sitting on a bookshelf in the classroom. I had never been able to get him to read the required stories in this text. However, this time, he had choice,and he flew through the stories, and moved on to other stories in other countries. After high school, he joined the military and went on to visit and live in many of those other countries. It would not surprise me in the least to learn that he is even now reading much more serious literature.

All of these literate processes have one common characteristic: They are derived from social practices. Literacies are socially constructed, often with our friends, in specific contexts, for specific purposes. Literacies do not develop in isolation; rather, literate processes grow from families, from schools, from work, from cultures, from knowledges, from technologies, and so on.

Aliteracy is also an emerging and disturbing new concept, which is used to describe kids, who can read, but who choose not to read in a deep and thoughtful manner; rather, they read in nanoseconds on their devices almost exclusively. Aliteracy is a relatively new phenomenon of the 21st century, but it is one, which can have negative effects. Brody (2015, July 6) warns of the addictive nature of too much “device time” for children.

I should have known that literacy would be more complex than my traditional assumptions. I have watched many students develop (and not develop) their literacies in multiple ways. These kids have forced me to expand my understandings of literacy to be far more inclusive of all types of literacies.

The notion of literacies fascinates me: Oh, the happy memories of my reading and learning during my road warrior literacy development, and oh, what I have learned frolicking in junk literacy (and, it is true that, just like José, I do tire of light reading). However, the notion of critical literacy, and now, equity literacy, offers the most hope for us to maintain a robust democracy with kids and adults to read and who think. Laudacina and Elia (June 2016) offer the idea of libraries as a third or additional language, in that students, who speak multiple languages, often need extra guidance in navigating the library. This makes me wonder if this is a type of library literacy, or at least a special component within information literacy, or perhaps my road warrior literacy is also library literacy and/or information literacy.For sure by the time that this book is actually in the hands of readers, new and exciting dimensions of literacy will be articulated and speculated upon by some group, somewhere.

I marvel that Moffett, even in 1985, understood the power of literacy. Before you read this next quote, please reflect a bit on your own understandings of literacy in 1985.

Literacy is dangerous and has always been so regarded. It naturally breaks down barriers of time, space, and culture. It threatens one’s original identity by broadening it through vicarious experiencing and the incorporation of somebody else’s hearth and ethos, so we feel profoundly ambiguous about literacy. Looking at it as a means of transmitting our culture to our children, we give it priority in education, but recognizing the threat of its backfiring, we make it so tiresome and personally unrewarding that youngsters won’t want to do it on their own, which is, of course, when it becomes dangerous.… The net effect of this ambivalence is to give literacy with one hand and take it back with the other, in keeping with our contradictory wish for youngsters to learn to think but only about what we already have in mind for them (James Moffett, 1989, p. 85).

As this is a book about developing literacy through storytelling in classrooms and libraries, I am not going to fall on my sword on the distinctions between literacy and literacies and different types of literacies. Therefore, in this book, literacy and literacies will be used interchangeably, as I prefer to focus on the multiple paths to literacy; I am confident that readers will understand that the notion of literacy today is deeper and wider, than we ever imagined a generation or two ago.

Oracy and Literacy

We, in North America, put much faith in literate communities. We place high status on literacy, or reading and writing. Status and prestige are not assigned to those who are illiterate,a word that carries heavy connotations of less. Illiteracyhas become a loaded, value-laden concept that is used to deny access to power. For example, when we say, “They are illiterate,” we often mean much more than merely not being able to decode. However, this is not true in much of the world (Skutnabb-Kangas, 1993). Many people in the world carry their knowledge in their heads and not on paper. Important people carry important knowledge in their heads. Instead of being literate communities, these are called orate communities.

The most vivid example of orate knowledge is a mariachi guitar player I knew. He carried the entire history of the Mexican revolution in his head, and he could sing and play it. After taking lessons from him, I learned the difference between orate and literate communities. I now have boxes and boxes of Mexican music with all the verses that I have transcribed from the tapes I made of him singing. These boxes are dusty and in my garage. His orate knowledge is still in his head and can be retrieved at a moment’s notice.

So much of our knowledge serves us better when we carry it in our heads and not on paper. For example, when I am in the grocery store or on a plane and people ask me questions about education, multilingual education, or critical literacy, they don’t want me to get out my papers, my books, and my transparencies and answer their questions. They just want me to tell them in plain language something that is understandable. (Wink, 2011, pp. 72–73).