In recent years, educators have stretched their understanding of literacy to include new competencies that extend beyond traditional reading and writing skills. Increasingly, they refer not to a single kind of literacy, but to multiple literacies—digital literacy, racial literacy, health literacy, to name a few—that reflect a changing and diverse world.
The new literacies will be among the topics of discussion when a national gathering of literacy researchers convenes at Elmhurst in January. The National Council of Teachers of English Assembly for Research will hold its midwinter conference at the College, January 10-12, 2014. The conference aims to promote inquiry into literacy practices and to provide a forum for the latest research in the field.
“Literacy is about more than just phonics now,” said Ayanna Brown, associate professor of education at Elmhurst and chair of the assembly for research. “There has been a shift to a broader, more inclusive understanding of literacy, one that debunks the idea that there is only one way to read and write.”
Elmhurst will be the first small liberal arts college to host the annual conference in recent years. The annual event is typically hosted by large research universities; last year’s meeting was at Ohio State University.
“This is a prestigious occasion and an opportunity to bring more attention to the College,” Brown said.
As a 2013 National Council of Teachers of English statement on “21st Century Literacy” put it, “As society and technology change, so does literacy.” Such change “demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities,” including fluency with information technology, the ability to solve problems collaboratively and the ability to share information with diverse audiences.
“We’re moving beyond the old, narrow view of literacy,” Brown said.
The conference kicks off with a tribute to John Gumperz, a pioneering scholar of communication and linguistics. When Gumperz died at 91 earlier this year, The New York Times described him as a “linguist of cultural interchange” and a leading authority on discourse analysis, “which studies not only who says what to whom, but also how it is said and in what context.”
“Gumperz said that it was necessary to attend to all the communication styles in a culture, including the tone, the inflection, the eye gaze,” Brown said. As a result of work by Gumperz and others, “literacy now has to be understood in the context of the many ways people communicate. You have to understand the worlds they live in.”
Among other conference events are sessions on early-childhood literacy and on language and community. The conference also will include a presentation by poets, writers and performers from Young Chicago Artists’ Louder Than a Bomb! festival, the world’s largest youth poetry showcase.
For more information about the conference, visit the website of the National Council of Teachers of English Assembly for Research.