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Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe



Literacy concepts and misconceptions

by Maria Toia
Language: EN
Document available also in: FR ES IT PL DE

Basic skills learning (literacy included) is often seen as the most “disadvantaged” area of adult learning. And from a certain perspective it is. First by looking at how governments, in their race to qualifications and employment, are failing in understanding that no employment strategy can be efficient without complementary basic skills policies. Then we can see how often basic skills learning is misunderstood in relation to its importance as adult learning dimension and how basic skills learners are perceived in society – and I could write a full “myths & reality” blog about that.

Even if we can accept that policy makers have a narrow understanding of basic skills learning, there are still adult learning professionals and experts who minimalise the importance of basic skills learning in comparison to their own bits of adult learning expertise – and I have witnessed myself a lot of such statements. I previously pointed out in one of my previous blogs that a lot of people believe that basic skills must be also basic to teach.

Media and journalists are also contributing to creating a “least inspired and desired” image on basic skills learning and of those adults who are facing difficulties with their basic skills. In my country for example, the media reports from time to time on the latest EU figures on participation in lifelong learning and adults’ skills, with the message “these people didn’t like school and they don’t want to learn”, which perpetuates the perception that these individuals bare the fault for their condition and therefore they are a problematic category for the society.

And let’s not forget the language that is being used to refer to basic skills learning and adult basic skills learners. How often do we, as experts and professionals involved in basic skills learning, use terms such as “low-skilled” or “illiterate”?

We need to educate others and ourselves on why basic skills learning is important and for that we need to use the proper language when we advocate and communicate about it. The ELINET network through its adult team, led by the Institute of Education at the University College London, recently organised a Seminar on Concepts of Literacy hosted by the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning.

The discussions in the seminar were based on the results of a survey on adult literacy-related terminology in European languages, conducted among the networks’ members.  One of the main results of the seminar are a set of guiding principles for the use terminology in advocacy messages and other communications. I will point only a couple of lines and let colleagues discuss this further in future blog posts. According to the ELINET guiding principles, the aim is to use terminology which:

  • uses precise language – for example, how low is “low literacy”?
  • communicates transparently and simply, as appropriate to audience, purpose and context
  • is respectful – when discussing provision, terminology should be suggested and approved by the people we are aiming to serve
  • is positive - avoids contributing to a deficit model
  • recognises that people are not at levels, skills are
  • recognises that ‘a beginner reader [or writer] is not a beginner thinker’
  • is appropriate to linguistic and cultural context, as well as to audience and purpose

The ELINET seminar has a lot of other interesting outcomes and colleagues who led on this event will be invited to present further reflections on the seminar results here on the platform. I am hoping that this topic is of high interest for all of you and I am inviting you to share your though about “literacy concepts and misconception” in the comments area below!

Maria Toia is Director of the Romanian Institute for Adult Education and Executive Committee Member of the European Basic Skills Network. She has an interest in research and policy development for the adult education field, with a focus on adult basic education and professionalisation of adult educators.

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