No single, unitary referent for 'literacy' by Doug Belshaw on Flickr.

Blog # 4: Workers and Literacy

Literacy —”using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential” (USDE NCES, 2007, p. 246)—is important to US workers. A slightly extended definition of literacy is “the knowledge and skills needed by adults, in life and at work, to use information from various texts (e.g., news stories, editorials, manuals, brochures) in various formats (e.g., texts, maps, tables, charts, forms, time tables). [Adults need the] ability to retrieve, compare, integrate, and synthesize information from texts and to make inferences, among other skills” (IES).

In this image, “Digital Natives,” (Cristóbal Cobo Romaní, used here courtesy of a CC license), we see young children learning to use the tools of digital media production and consumption. In media and communication studies, the generations who have grown up with the internet and ubiquitous personal computing are sometimes describes as “digital natives” who intuitively understand how to use and communicate via digital and social media. What do you think of this description? Does everyone have equal access to such tools from an early age? Does simply having access to such tools result in enhanced digital literacy?

Many of us are unaware of the extent of literacy problems in the US and mistakenly assume the US has among the highest literacy rates in the world. While reported statistics vary depending on the survey and organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey indicates the U.S. ranks “16th out of 23 countries in literacy proficiency, 21st in numeracy proficiency, and 14th in problem solving in technology-rich environments” (Rogers, 2013). Who’s ahead of the US in literacy proficiency? A number of countries, including (in order) Japan, Finland, Netherlands, Australia, Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Belgium, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Canada, Korea, UK, Denmark, and Germany (OECD, p. 29).

While technical communicators address an international audience, they also address a US audience, one that is definitely not homogeneous. The National Adult Literacy Survey, a comprehensive measure of adult literacy in the US, has reported that 11 million adults in the US have limited literacy: 7 million who could not answer simple test questions and 4 million more who could not take the test because of language barriers (USDE, 2003). Many of these adults are in the workplace and may need to read print and digital artifacts—ranging from parts inventories and labels to instructions and warnings. Simply put, many cannot read at all, and others can have very limited abilities, unable, for example, to select needed information from a table or from a paragraph.

Does illiteracy or limited literacy matter in the US workplace? In discussing effects of illiteracy on business, Gail Sessoms (2103) says yes: “Workers who cannot read and interpret basic signs and instructions compromise safety, slow production and cause errors that affect profits, customer satisfaction, and compliance with laws and regulatory requirements. Illiteracy also affects the ability of workers to communicate with each other and function as teams.”

Posting: Group 1

Commenting: Group 2

Category: Workers and Literacy

For this blog post, you need to move beyond these statistics and begin thinking about the overall problem of literacy in new ways. Concentrate on complicating issues related to literacy in order to better understand it, much like Glenda Hull, a professor at UC Berkeley, does in her book, Changing Workers: Critical Perspectives on Language, Literacy, and Skills. She urges us to consider alternative points of view about literacy and reassess what we mean by literacy. In the opening of her book, she argues that research challenges widespread notions about worker literacy and says that “many current characterizations of literacy, literacy at work, and workers as illiterate—as deficient—are inaccurate, incomplete, and misleading” (1997, p. 4). Consider the questions below (or similar ones you create) as starting places as you craft your post:

  • Should we consider textual literacy a single competency—or do multiple kinds of textual literacies exist?
  • What is the role of textual literacy in the 21st century workplace?
  • Are workers who have limited or no textual literacy better at “new” literacies, for example gaming literacies or visual literacies? (Consider James Paul Gee’s article, “What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy” as one important contribution to this discussion.)
  • How can technical communicators ensure that workers have access to critical information—especially information to ensure safety and productivity, to enable effective interactive, to increase job performance, and so on?

In your Blog #3 post, you need to take a focused position about literacy in the workplace rather than taking a scattered approach (which would happen if you simply wrote a few sentences in response to each question). Please carefully read and follow the guidelines and posting information (links in the menu bar) for this blog. You can quote from additional articles you read as support for your position. You should include specific workplace examples of textual (and other) literacies to further support your argument. Make sure to document your sources.

Sources Cited:

Hull, Glenda, Ed. (1997). Changing Workers: Critical Perspectives on Language, Literacy, and Skills. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

NB: If you have a little more time and are particularly interested in literacy problems, listen to a brief podcast of Dr. Hull contextualizing literacy in elementary education, “New Literacies, the Common Core, and ELLs”:

Institute of Education Sciences (IES). National Center for Educational Statistics.

NB: It’s a huge site, so only skim the menus, just enough to know what’s available.

Rogers, Megan. (2013). Troubling stats on adult literacy. Inside Higher Ed.

Sessoms, Gail. (2013). Effects of illiteracy on business. Chron.

US Department of Education (USDE). (2003). National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL).

NB: The site has a lot of information. Only skim briefly, just enough to know what’s available.

U.S. Department of Education (USDE), National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (2007). The Condition of Education 2007 (NCES 2007–064), Indicator 18.

NB: It’s a l-o-n-g document, so only briefly skim the table of contents, just enough to know what’s in the document.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). (2013). OECD Skills Outlook for 2013. First results from the survey of adult skills. OECD Publishing.

NB: This is another l-o-n-g document, so, minimally, skim the Table of Contents briefly, just enough to know what’s in the document, and read the Executive Summary, pages 23-24. If you have a little more time and are particularly interested in this problem on a worldwide scale, read the Overview, pages 25-43, which has a very accessible discussion about implications and key points for policy.

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Dr. Robin Wharton | 25 Park Place #2434 | Office Hours: M/W 9:30 to 10:30, T/Th 2:30 to 3:30

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