What comes to your mind when someone mentions the word literacy?
Literacy means, of course, the ability to read and write – but in a broader sense it also refers to a wider set of skills and competencies, often accompanied by a varying prefix.
Media literacy, information literacy, data literacy, health literacy and future literacy – these are just some of the phrases that can be encountered in the education field.
What should one make of the different ways to approach literacy? Is literacy as a word becoming overstretched and diluted?
“I suppose there is a danger of getting a bit lost in the diverse terminology around literacy, particularly when the way certain terms are being used varies in different languages,” says Finnish literacy researcher Sari Sulkunen.
“But as the variety of different forms of text and communication we encounter in our daily lives has expanded, I feel it is only natural that literacy as a word is also gaining new meanings and nuances,” she continues.
Is literacy as a word becoming overstretched and diluted?
One widely used umbrella term to depict the different aspects of literacy is multiliteracy. Instead of focusing solely on written text, the term bundles together the ability to acquire, interpret, produce and evaluate different forms of data. Multiliteracy includes communication technologies such as the internet, multimedia and digital media, and also highlights linguistic diversity.
“Some might argue that multiliteracy as a term is so broad that it doesn’t really mean anything. But I think it is important to have a concept that at least attempts to reflect and encapsulate all the societal changes affecting literacy,” Sulkunen explains.
Will a digitalised world kill off the written word?
The expanding concept of literacy is also reflected in Sulkunen’s working title, as she is the associate professor in multiliteracies at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland.
Sulkunen is particularly interested in learning and teaching disciplinary literacy – the literacy of a specific discipline or profession – in educational contexts, and the role of literacy learning in a lifelong perspective.
Ending up working with literacy research and education, Sulkunen says, was mostly a coincidence.
“I was about to graduate as a Finnish language and literature teacher, but then heard about an assistant position in a literacy research project. I applied and got the job, and ended up really liking the work. So, I guess I got lucky,” she says.
Since the 1990s, Sulkunen has worked in several international reading literacy assessments, such as the OECD’s programme for international student assessment (PISA) and the programme for international assessment of adult competencies (PIAAC). She has also served as a member of the European Commission’s high-level group on literacy.
In Finland, particularly the recent declining PIAAC results have fuelled the debate around literacy. Some worry that, even if Finland has previously become known as the model student in literacy, this might soon change as children and teenagers read less and less.
In the future, might we see an increasing number of adults with weak basic literacy skills? Will the endless content stream of the digitalised world kill off the written word?
”It is very difficult to predict the future,” Sulkunen says. “But I don’t think it is necessary to pit reading and writing against all the new literacy skills needed in the digital world. In fact, I think that would be misleading as the fact is that, in the modern world, we need all those skills.”
Even if people might spend less time reading written texts than before, Sulkunen continues, they might spend the time learning other crucial literacy skills, such as communicating on new digital platforms, navigating social media etiquette, or creating their own multimedia content. Those are all valid and important things, she emphasises.
Complex world requires complex skills
Despite the predictions of reading and writing skills becoming obsolete in the future, Sulkunen has yet to see any real signs pointing in this direction.
In fact, she points out that, in some ways, the ability to read has become even more essential than before in our society.
“Many basic services are increasingly only accessible online or via various forms. In banks, for example, it might be difficult to get customer service from a real person these days. People are expected to interpret and produce quite complex and varied written information whilst using many basic services,” Sulkunen says.
Situational variety and complexity also aptly describe the general demands for literacy in the future, Sulkunen believes. With all the new platforms and digital environments, we constantly need to re-evaluate how meanings are being created and interpreted in various settings.
People are expected to interpret and produce complex written information whilst using basic services.
Moreover, Sulkunen continues, critical thinking or critical literacy should be approached not only as the ability to spot disinformation from facts. After all, all texts, including traditional newspaper articles or formal documents, have been produced from a certain position or agenda, and carry certain preconceived notions about the world with them.
“There is no denying that this complexity asks quite a lot from us and our literacy skills. Critical literacy is particularly challenging, as many platforms encourage instant reaction and sharing, so there is very little time for consideration and analysis.”
Making new forms of literacy visible
Despite all the challenges, Sulkunen is not particularly worried about the future of literacy.
So far, the weakest readers in Finland have been elderly adults, who went through the basic education system before the school reform of 1968, which introduced the comprehensive school system accessible to everyone. Since then, the school system and pedagogy around literacy have been continuously developing, Sulkunen argues.
However, there is no denying that, compared to children and teenagers, adults still have very limited opportunities for improving and expanding their literacy skills in formal education. Overall, questions on adult literacy mostly remain at the margins of the public literacy discussion in Finland.
How can adults acquire the diverse literacy skills required in the modern world? Should adults also have access to multiliteracy education?
According to Sulkunen, a good starting point in educating adults is going to places and situations in which they are already using and developing their literacy skills. This could mean collaboration with the social services, for example.
A good start would be to educate adults in situacions in which they are already using their literacy skills.
For most adults, learning new literacies takes place in working life. The so-called vocational or professional literacies – various text and media skills required in a specific profession – can also be helpful in making the diversity of literacy more visible, Sulkunen believes.
“Many of those who gravitate towards vocational education and manual work, for example, might not identify as readers. But the concept of multiliteracy can help them identify and acknowledge new types of literacies in their work,” Sulkunen says.
“This, again, could make the concept of literacy more accessible and approachable for many.”
She then shares an anecdote on what this might look like in practice. Recently, Sulkunen says, she prepared a presentation on multiliteracy, and wanted to include an example of vocational literacy.
She ended up doing a simple chart of the different types of literacies a HVAC installer might use during their working day.
“I showed the chart to a plumber in my family and was quite surprised by the clear pride they took in it. There were all these important literacy skills that they had – they just had not been visible before.”