Any interpretive act could count as reading. We can read the weather, read a river, read a face, or read a room full of people. Since interpretations of the same phenomenon can vary, we know that a range of meanings for any text is possible depending on a person’s point of view. Diversity of viewpoint is as important to our social and intellectual ecology as biodiversity is important to Earth’s natural ecology. Etienne Wenger described how meanings can be managed either productively or destructively within a community of practice by those at the center of the community.

Communities of practice structure an organization’s learning potential in two ways: through the knowledge they develop at their core and through interactions at their boundaries. Like any asset, these communities can become liabilities if their own expertise becomes insular. It is therefore important to pay as much attention to the boundaries of communities of practice as to their core, and to make sure that there is enough activity at these boundaries to renew learning. For while the core is the center of expertise, radically new insights often arise at the boundary between communities. Communities of practice truly become organizational assets when their core and their boundaries are active in complementary ways.

In the everyday world when someone comes up with an unexpected or unusual reading - a questionable interpretation of something - we generally ask for clarification and try to sympathetically assess the intelligence behind the thinking. We may not agree, but this is how understanding is constructed through dialog. Communication flows in order to create consensual domains among people. I think of this as the negotiation of meaning, and I see it as a core feature of all literate activity. When meanings are narrowed and reified we no longer have communication; we have dictation.

US government education policy is working to create public consensus for a particular definition of literacy. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released a research report a few days ago on the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). Links from the main page include a press release, a statement from the commissioner, a FAQ page, a transcript of an online chat with an associate commissioner, data tables, and a 40+ page document called Key Concepts and Features of the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

Reading is a social construction. It’s a social construction because any attempt to define reading also implicitly defines the reader. There can be no action without an actor, and both reading and reader must conceptually accompany each other. The NCES looked at ‘functional’ literacy and defined it as “the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” If we look at what this means, we can begin to understand what the government’s “official” definition of ‘reader’ entails.

The NAAL differentiates between three different types of texts:

  • They see prose literacy as the ability to retrieve information from continuous prose sources like editorials, news stories, brochures, and instructional materials.
  • Literacy also refers to document literacy, or the ability to search, comprehend, and use noncontinuous texts in various formats. Examples of document literacy include job applications, payroll forms, transportation schedules, maps, tables, and drug or food labels.
  • The NAAL also tested for quantitative literacy, which includes balancing a checkbook, computing a tip, completing an order form, and determining the amount of interest on a loan.

As this definition of reading has been constructed, so has the hypothetical average American reader: a middle-class, civic-minded, working, consumer. I don’t disagree that these are desirable things to know. I’ve worked hard in my life to become a person who can do those things. My point, though, is that reading is a social construction, and it’s definition is heavily value-driven. Not everyone wants to be identified in those terms, or read for those purposes. There is no such thing as an objective all-purpose definition of reading that is separate from an ideology which selects criteria for who a reader can therefore be.

I appreciate the full disclosure of information the government provided about their research project. It helps me to illustrate why standardized testing is not a valid way to assess reading ability, and also gives me a chance to make a point about literacy as a social value. One of the core concepts that the NAAL addressed was the definition of functional literacy. The research assumed that

there are different levels and types of literacy, which reflect the ability to perform a wide variety of tasks using written materials that differ in nature and complexity. A common thread across all literacy tasks is that each has a purpose….All U.S. adults must successfully preform literacy tasks in order to function-that is, to meet personal and employment goals as well as contribute to the community.

My response to this statement is that yes, there are different levels and types of literacy that are necessary for us all to have, but they may not necessarily all be the same levels and types. Furthermore, I ask, “Is test-taking now one of the types of literacy we all need?” The NCES said that the representative sample of adults tested had to perform “literacy tasks similar to those they encounter in their daily lives,” and that “none of the tasks require specialized knowledge, and all of them were reviewed for bias against particular groups.” I know, having participated in a test item writer’s workgroup, that the bias review can be done by any number of individuals - probably not from the tested population - and that questions about controversial or sensitive subjects are removed. But bias reviewers can not possibly anticipate all of the individual reactions to the test items. Bias is considered with respect to groups of people who may be disadvantaged by questions pertaining to specific subject matter. The statement that none of the items require specialized background knowledge reveals the arrogance of test makers to assume that there are common denominators of experience that run throughout all social classes and regions of our country. I agree with NCES that all literacy (I’ll call them acts, not tasks) acts are purposeful. Some of the test items that were shared in the document involved buying the correct kind of sandpaper, computing gas mileage for a vehicle, and deciding which of three food sources contain vitamin E. So I wonder how familiar these activities are to people who don’t work with wood, don’t own a car, and may not go to the doctor, or care about what they eat? I question whether the test items were similar to those encountered in the tested adults’ daily lives, or whether they are similar to those that the government only assumes they encounter in their daily lives.

My experience as a teacher requires me to administer these types of tests, and I know that even when a kid can read the words on the test, they may not understand the question because the syntax is alien to their speech patterns. A linguistic register is the variation within a language as it is applied to a specific set of purposes. It might also be thought of as a discourse, defined by it’s use. Most adults are not practiced in the test register, or may not have been especially strong test-takers in school. The test question may be about buying sandpaper, but seeing that the test-taker’s purpose wasn’t to actually buy sandpaper, the question wasn’t their own. The test-taker’s actual question was, “What does the test want me to say?” And they may have been thinking, “I don’t use sandpaper. Who cares about sandpaper” - with the bias reviewers and the psychometricians none the wiser. Their purpose isn’t to use the sandpaper, but to complete the test, and their investment in choosing the correct sandpaper may be considerably lower than their desire to move on to the next test question.

My brief critique of this test applies generally to all standardized educational testing that relies on multiple choice questions. This research methodology is very limited in the type of information it can provide. Inferences that are drawn from the data should be carefully weighed. Interviews and dialog are far more reliable and informative than these standardized testing instruments, but individualized qualitative measures are expensive to administer and it’s hard to control for the variety of responses people give for each question. Good scientific research will limit the number of possible alternative explanations that can be offered for a given data set. I’m left with numerous alternative explanations for the results of this test. To me, the conclusions drawn with respect to the “literacy of US adults” should be qualified and referred to as the “middle-class standard of literacy for US adults,” or some other limiter so that people who hear about the results can think about what the test actually measured. (I haven’t even mentioned results yet. They barely matter to me.) My challenge is to the test’s construct validity, that is, I doubt it actually measured real reading.

When politicians cite test results from exercises such as these and cry for more intervention or reform to the educational system, the programs and policy decisions that follow seem virtually inevitable. Policy that is driven from these kinds of research findings carries an air of urgent necessity. Nobody questions the loss of control and the narrowing of meaning that results because a consensus has been developed through a process of opinion control which could only be accomplished within an uncrtically literate population. This type of “scientific” research is responsible for what we see in our schools now. Standards have been imposed on us by politicians, not through professional consensus but through political whim. Certainly, educators participated in the writing of those standards, which lends legitimacy to the standards and helps to create hegemony that subjugates teachers under threat of sanctions for failure to meet adequate progress toward the agenda of universal ‘literacy’. I cringe when I hear teachers talk about teaching to the Standards because I know they are talking about the standards we’ve been force-fed, not the standards that spring from the personal knowledge we have of our students. The government’s effort to define literacy as a functional skill has the potential to narrowly confine the range of acceptable interpretations for public and corporate policy decisions, and may contribute to the consolidation and centralization of power in societies that are willing to endorse these conceptions of literacy.

The New York Times reported the results of this test with the headline


The average American college graduate’s literacy in English declined significantly over the past decade, according to results of a nationwide test released yesterday.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, given in 2003 by the Department of Education, is the nation’s most important test of how well adult Americans can read.

Consider this news in light of what commissioner, Mark Schnieder has to say: “I will first present the changes in literacy between 1992 and 2003. We reanalyzed the 1992 data for the prose, document and quantitative literacy scales using the 2003 procedures. Prose and document literacy did not change on average, while quantitative literacy increased.” Schnieder says that prose literacy scores for college graduates fell, and also said that more research in this area is called for.

I ask, “Why are we doing this research to begin with?”

In an amazingly irresponsible statement, quoted from the Times article,

Grover J. Whitehurst, director of an institute within the Department of Education that helped to oversee the test, said he believed that the literacy of college graduates had dropped because a rising number of young Americans in recent years had spent their free time watching television and surfing the Internet.

My first reaction was to wonder if perhaps the 1992 data wasn’t accurately correlated with the more current numbers. Then I thought that perhaps the change could be due to a changed college demographic, and that our colleges may have a more diverse student population now than they did 13 years ago.

But of course, the power move is never far off. From the US Dept. of Ed press release:

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, [who] today announced plans to coordinate adult education efforts in 2006 across multiple federal agencies. “We must take a comprehensive and preventive approach, beginning with elementary schools and with special emphasis in our high schools. We must focus resources toward proven, research-based methods to ensure that all adults have the necessary literacy skills to be successful.”

What we need is not more literacy. We don’t need more intervention or interference, or whatever anyone cares to call it. We need more critical literacy. We need to teach about the purposes and the contexts of literacy. We need to teach about power and point of view. All teachers must begin to recognize that the power to control definitions is the power to control thought. Literacy is as easily a means to subjugation as it is to liberation. Literacy is power, and it cuts both ways.