Are literature and literacy the same thing?

Literacy education often has, as its end goal, the reading of books. It’s a logical beginning and end. After all, if a student struggles to read a book at the beginning of literacy instruction, and is able to at the end, isn’t that the very definition of progress?

But are we actually limiting students by taking “is able to read and analyse a book or article” as a working definition of success in literacy teaching? In the U.K., a student with a A* – C (4-9) grade at GCSE would probably he assumed to be literate. But this doesn’t account for the rehearsal, the practice, the going over and over of the analysis of one text in class. It doesn’t assume that the largest, most insightful pieces of analysis are probably planted and developed by the class teacher. The language paper includes unseen elements, but the passing of exams – exam technique – is a skill in and of itself. It’s a skill quite distinct from what I think literacy means in a daily context.

The functional skills qualifications in English offer an alternative to those who are struggling with GCSE, and they are not as favourably looked upon in terms of “success” at literacy. But the skills in these courses are much better suited to literacy in real situations. The writing elements of these courses focus on necessary professional documents – letters, emails, adverts or press releases. The reading takes the same sorts of texts as sources.

I love literature. I love picking apart a book for its themes and character development and subtexts. But I accept that, for the majority of jobs, these skills aren’t necessary. As educators, I think our focus always needs to be on preparing students for their next step. In my phase of education, that’s university or work. And if my students don’t want to go on to study English Literature, they don’t need to be able to analyse Hard Times. They need to be able to understand their timetable, their employment contract, their first tax form. They need to be able to read an article or a magazine and be able to identify its bias, to recognise if something they see online is fake news.

It would be a shame if we were able to teach a generation of students to understand the books on the syllabus, but not leave them prepared to take on basic life tasks. In the next blog post, I’ll focus on ways we can inject “life” skills in to English teaching.

In the meantime, what do you think? Does understanding literature automatically denote literature? I’d love to hear other people’s take on this.

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