Literacy: what it is, types and stages of development

Literacy: what it is

The learning processes through which we acquire information and knowledge are many and varied, and research into them increasingly takes into account factors and aspects of the environment which influence the development of our ability to learn.

One of these concepts is that of literacy , a term referring to learning processes that takes into account not only individual capacities in terms of reading and writing, but also the influence that the socio-cultural context and the person’s role in this process have.

What is literacy?

Literacy is the concept that refers to the set of competences and skills that enable a person to collect and process information in a given context through reading and converting it into knowledge , which can be expressed orally or through writing.

However, the concept of literacy is characterized by an emphasis on the socio-cultural vision of learning. In other words, it crosses the boundaries of cognitive skills. Literacy not only takes into account recognition and understanding through language, but also recognizes the influence of the social context, the roles and dynamics of the reader and writer, and potential partners.

Types of litter

This socio-cultural conception of learning through written language specifies that several types of literacies can occur . Some of these are the vernacular literacies, which refer to learning to read in everyday life, and the official or regulated literacies.

In addition, there are a large number of areas in which literacy can occur. Theorists of learning have come to propose such as financial literacy, labour literacy, critical literacy, information literacy, digital literacy or disciplinary literacy , to name but a few.

Given this great variability within literacy, the skills and abilities that make a person an expert in a certain type of literacy are also very varied, meaning that the ability to read or write is only one part of the set of skills needed to develop and attain literacy in a specific area.

Key concepts

Two concepts are key to understanding the notion of literacy. These are literacity events and literacity practices.

1. Literacy events

Also known as literate events, they refer to all everyday situations in which written language plays a fundamental role . These literate events become apparent in the reading of signs, posters, forms, pamphlets or documents.

However, in order for these actions to be considered as literacies, the person must possess in his or her repertoire of skills the knowledge of the rules and conformities that are tacitly found in the situation, known as literacies practices.

2. Literacy practice

Literacy practices, or literate practices, encompass the social and cultural rules and conformities mentioned above. These bring meaning to the situation or context in which the act of reading takes place.

What are the principles that govern it?

As a result of what has been described by the theories that define the concept of literacy, we can break down a series of principles by which it is governed. These principles are specified in the following statements:

  • The acquisition and learning of literacy is possible by combining explicit and implicit learning . Moreover, these are given gradually so that they can be improved and perfected.
  • For literacy to occur, the mediation or influence of sociocultural factors is necessary .
  • These skills can be developed beyond the school setting, regardless of socio-cultural group or age.
  • In addition to the ability to understand written letters and symbols , literacy requires knowledge and interpretation of all kinds of representations of information, such as icons and graphics.

Finally, in order to acquire literacy, people require situations or contexts with a significant purpose that allows them to put literacy into practice. In the same way, it is necessary that all kinds of opportunities are presented to apply them in different situations that motivate them to do so.

How does it develop and express itself in learning?

Although there is no “protocol” or fixed and predetermined stages that regulate the process of learning literacy, we can distinguish a series of phases that, although they appear in a diffuse way, serve to guide us in how people acquire these abilities .

There are three moments through which literacy develops: emergent literacy, formal learning, and literacy.

1. Emerging literacies

From the first years of their lives, people are exposed to all kinds of information and messages represented in written form, which they must interpret and work on with their uses and meanings .

Before starting school, the child is surrounded by books, advertisements, brochures and catalogues and all kinds of press or documents with letters and symbols, all associated with the culture to which the child belongs.

This phenomenon, which occurs quite early in literacy or formal learning, is called emergent literacy and can be reflected in a child’s ability to know how to use a book or what the symbols he or she perceives refer to.

2. Formal learning

Next, the school stage begins in which the person acquires the formal skills that allow for reading and writing , as well as phonological skills, which in the beginning consists of learning in itself (learning to read and write) and will become a means of learning other knowledge.

3. Literacy

At the same time as formal learning, the person acquires, gradually and through the experiences of his or her daily life, all the necessary skills that make up literacy.

These situations favour the improvement of these skills which will become specific literacies for each of the subjects.

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