Language Education Policy Studies
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Literacy and Multiliteracies 

The question of language and literacy is tied directly to the education and language policy questions because literacy is assumed to be written forms. Traditionnally the nation-state used guns, sacralized numbers, Holy Scriptures, and literacy (Spolsky, 2007), where literacy means reading and writing, which was assumed to be a higher order cognitive and logical demonstration of rationalism. The lack of this type of literacy was equated strangely with a lack of history and used to spread European rationalism and religion, both deeply affected by the written word. Even today UNESCO’s definition of literacy is the ability to read and write a sentence in the mother tongue. Considering the language-in-education policies and schooling, this definition is deficient, especially because literacy in other than the first language is not efficient. (See Mother Tongue Education).


Furthermore, when ranking countries by literacy rates, the measure of literacy is not uniform across time or even now across nations. In some places now and in previous times, signing one’s name made one literate. Current literacy rates of countries are tied to tests, education/schooling and proficiency in skill-based assessments of reading and writing. Language learners are subject to policies to ensure that students know the language of the tests. Immigrants must know the language for citizenship, for jobs, and business domains. Foreign language proficiency teaching and learning includes listening and speaking standards.


Literacy through language is a repository of a community’s or people’s cultural knowledge and expression, part of human existence and spirituality, and is often oral. It is a mentality and expression of concepts, and a way of thinking (Sapir-Whorf). Precolonial polyglottism was a very different model of literacy that was spiritual, educational, historical, and a means of self-reproducing groups. For different worldviews and concepts, the written would be inferior to the oral, as writing reifies and puts objects into envelopes, the phonetic simplifies a rich or abstract concept. Furthermore, literacy practices include a broad view of culturally specific knowledge. Languages may be suitable by domain- for example a spiritual, storytelling, scientific, or lingua franca domain.

This model was the norm for most people and most of time, and still is the worldview for many Indigenous and non-European peoples. Linguists may have constructed languages as monolithic, bound, detached-from-everyday life, and written systems for purposes of power over Indigenous and other local languages and polyglot use; and only now the field is showing its deficiency and allowing semiotics to provide a deeper meaning-making approach.


Instead of orality being an absence of the written, it should be seen as an alternative cognitive method of teaching and learning. Indeed today human memory is seldom used, and in fact collective amnesia may predominate.

Perhaps more relevant to the 21st century is multimodal literacy. Rather than basket-weaving or canoe-building, now it is often technologically-based. (See Videos below). While colonial and Enlightment literacy sought to replace practices that were also subsistence skills, now reading and writing on paper is at last, outdated. Illiteracy now may have more to do with not knowing how to use an Ipod than not knowing how to read and write.

VIDEOS Multimodal literacy thinktank. Frightening U.S. literacy. 21st Century literacy. James Paul Gee on literacy. James Paul Gee on video game 


Dressler C, Kamil M. First- and second-language literacy. In: August D, Shanahan T, eds. Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum; 2006:197-238.

Gee. J. P. (2004). Situated language and learning: A critique of traditional schooling. London: Routledge.


Geniusz, W. M. (2009). Our Knowledge is Not Primitive: Decolonizing Botanical Anishinaabe Teachings. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.


Hornberger, N. (1996). Indigenous Literacies in the Americas: Language Planning from the Bottom Up. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.


Hornberger, N. (Ed.). (2003). Continua of Biliteracy: An Ecological Framework for Educational Policy, Research, and Practice in Multilingual Settings. Tonawanda, NY: Multilingal Matters.


Morrell, E. (2008). Critical literacy and urban youth: pedagogies of access, dissent, and liberation. New York, NY: Routledge.


Street. B.V. (1993). Cross Cultural Approaches to Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Street, B.V. (1995). Social literacies: critical approaches to literacy in development, ethnography and education. White Plains, NY: Addison Wesley Publishing Company.


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This information was originally published on the website of the International Network for Language Education Policy Studies ( as

Harrison, K. M. & Tochon, F. V. (2013). Literacies and Multiliteracies. In F. V. Tochon (Ed.), Language Education Policy Studies (online). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin—Madison. Retrieved from: (access date). 

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