12/10/2013 12:28 EST | Updated 02/09/2014 05:59 EST

Literacy Doesn't Mean What You Think

A quick search of web-based resources yielded 17 different types of subject-related literacy, but these initiatives are really more about promoting general awareness and knowledge of a specific subject area than they are about literacy as a foundational skill.

For International Literacy Day in September I wrote about how our understanding of literacy has evolved, moving from the literacy/illiteracy dichotomy that people were concerned about in the 1980s to a more nuanced understanding of levels of literacy and the importance of lifelong learning.

Taking the question of what we mean by "literacy" a little further, a current topic of discussion around the CLLN office has been the impact of the "literacies" trend on what we do as an organization that promotes adult literacy and learning.

What are "literacies"? For our purposes here, we are talking about a fairly recent trend of putting a variety of subject terms in front of the word "literacy" in order to frame a campaign aimed at increasing awareness and understanding.

For example, some years ago the term "health literacy" started appearing regularly; it's been used in professional health circles, by policy makers, and in the popular press. Health literacy is about increasing the level of knowledge and awareness of basic concepts and skills that can help people to better manage their own health and make good decisions for the health of themselves and their families.

More recently, "financial literacy" has been appearing with increasing frequency. The growth of this concept correlates strongly to concerns about levels of consumer debt. Similarly to health literacy, financial literacy initiatives seek to raise general awareness about aspects of the financial industry and provide information to help people better manage their finances and thereby avoid potential problems.

In both of these instances, promoting "literacy" really means increasing awareness and knowledge about a particular part of everyday life. The health and financial literacy initiatives have been targeted to the general public (i.e. non-experts) and make a commendable effort to use clear language for informing a broad audience. Specific campaigns have been developed to reach targeted population segments, such as high-school students, women and older Canadians.

It's interesting to note that Media Literacy Week, the subject of my last Huffington Post article, was formerly called Media Awareness Week. Using the word "literacy" is a tactic that is gaining traction among many groups working to raise the profile of their particular area of concern. "Geo-literacy" is another fairly recent innovation aimed at young people.

A quick search of web-based resources yielded 17 different types of subject-related literacy, but these initiatives are really more about promoting general awareness and knowledge of a specific subject area than they are about literacy as a foundational skill.

So where is the "literacy" in these "literacies"? Do initiatives like these actually help to improve literacy levels in the population? Do they serve those with low or very low levels of literacy as measured by international surveys of adult competencies? And do these literacies help or hinder efforts to provide learning opportunities to people with low literacy skills?

These are important questions, and CLLN isn't claiming to have definitive answers -- but we do want to have the conversation.

The last thing CLLN wants to do is stake a claim to the word "literacy" and attempt to reserve it for those teaching foundational literacy skills, either to children or adults. When it comes to teaching adult literacy in developed nations like Canada, I've sometimes wondered if we may have focused too much on the literacy side of the equation and not enough on the whole person coping with low literacy skills.

Almost all adults with low literacy skills have developed amazing coping skills and many lead successful lives by most indicators. A criticism that has been levelled at the findings of the international literacy surveys is that large numbers of employed people in advanced economies seem to be doing just fine despite low literacy levels.

But we also know that low literacy levels are strongly linked to other issues, including poverty, lower health status, poor financial decisions, and under/unemployment. As the availability of well-paid/low-skilled employment declines, those with low literacy levels are likely to be disproportionately impacted and less likely to adapt to changing work conditions or make successful career transitions.

Reaching many of the low-skilled and at-risk individuals in our society simply won't happen if we expect all of them to come to service organizations for upskilling. There are opportunities to reach many more individuals through the issues people identify with: "my health isn't good"..."I can't seem to keep track of my money"..."I'm worried about the new technology at work."

Health literacy, financial literacy and digital literacy initiatives are not enough on their own, but this trend opens up significant opportunities to embed approaches to adult literacy within programs developed to address these life issues, both at work and in the community. There are also opportunities for adult educators to use some of the materials developed through this "proliferation of literacies" to better connect their programs with the real lives of adult learners.

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