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

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

United Nations peace keeper

Understanding the unwritten rules of graduate study is vital if you want to get the most from your PhD supervision, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

Eleanor Shakespeare illustration (5 January 2017)

Fixing problems in the academic job market by reducing the number of PhDs would homogenise the sector, argues Tom Cutterham

Houses of Parliament, Westminster, government

There really is no need for the Higher Education and Research Bill, says Anne Sheppard

poi, circus

Kate Riegle van West had to battle to bring her circus life and her academic life together

man with frozen beard, Lake Louise, Canada

Australia also makes gains in list of most attractive English-speaking nations as US slips