Traditionally, literacy has been understood as the ability to use arithmetic, read and write. However, today literacy has been expanded to include other areas of life. Some of the areas included in the new definition of literacy include ability to use computers, images, language and numbers. Other areas included in the definition include ability to communicate and understand, ability to use dominant cultural symbols, and ability to gain useful knowledge. In Europe, the definition is extended to ability to understand complex contexts and ability to use technology to access knowledge.
In all of the above areas, literacy is founded on developing reading skills that starts by understanding spoken words together with decoding written words, and culminates at understanding texts. Once the reading skills have been acquired, the reader is able to attain literacy. Literacy in this case refers to the ability to apply critical analysis to printed materials, ability to use information from texts to make informed decisions and ability to write both accurately and coherently.
The theory of the concept of literacy is broad, but it has to include competency in reading and writing as well as applying these skills in other areas of life. Without the application of the reading and writing skills to other areas of life, one cannot be considered to be literate. However, because of the cultural differences, the application of reading and writing skills in life might differ from culture to the other. It might also differ from one group of people in a community to the other group (Szwed 15). This, however, does not restrict literacy to reading and writing skills only. It extends it to other areas of life that are affected by its application.
Personally, I understand a literacy event through the process and outcomes of that event. The process in this case refers to the methods used to generate competency in an area of life whereas the outcomes refer to the end result of the competency in that area of life. The process has to involve reading and writing skills whereas the outcomes have to involve the application of these skills. In the absence of the three aspects, there is no literacy no matter the cultural differences.
Szwed has questioned the unequal distribution of literacy among different groups of people. He has specifically questioned the range of what can be written and read among lawyers, teachers and doctors (Szwed 5). The author gives an impression that it would be wrong for literacy level to differ from one profession to the other or within one profession. However, I say that there is no problem with this difference because literacy is not in the differences of its levels, but in what the people can accomplish with it.
In terms of functions and context, Szwed says that the ability to read public signs may take considerably more or less than the ability to read a book (Szwed 10). He creates an impression that literacy in a public event is quite different from literacy in a private event. His argument is that ability to read signs involve different sets of skills from the skills involved in private reading. I say that the functions and contexts of literacy do not change. They remain to be the ability to understand spoken words and decode written words so that a person can understand texts. In this case, the ability to read a sign does not change. The fact remains that if a person is able to decode the written words on the sign and understand the sign, then that person is literate. Conversely, if the person is not able to decode the written words on the sign and understand the sign, then the person is illiterate no matter the position of the person in the community. As far as I am concerned, the distinction between public and private events is meant to complicate the issue further which should not be the case.
In terms of looking for literacy from its natural habitat, I would start by designing a questionnaire that would specifically address the reading and writing skills. The questionnaire would also address the differences among the groups of people living within a community. Some of the differences that would be addressed in the questionnaire would include the age and gender of respondents, their social status and roles in the community (Szwed 15). Generally, the questionnaire would focus its attention on the distribution of ability to read and write in the community, the relationship between these abilities and the critical role that reading and writing play in the community. My focus in this case would be to evaluate the extent at which the reading skills affect the way the members of the community write accurately and coherently, use information from texts to make informed decisions and apply their reading skills to analyze printed materials.
Literacy cannot be defined in terms of reading and writing skills only. It should also be defined in terms of what one can do with the reading and writing skills to be competent in a particular area of life. Inasmuch as cultural differences and other differences in life affect the level of literacy, the outcomes of literacy have to be seen in other areas of life because this is what defines literacy.
Szwed, John. The ethnography of literacy. Writing: The nature, development, and teaching of written communication. Ed. Marcia Farr Whiteman. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum associates, 1981. Print.