Thoughts on ‘literacy across the curriculum’ from my students

The university course is now almost a fortnight old, and the 90 postgraduate students have all begun their blogs. The course is called “Literacy across the curriculum”, and the students have been writing about their current understanding of the term ‘literacy’, their response to the question But I’m not an English teacher: is literacy really my business?, our textbook, and the various discussions and sessions we’ve had together.

We’re trying to find some way of making these blogs available for all the students to read. Some have public blogs, such as Charmaine’s  The Write Words , Amy’s Inky Ponderances,  Michelle’s Readin’ and Writin’, Mat’s Stuff that happened and Brad’s 21st Century Education.

But there’s lots of other stimulating writing from other students too. Until we’ve found a way of making more of these blogs accessible, here is a selection from a few of them:


What is literacy? To many the term refers exclusively to reading and writing. I have a very different view. “Literacy is the ability to authentically participate in a given context.” By this definition possibly the most literate folk to have ever existed were the Japanese Ninja. Their job description not only included killing people without leaving marks, but such diverse activities as ettiquete, diplomacy, languages, singing, dancing, and many more, such that they could participate authentically in any context; they could blend in. To be illiterate is to feel uncomfortable, unable, out of place.


I struggle with the simplicity of the definition that describes ‘literacy’ as ‘being able to read and write, or to understand something.’  By this definition I consider myself to be highly literate in some languages, fields, and discourses but completely and utterly illiterate in others.  If I was to compile a list of those texts and discourses that I am able to deeply understand (such as academic papers in archaeology, textbooks on educational theory, letters from my grandparents, Hollywood blockbusters, etc) and those that I can’t (Indigenous Australian Art, spoken or written Mandarin, academic papers in particle physics, etc.) the balance is well in favour of those forms of knowledge of which I have no hope of understanding at my current level of education. I am, by these criteria, illiterate in most areas of human experience. But within my social and cultural context I am literate, and have managed to get through 12 years of schooling, about 6 years of university (and counting), many jobs, and have not been a complete social misfit. Clearly, the social and cultural context of literacy cannot be taken for granted.

So where does this leave me, a SOSE teacher in training, pondering the question of what role I have in teaching ‘literacy’? Where do I begin? Before students even enter my class they have to demonstrate literacy in any number of intertwining and colliding worlds. Bus timetables, street signs, roll call, uniforms, codes of behaviour, bells, sirens, lining up, how to speak to peers, how to speak to teachers, class schedules, room numbers…literacy is a big deal in real life! Then there are the academic requirements of my class. Students, despite their protestations that essays are what they do in English, are graded on their ability to communicate in written and spoken English, and to conform to particular generic characteristics depending on whether they are producing a report, a persuasive essay, a poem, a role-play as a medieval serf or as an academic historian. The nuts and bolts of the English language are integral to their being able to succeed in this. Finally, we pile on discipline-specific literacy. Students need to be able to read a History textbook (or Geography, Legal Studies, etc.), a map, a primary document (whatever form it might take), photographs, paintings…etc. and understand mathematical ideas such as trigonometry, area, and probability. Come to think of it – I would struggle to think of ANYTHING that could possibly be taught that is not ‘literacy’ – understanding and being understood, and interpreting and making meanings from symbols within a specific context.


I am radically opposed to the idea that the purpose of education is the creation of a future workforce. To prepare my students for the world that they will find outside of school, I would attempt to teach critical reasoning and compassion, to create an ethically and intellectually developing individual.


I asked my research subject if she remembered first becoming interested in reading. She said that she hadn’t really seen the point for quite a while and that what she remembered liking as a young kid was going outside and getting lost in her own world that way. It took a while before she realised that she could do that through books as well.
She told me that she remembered being small and looking up at her parents’ bookcases towering above her! …. She said that it had made her curious to know about the ‘worlds’ inside them …

I am, by my own admission, woefully financially illiterate. When I have to think about superannuation, childcare benefit rebates or tax returns, my mind goes cloudy; I try to avoid the subject; I think of all kinds of good reasons why I don’t need to focus on these details. I imagine that most people must experience some kind of comparable mental ‘fog’ when confronted with their illiteracy/cies.

I am finding it a relief to finally be in a classroom such as this. Studying and teaching literacy feels central to what I find important; it’s central to who I am.


So the long and the short of it is that now I’m getting excited. Thoughts are skipping through my fuddled brain and I’m thinking of all the connections we make that aren’t formally considered literacy yet are a way of understanding that denotes we have to have drawn upon a prior knowledge to make those connections. Is that a form of literacy? Are we talking of literacy as a way of making things understood. A form of expression and understanding that is successful in itself by being understood.


Some thought on my own reading, based on discussion with Steve during tute. I’m a lazy reader when I’m reading for a purpose other than entertainment. I tend to skim read, skip to summaries or just read the start and end of paragraphs. I picked up this habit as a PhD student and never really broke it – there was always so much to read, and more papers coming out all the time. Also, much of what’s written in a paper isn’t really important except for the abstract unless it is immediately relevant to your own research. As an academic I have generally taught large classes and frequently had hundreds of lab reports, essays, exams to mark. So again, it is partly to preserve sanity that skim reading becomes a habit. I’ve also noticed that the more closely I read a student’s work the fewer marks I give because the more I pick up small errors, evidence of not really understanding, etc. Other reading for preparing classes etc has generally been the same – searching for the right equation, a good diagram, a nice example or some specific data. In contrast, when I read for pleasure I read every word, and often read a sentence or paragraph a few times when I come across an interesting idea or a clever analogy, etc. I enjoy words and read a bit of a poetry, a couple of novels a week typically including at least one science fiction. I enjoy well written books with no plot (but not Samuel Beckett, ever, at all) as well as good stories. Some books I return to every few years, and read again. It took me a couple of years after finishing my PhD to be able to read fiction again without automatically skipping around looking for the key ideas, I still find myself doing it now and then.


It began with learning the alphabet and, before that was even mastered, asking questions constantly of any sign, anywhere, anytime, “what is that letter? What about the last one? The one that looks like a circle?” Shapes and numbers were also a part of the questioning, and a lot of repetition, but not as a punishment for getting it wrong, rather as an encouraging opportunity to show the new knowledge was remembered, to feel accomplishment.

This moved onto words on cereal boxes, ads on the television or in the newspaper, short books with lots of pictures, the numbers of the fuel prices at the petrol station, the cost of cured meats or chicken at the delhi in the supermarket (even ordering from the deli – “Excuse me, I would like 400grams of devon, please.” All be it on tiptoe.) Also, with numeracy, not only was there counting and recognising numbers, but also counting in patterns, by 10’s 5’s, 2’s. Addition and “lots of” (multiplication) were all also a part of my pre-schooling education, and looking back personally and having conversed with my parents about it, the reason was not to give an inflated sense of self-importance or accomplishment, but rather the prepare my mind with the tools necessary for learning, to awaken a love of learning and a desire to seek out opportunities to do so. Car trips and visiting relatives or friends were also the most sought after times to play these games, which often then began including our cousins or friends. Even as a small child, I remember the smiles of joy and happiness (sounds a little corny, but kids really do have an ability that we dull as we grow to find satisfaction and joy far more easily in far more places) when my friends and cousins were asked the questions, got them right, or we had to help and give hints. Inclusion, belonging, encouragement and joy are all important parts of the learning process, and something I have resolved that I don’t want to remove from the process, especially with regard to literacy and numeracy skills.
I believe that the inherent joy I have of learning and the ease at which it often occurs is due to the way I was introduced to it all – a safe, fun, encouraging and interesting environment that was about inclusion rather than competition. Competitive aspirations are great, but never when they discourage or dishearten children.


So how do I approach reading to learn? My own strategies often involve knowing what I want to learn – and chasing down the particular piece of information. Unlike English Literature, one does not read a book starting at the beginning and proceeding as the author constructed the book. Often many sections of technical literature are redundant for you as an individual, as you already have learned the concepts. There are many different ways of quickly locating the relevant information: abstracts, contents,introductions, indexes, appendices, and skimming within a selected chapter. But this is when you actually use books and printed journals – which for me has been less and less frequently. Most of my reading has been conducted online for years. I use favourite web resources (slashdot; the register; etc.) but more often use google or other search engines to find my desired content. Then the regular strategies come into play. To retain content, I rewrite and summarise what I have read, or attempt to put a technique into immediate operation, and hopefully document my technique and resource for the technique appropriately – so others can learn and understand the reason for the chosen technique. I have never been strong on underlining, highlighting, writing in margins, etc. – and I guess this is a personal preference. Do I carry questions in my head during my reading? I tend not to write questions down before reading, but I allow my mental questions to shape and guide my reading as stated above. Sometimes I have not even articulated the questions to myself: but if asked for the question, I could answer without hesitation.

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3 Responses to Thoughts on ‘literacy across the curriculum’ from my students

  1. These reflections are so insightful.

  2. readingteach says:

    Wow! I’m jealous, Steve! I would be delighted to have this group of future teacher under my wings. I truly love that each person has their own unique angle and way of looking at literacy and what it means. And isn’t that one of the keys of making meaning, looking at it in different ways?
    The ninja example was great! I might have to steal that as a metaphor to share in my classroom.
    I know that much of this positive reflection is based on how much time and energy you put into preparing for this class. I hope these future teachers realize how truly lucky they are to have you!

  3. Karen LaBonte says:

    The student who described literacy as “the ability to authentically participate in a given context” has got me thinking. So, we ‘read’ a situation, a person’s face, the mood in a waiting room in the same way we ‘read’ a newspaper? While I intuitively and immediately understand where your student is coming from, after a some time thinking, I realize that literacy in ‘fitting in’ is very different than literacy needed to read the newspaper. I think the difference boils down to one factor: language.

    My new question about literacy might go something like this: what is the role of language in our considerations of definitions of literacy?

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