Defining Literacy: Paradise, Nightmare, or Red Herring?

Roberts, Peter.  “Defining Literacy: Paradise, Nightmare, or Red Herring?”  British Journal of Educational Studies 43.4 (1995): 412-432.  Web.

One Sentence Summary

Attempts to define literacy (qualitative, quantitative, and pluralistic) are political in nature and largely fail due to totalizing or essentializing; a pluralistic approach is most tenable.


Literacy, Illiteracy, Quantitative, Qualitative, Pluralist

Claims to Keep

“There can never be a single, fixed, timeless definition of literacy.” (425)

“I want to take a slightly different stance here and suggest that while the task of defining literacy (in the singular) is a red herring, the goal of seeking a certain clarity in discussion different literacies is of continuing importance.” (429)

Claims to Question

“In addition, the sheer number of and variety of definitions is staggering in magnitude and, from one perspective, thoroughly confusing: literacy, it seems, can mean whatever people want it to mean” (419)

I wonder if the latter part of this claim is a bit exaggerated. While it stands to reason that definitions of literacy are widely variable, I imagine threads, perhaps tenuous at times, connecting them all, which is different than having it mean whatever I want it to mean, i.e., I would like to see a definition that could not be threaded back toward other definitions.


This piece by Roberts explores the contended definitions and conceptions of literacy.  Roberts explores the political (power) issues that arise from attempts to define literacy and points first to the inadequacies of quantitative definitions, though he does mention how rhetorically powerful ostensible empirical definitions can be for policymakers.  Roberts moves on to qualitative definitions which he characterizes as situated in an unhappy, muddy middle between pluralist and quantitative definitions.  Finally, Roberts looks to pluralist conceptions of literacy (or rather literacies) to both make an attempt at common ground and to save the enterprise from postmodern rabbit holes.

I appreciate Roberts call for more historical research of the concept of literacy, I imagine by tracing back the threads or keywords.  What does it mean to read? To write? To listen? To speak? And what other modes might be involved in a definition of literacy?  And what have those terms meant through time and in various contexts?

A passage that troubles the waters a bit for me is found on page 414.  Roberts discusses the conception of literacy in terms of reading ages, e.g., 5th grade reading level, 8th grade, high school, etc.  Since I teach freshman composition, I sometimes throw around (and hear thrown around) phrases like “college writing” pretty nonchalantly.  What exactly do I mean when I say this?  Am I attempting to quantitatively define literacy when I do this?  And when asked to elaborate, do I resort to qualitative definitions?

It seems to me that a worthy project throughout this semester will be to gather and become conversant in a number of definitions or conceptions of literacy, and to be able to articulate how those definitions  or conceptions might be marshaled depending on the context at hand.

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