Supporting Research

Understanding Literacy

Before we can define best practices for literacy programs, we have to spell out, in some way, our general understanding of what constitutes literacy. The best practices themselves will then articulate our philosophy of literacy in concrete terms and guide our programs.

Literacy is much more complex than it first appears. In today’s world, there are many different understandings of it. For example, the dominant model of literacy has been one of a single phenomenon that consisted of an “autonomous, neutral and universal set of skills” (Street: 2003, xiii). In other words, it focused on reading and writing print and numbers, and usually in the dominant national language. More recently, other, more complex, models of literacy have emerged that try to describe the complexity and meanings of literacy in people’s everyday lives (Collins & Blot, 2003). These models tend to see literacy as a social practice, embedded in particular cultures. Literacy may change from situation to situation: for example, it may look different in the home, the community, the group to which people belong, the workplace, and so on. These models involve more complex symbol systems that include written-linguistic, oral, visual, audio and gestural ways of making meaning (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000).

The NWT literacy strategy document, Towards Literacy: A Strategy Framework—2001-2005 (Dept. of ECE, 2001), reflects the north’s commitment to maintaining and enhancing the use of the eleven official languages in the NWT (English, French, Cree, Chipewyan, Dogrib, South Slavey, North Slavey, Gwich’in, Inuvialuktun, Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut). It defines literacy as: