Solving the literacy puzzle

September 18, 2014

It is strange that the article “The puzzle of UK graduates and their low-level literacy” (News, 11 September) didn’t consider the issue of measurement performance indicators as themselves a possible explanation for the puzzle. We have known in the adult literacy field for some time that the international measurement indices, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), don’t tell us about the actual uses of reading and writing in everyday life – the tests may rank and list people in ways that lead to the “puzzle” reported here, while in their daily lives people engage with literacy practices perfectly adequately. Perhaps it is the test and not the adults who are the puzzle.

A forthcoming study by Gemma Moss – “Taking numbers to task: understanding PISA data from a qualitative perspective” – argues that tests such as Pisa lose “the caveats, qualifications and uncertainties that characterise statistical thinking…In the current policy environment readers tend to abstract what they want to see from statistical reports, using the data as authoritative confirmation of assumptions they already hold”; a possible explanation for the continuing anxieties about a supposed “low-level literacy”.

An ethnographic perspective on literacy practices allows us to address these issues, by studying and analysing the uses of literacy practices in people’s everyday lives, within and across countries, without falling into the measurement and ranking puzzle evident in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s PIAAC. So, in the UK context and applying these debates to students arriving at university, the question may not be the “low-level of literacy”, but rather the more complex issues associated with how students learn to deal with the different genres and writing requirements of further and higher education. Researchers are currently applying ethnographic rather than statistical perspectives to such processes, and it turns out that addressing the “academic literacies” of students may be a more fruitful direction than puzzling over supposed “low levels of literacy”.

Brian V. Street
Professor emeritus of language in education
King’s College London


How odd that the OECD should be puzzled by UK graduates’ “low-level literacy” when the standards of literacy required at A level have become risible. With the long-standing rejection of grammar and punctuation combined with the impact of the internet, it’s surely entirely unsurprising that universities no longer require a reasonable standard of literacy of their graduates. In fact, they don’t demand it even of themselves: on the page opposite the article on literacy levels in last week’s edition of THE there is this gem from the University of Essex: “…we are committed to delivering a transformational educational experience” (“Attempts to ‘gag and silence’ are commonplace”, News, 11 September). What on earth could this mean?

Bob Brecher
Professor of moral philosophy, University of Brighton

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