Complicating Notions of Literacy

Heath, Shirley Brice.  “Protean Shapes in Literary Events: Ever-Shiting Oral and Literate Traditions.”  Literacy:  A Critical Sourcebook.  Eds.  Ellen Cushman, Mike Rose, Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry Kroll.  New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.  2001.  Print.

One Sentence Summary

In this case study, residents of Trackton (southeast US) enacted various modes of literacy (reading, writing, listening, speaking, viewing and performing) in manners not associated with widespread representations of literacy.


AAVE, multimodal literacy, literacy, illiteracy, cased study

Significant passage

“Descriptions of literacy events and their patterns of uses in Trackton do not enable us to place the community somewhere on a continuum from full literacy to restricted literacy or nonliteracy.  Instead, it seems more appropriate to think of two continua, the oral and the written.  Their points and extent of overlap, and similarities in structure and function, follow one pattern for Trackton, but follow others for communities with different cultural features.” (p 461)


In this chapter of her case study, Heath reports the literacy practices of folks who live in a semi-rural town populated predominately by African-Americans.  One of the important points Heath makes is that the distinction between oral and literate practices are determined by individual communities; in other words, a strict delineation between the two is likely a false dichotomy, and certainly is in this particular circumstance   I think this is an important point because it begins to complicate the notion of what a literate practice is.  All throughout the writing, Heath reports that people move from oral to written modes fluently, one building off or setting the ground for the other.  This was particularly clear in the prayer said at a church service; the written text served as a groundwork from which a more elaborated oral performance was given.  In this performative orality, the style, Heath reports, was significantly different (intonation, prosody, etc.) and the two modes, Heath notes, even had different grammars.

What becomes clear to me as I read through this piece is that if literacy is defined through a number of, then, to varying degrees, six modes appear in this community: reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and performing.  The latter two are perhaps the least obvious, though a careful examination appears to demonstrate even these.  When Heath explains the initiation process employees go through at a mill, she reports that new hires must watch (view) seasoned workers throughout a day.  Later, near the end of a shift, those same new hires are paired with a mentor to work at a specific machine or at a specific task, and in so doing perform the activity he or she will be learning in an apprentice-like manner.

One thing I take away from this reading is an appreciation for the situatedness of literacy; in other words, the contexts from which we emerge should be taken into consideration when attempting to define or place individuals and communities within a wide-ranging literacy spectrum.  Also, I appreciate the complications of the concept of literacy, and the acknowledgement (albeit tacit) of how the spectrum metaphor of literacy (which I take to be linear and ranging from nonliterate to fully literate) can be problematic.


One thought on “Complicating Notions of Literacy

  1. Hi Joe! After I finished reading this chapter in Heath’s case study, I concluded that literacy for the town of Trackton was a combination of reading, writing, and speaking, but I like that you pointed out the other elements of literacy that can be taken away from this chapter: listening, viewing, and performing. These were not obvious to me until you pointed them out. Trackton’s culture of communication and literacy is primarily based on the interactions between community members. As you highlighted, these interactions are not limited to discussing forms or newspaper articles amongst neighbors, or developing the skill to tell an engaging story. They are also the acts of listening to these stories, making observations of the world that enhance the stories being told, and performing these stories (or in the case of the school teacher in church, performing a prayer while connecting mingling the written word with an oral interpretation). It is interesting how these are all connected to each other and how one influences the other and so forth. Great observation! –Lisa Pignotti

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