This definition is under revision.


Literacy is competence in engaging the world by reading, writing, and speaking.

Below I will unpack the components of the definition to clarify my meaning.

Competence: ability to engage appropriately in activities within a particular context or discourse (as defined by Gee in his article “What is literacy?”). Especially an ability to perform basic functions as an informed citizen, such as writing a letter to a representative, comparing referenda on a ballot, and speaking in a town hall meeting. Competence stands in contrast with mastery, which is a desired level of literacy but not requisite.

Engage: building intentional, ethical, and open-minded connections and relationships with differing audiences/discourses. For instance, intentional and ethical connections involve an effort to understand a foreign viewpoint, but not necessarily changing one’s own point of view or belief system.

The world: the inclusive, global milieu. The world operates on all social levels from intimates to local communities to states to countries to inter-cultural exchange to web 2.0.

Reading: a multifaceted, active ability including, but not limited to, decoding, morphology, and fluency in multiple mediums.

Writing: using written words, phrases, and sentences to communicate, tell stories, and record events/data in multiple mediums. In this case, fluency encompasses situational competence (ie: appropriate level of formality depending on the audience).

Speaking: using speech to communicate, tell stories, and describe events/data. Fluency in this area also includes situational competence. Additionally, because of the integral role of communication in this area, listening is an implied activity within speaking.

  The brain   

Or: how learning happens

Humans are storytellers and the rich histories of stories are deep waters to explore. To put it more technically, humans operate in the world as meaning-making entities. From philosophers to theologians, cashiers to CEOs, everyone is trying to make sense of the world and tell their own stories through words or deeds. The chief way we learn to interpret new ideas and experiences is through notions of literacy. As such, literacy is a meaning-finding activity without which we have run aground on a sandbar, never to reach the sea.

Quality literacy teaching across the curriculum is the hull of a well-made ship. It permits young sailors to float atop an ocean of knowledge. Best practices consistently show the advantages of a content-driven, challenging curriculum. What is also clear is that teachers not only need a strong conceptual understanding both of the content and the language of the content but also a firm grasp of the backgrounds of their students. I believe this is true of all teaching, though particularly so for literacy in the content areas; literacy is now explicitly part of pedagogical content knowledge.

The role of domain-specific language is the mast that supports the sail of comprehension. Without a sturdy mast, it is impossible to hoist a sail to catch the wind and navigate the seas; the two are inseparable for anything that could be called content mastery. Which begs the question, how can educators more effectively present new concepts and new vocabulary to facilitate transfer of learning? What (meta)cognitive skills could be incorporated in lessons to support literacy learning in the content areas? Educational researchers offer a variety of questioning frameworks to aid comprehension as well as techniques for word learning. However, educators need to know how those scaffolds and self-regulation skills bolster learning in order to make informed instructional decisions.

But a mast and sail alone don’t head to destinations, someone has to read the map and determine the heading. And like all maps, curricular decisions are made with varying levels of accessibility; some require a certain knowledge base to be useful. Issues of access and equity should always be of concern in education. By explicitly instructing domain-specific language and comprehension skills, students gain access within a one-size-fits-all power structure. For if students are meaning-making entities, then educators must be concerned with both what and how meanings are made. For instance, when prior knowledge of a concept isn’t properly tapped, then it shouldn’t be a surprise that part of the meaning made is the irrelevance of the concept—and another knowledge destination is made inaccessible. In the Common Core era, in which the focus on literacy for all students is heightened, educators need a variety of methods to present information to diverse learners. Since how a lesson is introduced and presented largely determines what meanings students make of it, educators need the support of research and professional development to meet those literacy demands for all students.

Professional development, like any worthwhile supply chain, must be high quality, supportive, and include the specific needs of educators in the shipyard. As such, a shipwright should be able to choose her supplies based on her role in shipbuilding; an educator should have a say in her professional development. If professional education does not address a need, then what good is it? Since educators come into professional developments with different backgrounds and levels of expertise, such efforts need to be both adaptable and sustained. Only then will educators have the intellectual freedom to explore problems of practice and apply improved methods in the classroom. Only then will students be fully prepared leave the harbor.