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The Evolution of Literacy

The Productive – and Necessary – Expansion of Literacy over the Past 100 Years: What this Means and Why it Matters

Centennial Faculty Guest Blog
By Dr. Kelly C. Johnston

What is literacy?

Take a moment to consider this question. If asked on the spot, how would you define literacy to someone else?

As a literacy educator and researcher, I often get asked about literacy development for children and youth. One way I respond to such questions is by asking how literacy is being defined. 

Oftentimes the answer to this question revolves around basic functions of reading and writing. Relatedly, public discourse, that is the everyday ways we hear and talk about literacy, tends to reflect linear, simplistic understandings of literacy. For example, people are generally categorized as “literate” or “illiterate,” equating “literate” to being able to read and write. 

This generalization plays out in schools as well, with national initiatives and policies influencing how school leadership, teachers, and curricula define literacy. While state and national standards have somewhat expanded notions of literacy to include “reading, writing, speaking, listening, and thinking,” emphases on traditional core subjects and high-stakes testing tie literacy to a demonstration of concrete skills related to these functions. 

Yet much has changed in our knowledge and understanding of literacy, and I believe that’s a very good thing. In reflecting on literacy in the United States over the past 100 years, research has contributed to deeper theorizing and understanding of literacy as a complex system that certainly involves traditional notions of reading (what we call decoding of letters and the sounds that accompany those) and writing, but also involves other meaning-making modes, contexts, and functions. Indeed, literacy has expanded to many forms through research and practice. Some of these include:

Social: Meaning-making happens through socially produced and understood practices that become normalized through social and cultural interactions (example: writing a check is a social practice);

Multimodal: Meaning-making happens through multiple modes, such as language, gestures, written symbols, images, sounds, and movements; oftentimes comprehension is enhanced depending on how modes are orchestrated and navigated (examples: illustrations paired with text; digital production that integrates sound, images, and virtual experience);

Affective: Meaning-making may be felt or experienced in unseen ways, but these felt perceptions influence one’s thought process, communication, and intellect (example: movement and play as a part of one’s meaning-making experience);

Critical: Meaning-making involves thinking about our world (locally, globally, civically) and constructively questioning problematic commonplace things, such as racism, systemic injustices, oppression, poverty, and human trafficking, to name a few. While there are many sub-categories in these larger topics, these are important issues that affect our lives on a daily basis. 

These expansive conceptions of literacy demonstrate the rich, complex, and diverse ways people communicate and make meaning. They also help us to understand literacy as a system of skills that encompass traditional reading and writing as well as other ways of interacting with the world that affect how we make sense of ourselves, others, and society at large. This is especially important because historically, literacy has at times been used in detrimental ways, particularly regarding marginalized populations, such as people of color, low socioeconomic status, or special needs. Especially in schools, when literacy is narrowly defined as reading and writing in specific ways at specific times as determined by static, fixed curricula, children and youth on the margins are labeled in deficit ways (for example: failing, struggling, low, behind). These labels and deficit thinking are inscribed onto children’s lives and influence how they view themselves, others, schooling, education, and society as a whole. Yet by recognizing the expansive ways children and youth engage with literacy, we can contribute to more equitable opportunities for children representing a multitude of diversities. 

Perhaps one of the most significant implications of understanding literacy in this expansive way is recognizing how literacy, then, functions more like an action than a thing. Educational philosopher Paulo Freire is known for the phrase “reading the world” so you can “read the word.” Literacy serves as a multifaceted entry point to be a part of one another’s worlds, locally and globally, accessing and creating knowledge in diverse and productive ways.

Here at Baylor, as we (faculty, students and families, and alumni) remain strong in our commitment of being a Christian institution that aims to influence the world through our research and development of teachers, our stance on literacy (what it means, how it has evolved, and its role in people’s lives) absolutely matters. How we value literacy, the way it shapes our lives, and the way it shapes others’ lives influences how we value others. And how we value others reflects our Christian faith. Literacy, then, is strongly tied to love, social justice, and equity. 

We have come so far in the past 100 years. The question remains: how will we use what we now know to shape the next 100 years in more expansive and equitable ways?

Kelly Johnston, Ed.D., is an Assistant Professor of Literacy Education. Dr. Johnston’s areas of interest and specialization include sociocultural, critical, and affective theories on literacy education; K-8 literacy pedagogy; qualitative research; and university-school partnerships seeking to improve literacy teaching and learning while empowering teachers and students comprised of diverse populations. Along with her research on affective engagement with literacies, Dr. Johnston is currently examining children’s experiences in REACH, an after-school program that integrates literacy and physical education. Her most recent scholarly work is the co-authored article Rootedness Research: Local Possibility Amid a Cosmopolitan Network.

Dr. Johnston teaches graduate courses in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction. Before coming to Baylor, Dr. Johnston taught graduate courses at Teachers College, Columbia University, and at The City College of New York.

As a new faculty member in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, I hope to contribute research that reflects expansive notions of literacy, and I believe Waco and surrounding areas are prime places for school-based partnerships that examine what it looks like to push on traditional understandings of literacy, support teachers and school leaders in this work, and explore students’ outcomes.