When we think of “literacy,” we generally think of the ability to read and write. In the twenty-first century, though, literacy means much more than reading and writing, although the ability to read and write is also critical. In the present age, to be literate means to be able to communicate through texts in ways that help you meet your needs and the needs of others. And this communication happens in a variety of situations. You might participate in a club, organization, or group in which you regularly communicate through reading or writing, for example. You likely engage in several literate practices on the job, such as designing and delivering presentations or adapting to new technologies. You might read to your child each night before bedtime, or you might regularly use social media to keep in touch with family and friends.
These examples are illustrative of the many types of literacy we practice in our daily lives: computer literacy, work-based literacy, health literacy, academic literacy, and personal literacy, to name a few. These various literacies are much more than skills; they are practices: observable patterns of behavior that we enact over time as we work in particular knowledge frameworks and use particular technologies to communicate.
One of the literacies we develop over our lifespans is personal literacy, also called vernacular literacy. Personal literacies are the reading and writing practices individuals engage in during activities of their own choice and for personal satisfaction or to meet personal goals. Examples might include documenting your daily food intake with a smartphone app, keeping a journal, creating a weight-training plan and tracking your performance, or writing and playing music. They are instrumental to how we learn and to our success in formal schooling. These personal literacies are closely tied to our development of academic literate practices that help us learn in formal school settings.
While some students move easily between personal literacies and academic literacies, others have more challenges as they move from the types of literate practices they participate in for personal fulfillment to the types of literate practices they must participate in to succeed as students in institutions of higher education. Once we become aware of the various personal literacies we practice in our lives, we can begin to see their connections to the academic literate practices we must develop to meet our academic goals.
Roz Ivanic, a researcher at Lancaster University, studies the ways people use personal literacies to learn in school. In one of her essays, she introduces us to Nadine, a young woman who has a passion for horoscopes. Nadine reads her horoscope daily and believes in the predictions. She recognizes some horoscopes are better written and more useful than others, so she reads them from a variety of media, including television, print-based texts such as newspapers and magazines, and websites. Nadine also keeps a diary of the events that happen to her and analyzes the patterns she sees in her life events and their relationships to the horoscope predictions.
Nadine’s personal literate practice is rich and varied, purposeful to her, and creative. It is a self-determined activity shaped by the context of Nadine’s life. In contrast, when Nadine encounters reading and writing tasks in school, they may seem more valuable to the teacher than to Nadine, more formal and repetitive, and less creative. When Nadine goes to college, the literacies she must engage in often look very different from the purposeful literate practices she engages in at home. It’s important that Nadine notices the differences and similarities between her personal and academic literate practices so that she may use her capabilities to enhance her success in school.
When we learn to transfer our personal literate practices to formal school settings, we engage in a process of contextualization. In other words, we make meaning of school content by connecting our personal lives to our school lives. In Nadine’s case, she might reflect on her practice of reading horoscopes and writing daily about her life and begin to see particular skills and ways of thinking that she can transfer to college. For example, she might notice she can make meaning of the things that happen to her by looking for patterns in her diary entries over time—an analytical process she most definitely can transfer to academic contexts. In fact, recognizing that she has already successfully used reading and writing to meet her needs can positively impact her confidence and determination as she faces new reading and writing situations in college.
Transitioning from the personal literate practices we engage in at home to the academic literate practices we engage in at school can be challenging, but we all bring valuable personal literacies with us into the classroom. We might think about how we can facilitate the process of contextualization while we’re in college in order to ease the transition and better use the skills and literate practices we bring with us to support our academic goals.
Baynham, Mike and Mastin Prinsloo. “Introduction: the Future of Literacy Studies.” The Future of Literacy Studies. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2009. 1-20.
Brandt, Deborah. Literacy and Learning: Reflections on Writing, Reading, and Society. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.
Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses. 4th Ed. London: Routledge, 2012.
Ivanic, Roz. “Bringing Literacy Studies into Research on Learning Across the Curriculum.” The Future of Literacy Studies. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2009. 100–122.
Scribner, Sylvia and Michael Cole. The Psychology of Literacy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.