In a 2017 interview with Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter, the cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg (author of Language at the Speech of Sight) described the transition from discussions of “reading” to ones of “literacy” in education circles over the last few decades. I think that by now, the use of the latter term is now taken entirely for granted, but it’s not a minor point at all—it’s actually quite major, and it highlights the gap between public perception of the issues at play and the reality of them.
I suspect that when most people hear the term “literacy,” they understand it as a synonym for “reading,” in the sense that a child who is literate is able to pick up a written text, decode it, and comprehend it in a meaningful way. But as Seidenberg points out, the shift from “reading” to “literacy” was actually a clever linguistic sleight of hand: because so many children were failing to learn to read under the instructional methods provided for them, switching the focus to the more general concept of “literacy” and surrounding it with high-minded verbiage about “visual and cultural elements” and “making meaning” allowed the educational establishment an easy out.
Rather than admit that children were not learning to read and using the considerable evidence available to consider how it could genuinely be remedied, the educational establishment simply moved the goalposts sometime and declared that the ability to understand written words was only one type of literacy, arguably no more important than any other type of literacy: technological, visual, etc. Hence the focus on images rather than text.
Incidentally, at one point I was planning to write a satirical piece about how the switch from “reading” to “literacy” wasn’t enough, and that sooner or later ed schools would start hawking the idea of “multiple literacies.” But then it occurred to me that it just had to be a real thing, and sure enough it was. (Yes, this is what goes on in ed school!)
The message is clear: don’t worry if children can’t read written text because they’re literate in so many other, wonderful ways. And in any case, it’s small-minded and biased to define literacy so narrowly because, well, the twenty-first century and social justice and all that.
Yes, the the ability to analyze images and use technology effectively is very important, but these skills are in no way substitutes for understanding the written word.
In Leaving Johnny Behind, his fascinating study of the education world’s resistance to explicit, systematic phonics instruction, the retired teacher and principal Anthony Pedriana describes the extraordinary, persistent gaslighting and distortion techniques employed by the whole language movement:
There is something almost Orwellian about the situation. One faction manages to maintain primacy by engaging in a continuous campaign of misinformation and plausible deniability. They ignore the data, obfuscate its message, and make unwarranted claims in opposition to it. These claims have little basis in scientific fact, but they are so ubiquitous in the literature, and are so appealing to adult sensibilities, that few are willing to take issue with them.
The slippage from “reading” to “literacy” is a perfect illustration of this phenomenon. Who, after all, would argue that students should not become visually or technologically literate?
On some level, you have to admire this kind of rhetorical warfare, the way it’s succeeded in dictating the terms of the discussion to the point at which it is difficult for many of the players to even imagine an alternate framework.
Indeed, it is a measure of the narrative’s success that it is almost impossible to convey the sheer magnitude of the problem, to explain the lunacy of ideas that are considered mainstream, without it coming off as a tad, shall we say, hysterical. And that in turn allows advocates of Balanced Literacy to dismiss their critics as being hyperbolic, excessive, maybe even a little unhinged, all the while gloating over their own success at blocking the adoption of effective methods based on science—or, as they would put it, “science” (or perhaps just “fake news”). As Pedriana puts it, the response is too often “sarcastic and juvenile.”
If this were merely an academic squabble, the vitriol might seem almost comic, but a huge percentage of real children who do not receive quality reading instruction really do not learn to read, with devastating lifelong consequences.
Exhausting as it may be, I think that it is crucial to maintain outrage over this state of affairs, because the stakes are so incredibly high and the consequences so extreme, not just for the children who end up unable to decode print beyond a very basic level but for the society as a whole that must ultimately bear the consequences of their—let’s call it what it is—illiteracy.
To Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that “[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter,” I would say this: it does not matter how many newspapers a country has—although, for the record, the United States has fewer and fewer all the time—if two-thirds of the populace cannot read well enough to understand them.