It’s “Literacies,” Not “Literacy”: And You’re More Literate Than You Might Imagine

Tiffany Rousculp


Literacy. What does this word mean? If you’re not a college reading and writing teacher, you probably think literacy is the ability to read: a person is literate if they can read and illiterate if they cannot. A society that uses written or symbolic text that people read and write is considered a literate society while those that don’t are typically considered oral or visual societies or communities.

The ability to write also contributes to the definition of literacy, though it’s not as essential as being able to read. It’s assumed that someone who can write also must be able to read, but not necessarily the other way around. A person who is blind or has low vision may be considered literate if they read Braille, and someone learning a language becomes literate in it when they can read the written form of it.

There are some other commonly understood kinds of literacy. You may have heard of “computer literacy.” Being computer literate means that you know how to turn on a computer; get on the internet; open, save, download, and upload files; and use basic software programs like word processing, slide shows, and more. You may even have had to take a class or a test to show that you were computer literate for school. Another literacy that you are less likely to have heard of (unless you are a librarian or want to be one) is “information literacy.” Information literacy names the ability to use research tools and strategies to find information you need, to interpret that information, to decide whether it is valid and trustworthy, and how to show that you found it if you are including the information in your own work.

When we talk about “literacy” by itself, however, the default and most common understanding is the ability to enact the processes of decoding text: recognizing the shapes of letters or symbols, understanding the functions and meanings of word parts and words, and interpreting the meaning of sentences and paragraphs. However, this definition of literacy is way too simple for its complexities and the impacts it has on humans’ potential to achieve their goals.


New Literacy Studies

About 30 years ago, linguists and educators—James Paul Gee, Brian Street, Shirley Brice Health, and others—decided that decoding text, the skill-based understanding of literacy, was too narrow to define what it actually is and does. Their work coalesced into “New Literacy Studies” (NLS), which examined the social, cultural, and political implications of literacy and its definitions. Their goal was to examine “what it means to think of literacy as a social practice” (Street, 1985 qtd in Street, 2003, 77). NLS recognized

  1. that people use different literacies that vary based on time and situation,
  2. that some literacies were dominant while others were suppressed or marginalized, and
  3. that the definition of literacy was ultimately a political act based in power and control. (Street, 2003, 77)

Gee and Street theorized two frameworks for understanding literacies. Gee explained literacies within the concept of “Discourse” while Street focused on literacies and ideologies. According to Gee, a Discourse is “a socially accepted association among ways of using language, of thinking, and of acting that can be used to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group or social network” (“What is Literacy?,” 1989, p. 18). Gee explained that a Discourse is like an “identity kit” that allows someone to belong to a certain group. This identity kit is made up of a collection of “saying(writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations” that allow people to do, say(write), and (at least appear to) believe and value the right things in order to belong (“Literacy Discourse, and Linguistics: An Introduction,” 1989).

You and your family, or you and your friends, have a Discourse that you use when you are together.  This Discourse might include ways of talking to each other, jokes that only you understand, nicknames, favorite topics of discussion, rules for how sarcastic you are allowed or not allowed to be.

Notice that the paragraphs here show “Discourse” with a capital “D.” Gee explained that Discourse labels the specific writing(saying)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations. The lowercase “d” discourse describes any instance of language in use: a conversation, texting back and forth, instructions, lectures, an argument, a love poem, etc.

People change their Discourses based on the situations they find themselves in. This is completely normal human behavior. Think about this for a moment. This article is written in a Discourse that is different than the one I might use to send my son a text to take out the garbage. The identity kit that I use as a teacher is not the one I use as a parent. You talk differently with your classmates than you do with your closest friends because they are two different groups. You have as many Discourses as you have groups that you belong to. (As we’ll see, Discourses allow you to belong to a group, and can also exclude you from a group.)

According to Gee, every person, by virtue of being human, naturally develops one primary Discourse: our home and family Discourse that we grow up in. We don’t make any effort to learn this primary Discourse; we simply absorb and acquire it as we grow into our early years. By five-or-six years old, our primary Discourse is established, and we use language to belong to whatever social group we are living within.

When you were a kid, did you ever notice that when you went to a friend’s house the first time, things felt a little different or unusual? You might have felt uncomfortable, or you might have loved it. Even if you couldn’t describe it, that was your primary Discourse encountering a different one.

Gee claimed everyone develops their primary Discourse without making any effort; it’s one of the gifts of being human. Every other Discourse—known as secondary Discourses—requires some work if we wish to belong to it. We have to learn these secondary Discourses through instruction and acquisition (by spending time in them). In our early years, the most prominent secondary Discourse that many people encounter is school. Other secondary Discourses might include church, or sports, or community groups. When we develop fluency and control within a secondary Discourse—when we can add it to our set of “identity kits”—we become literate in that Discourse. Logically, Gee argues, that since there are multiple secondary Discourses that we move through in our lifetimes, there must be multiple literacies, not just a singular “literacy” that means being able to read (“Literacy, Discourses, etc.”).


Autonomous and Ideological Literacies

Joining Gee’s theories of literacy from a slightly different angle, Brian Street started with the assumption that there are multiple literacies and then labeled them as either “autonomous” or “ideological” literacies. An autonomous model of literacy is similar to the default understanding of literacy: literacy is the ability to decode and encode text. It is only a skill, irrelevant to the “saying(writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations” that make it possible for someone to belong to, or be excluded from, a group.

According to Street, the autonomous model of literacy sees literacy as only and always good: for all people literacy “enhances their cognitive skills, improves their economic prospects, makes them better citizens, regardless of the social and economic conditions that accounted for ‘illiteracy’ in the first place” (2003, 77). Street criticized how the autonomous model ignores—and sometimes hides—how literacy is always connected with social power and institutional politics.

For example, in the U.S., literacy has been used as a way to prevent U.S. citizens from participating in voting processes. Between the end of the Civil War to after the Civil Rights Act, state and local governments required citizens to take Literacy Tests in order to cast a vote. While citizens were guaranteed the right to vote in the U.S. Constitution, regardless of their ability to decode and encode text, literacy became a political barrier to exercise that right.  Another example is medical literacy. Even if they don’t consciously intend to, doctors and other medical workers show that they have power over patients by their use of medical Discourse: long complex words, abbreviations, codes, speaking quickly and using acronyms, talking about the patient instead of to the patient, etc. This medical Discourse is necessary to communicate inside of the group of medical workers, but patients who are not in that group often can feel excluded from their own care.

Street was not satisfied with an autonomous model of literacy and proposed instead an ideological model.

Ideological: an adjective to describe that something includes an aspect of belief, value, or ideals. Ideological does not mean radical or combative—even though the media would like you to believe this. An ideological model of literacy means that literacy is practiced by actual human beings living in a real world made up of real human relationships and social groups.

Street’s ideological model of literacy furthered Gee’s argument that there are multiple literacies because there are multiple secondary Discourses. These secondary Discourses are “social practices, not simply a technical and neutral skill” (Street, 2003, 77). For example, being able to use a recipe to make chicken noodle soup requires more than just decoding the instructions. It requires having a place, tools, and a heating source to cook; it requires understanding and being able to implement cultural norms of cleanliness; it requires access to ingredients. Another example that you are likely very familiar with is registering for college classes. This literacy practice requires secondary Discourses far more complex than being able to decode and enter text into a form on a college’s website.

In Street’s ideological model of literacy, literacy cannot be merely a set of skills; it is a social practice that humans engage in within contexts of power relationships.  As people develop secondary Discourses, they are enacting literacies and social practices that allow them to belong to a particular social group.  When you start a new job, you learn the secondary Discourse of that job. You learn the ideologies and expectations for how to “say(write)-do-be-value-believe” in your new job, and as you do so, you gain power within it. If you do not adapt to the secondary Discourse of your new job within an expected time frame—if, perhaps, you continue to greet customers with “Do you really need to spend your hard-earned money here? How about saving it for your future?” even after being told not to by your supervisors—you will not succeed in the job and will need to find another one.


Literacies, Power, and Identity

That’s a somewhat silly example, but the power of literacy and Discourses is all around us, in ways we probably don’t even notice. Let’s return to school. In fact, let’s go back to the first day of school, which, in the U.S., is typically kindergarten. In other countries, it is called Primary or Year 1. Regardless, a bunch of very young children come together in a space with an adult teacher, maybe some teaching assistants, and a bunch of parents/guardians who have almost certainly told the children that they need to listen to the teacher, do what they are told, and not cause any trouble.

These instructions name the social practices of school literacies. School literacies are defined by their expected “saying(writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations” (i.e., School Discourse), which in this case include actively listening to the teacher, paying attention, speaking only when allowed to, doing activities when told to, putting in effort, and interacting helpfully with other students. School literacies include valuing and believing that education is good and will benefit the child and society as a whole.

Different school systems will have different Discourses and ideologies around how best to educate children; for example, should students sit in groups at workstations or should they sit individually in rows? Should students have arts and recess periods or should they spend their days learning math, reading, writing, and science? Should they be schooled at home, outdoors, or inside classrooms?

Because you’ve been in school settings for a long time, these school literacies may sound natural to you; you might assume that this is what everyone expects of school Discourse. These literacies are not natural, however; they are ideological and cultural and have to be learned. Children need to become fluent in their school’s secondary Discourse in order to remain there and to succeed—in other words, to belong.

Power comes into the picture of school literacy because children need to change their identity kits in order to become literate in the secondary Discourse of school. But not every child requires the same amount of change. For some students, this change is minimal, and they feel like they belong to school right away. For others, the change is huge and can destabilize their sense of well-being and self-esteem, but they adapt to it and add it to their Discourses. Still others may spend years in school without feeling like they have developed fluent school literacies; they may never quite feel like they belong.


A Case Study of the Ideological Model of Literacy

Another New Literacy Studies researcher, Shirley Brice Heath, demonstrated in her book Ways with Words that an ideological model of literacy could explain why groups of students from three different primary Discourse backgrounds typically succeeded—or didn’t—in school.

One group of students developed their primary Discourse in middle-class, mostly white, higher-educated families in which parents/guardians regularly read books to their children and asked them to answer imaginative and analytical questions about the characters and stories. Another group came from working-class, mostly white families who read religious stories to their children but did not ask them to imagine or analyze what they were reading. The third group came from working-class, mostly Black families who did not read stories to their children but expected them to fully participate in active cross-generational storytelling; these children’s primary Discourse required them to creatively compete with family and friends to tell stories to captivate an audience of children and adults alike.

What happened when the children from these three different primary Discourse backgrounds encountered school literacies/school Discourse? The middle-class, mostly white group of children felt most comfortable with the school literacies: they listened quietly to the adults, responded when asked questions, and added their ideas to the discussions. The working-class white group of children listened quietly to the adults but were not able to respond when asked questions or contribute to discussions, and the working-class Black group of children often were often disciplined for interrupting the teacher or their classmates with their eager contributions to the conversation.

Heath showed that school literacy was not autonomous. School literacy was not a good and positive force for all the children; in fact, it even resulted in harm. Working-class students were seen as uninterested and disengaged and working-class Black students were seen as disruptive and troublesome. The assumptions of a middle-class, white, educated school literacy made learning a very different experience for the children depending on which primary Discourse they brought to school. Heath showed that literacy was much more than a set of skills to decode and encode texts; it was a whole set of rules (e.g., Gee’s “saying(writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations”) that determined whether a child would belong.

New Literacy Studies has had a huge impact on education in the past 35 years. In general, educators understand that children bring different primary Discourses to school, and these educators work hard to support all students. The power of white, middle-class, educated school literacies remains, however. Though students bring different literacies with them to school, they still must adapt to the dominant school literacies if they hope to succeed. Educators and scholars continue to debate this reality and whether this is fair, just, or in need of change.


How Many Literacies Do You Have?

Gee, Street, and Health would be the first to tell you that you contain multitudes of literacies. For example, you are taking ENGL 1010, a college-level course. If you have gotten this far in your education, you can safely say that you are pretty much fluent in U.S. school literacies, whether you feel comfortable with them or not. You are in the process of becoming fluent in U.S. college literacies (which, by the way, are somewhat different than high school literacies). You’ll develop college literacies in this class and throughout the time you spend getting your degree(s) or certificate(s).

But even though college literacies are powerful and exert dominance in U.S. culture, they’re still only one type of literacy. Gee, Street, and Heath would let you know that college literacies are simply the “saying(writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations” that are expected of people in college environments. They are not naturally occurring practices that everyone should automatically know. College literacies are learned just like every other secondary Discourse you have encountered since you were about four-or-five years old. Can you imagine how many you have?

Take a moment to consider just how many literacies you have. How about cooking, or music, or gaming, or sports? Can you read a recipe, musical scores, multi-player instructions, or a field? Even if you do have access to a heating source, supplies, and ingredients, you need to understand how to convert measurements, what “consistency” and “texture” mean, what “medium-high heat” means on a stovetop, and, certainly, what a “pinch” of anything is supposed to be. People literate in music must understand chords, timing, sharps, flats, whole notes, half notes, and the symbols that indicate them. Gamers need to understand glitches, grind, and skins.[1] Football (soccer) players must know that the field is a pitch, that extra-time always has two halves, and, most importantly, what offsides is. Each of these literacies are types of secondary Discourses that people develop and acquire throughout their lifetimes.

Multitudes of Literacies: How about computers, or bartending, or health care, or landscaping? Parenting, or literature, or fishing, or fixing cars? Religion, or social media, or plumbing, or politics?

Pay attention to your literacies—to the secondary Discourses—that you have developed fluency in since you were a toddler. Any time you interact with any kind of conversation, text, activity, behavior, social setting, workplace, project … anything other than sitting in a dark room by yourself (which could actually be meditation and mindfulness literacies) … pay attention to what you know about “saying(writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing” in that situation. Pay attention to how you know what you know. Pay attention to the fact that you do know so much, and are a very, very literate person full of many and multiple literacies.



Brice Heath, S. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge UP.

Gee, J.P. (1989). Literacy, discourse, and linguistics: An introduction. Journal of Education, 171(1), 5-17.

—. (1989). What is literacy? Journal of Education, 171(1), 18-25.

Street, B. (2003). What’s “new” in New Literacy Studies? Critical approaches to literacy in theory and practice. Current Issues in Comparative Education, 5(2), 77-91.

  1. Interestingly, James Paul Gee turned to studying gaming in the later years of his career. See What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, St. Martin’s, as a representative of this work.


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Open English @ SLCC Copyright © 2016 by Tiffany Rousculp is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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