Towards a Wider Framework for Literacy: Visibility

Our history through the latter half of the 20th century shows one of the most effective ways to raise literacy visibility and affect opinion is through the media (Quigley, 1997). There was a time during the 1970s and 1980s when adult literacy was front page news. Despite some of the stereotypes that appeared in some of the popular media (discussed previously), the issues of adult literacy were highly visible and widely discussed across Canada (Thomas, 2001, pp. xxv). Sadly, literacy no longer gets that kind of coverage in the media. In absence of that, literacy effectively falls off the political radar.

So then, how do we increase visibility?

  • International Literacy Day

International Literacy Day provides a prime opportunity to voice the issues of literacy. In 1966, UNESCO proclaimed International Literacy Day in order to “actively mobilize the international community and promote literacy as an instrument to empower individuals, communities and societies” (UNESCO, cited in Quigley, 2020, p. 16). This marks September 8 as a special day to raise awareness and discussion.

If we are to be more visible, it is suggested literacy learners and our graduates, along with practitioners, could be the key to open the door for the changes we need. Every September 8 could be a day of media exposure with, possibly, “marches for literacy” involving learners, graduates and practitioners. Delegations from our professional associations, together with learners and graduates, representatives from the literacy volunteer sector, and concerned staff and faculty from the school system, the postsecondary system and higher education could together or independently lobby for change with the media and/or meet with policy-makers.

  • Literacy learners could tell their stories

We need more like 82 year-old Maria who was willing to stand proudly and tell her story…“I am not just anybody” could be an assertion of pride that could help change the views of the public. Further, by telling their stories, our learners and graduates could reach many more of the adults with low literacy hidden in society. Our learners could encourage more to come forward, saying: “If I can do it, you can too.”

Likewise, learners and graduates could be encouraged to write their stories. Programs could make those stories available by printing and circulating them and/or post learner stories on their websites. Or run blog posts that circulate stories written by learners.

I was once involved in writing a monthly literacy blog to the literacy field in Saskatchewan, and I often included (with their permission) literacy learners’ stories as written by them—and their stories went across the province, and beyond. More than once, I was told by instructors and counsellors how the learner-authors gained a whole new sense of pride and confidence by being published. I was told how funding agencies circulated the stories among their agencies. Learners’ voices have power.

  • Literacy programs could be more publicly visible

One of the most visible literacy programs I ever saw was in Pennsylvania. The director of that program took every possible opportunity—not only on September 8—to have her learners interviewed on television and radio. Her learners and graduates were encouraged to talk with the public and reporters at multiple community education and civic events. Together with program practitioners, the director met with funders and policy-makers at all levels to tell their stories and, implicitly, they helped challenge literacy classism. Those learners were not hidden. Nor was the program. Those learners and graduates came to be well known in the community. They became something of “proud local celebrities.”

That Pennsylvania program was located in one of the poorest “rust-belt” areas of the state; yet, it became one of the best known, best financially supported programs in Western Pennsylvania. Several others took their lead from that Pennsylvania program and they too started taking opportunities to invite members of the public and community to visit their program. “Just drop in,” they often said. No class graduation or class celebration went by without a mayor or members of the Chamber of Commerce being invited. Guests were introduced to the learners and learners to their guests. Those communities also came to appreciate who the learners were and what they had accomplished.

During the 1980s and 1990s, every Adult Basic Education and Literacy annual conference in Pennsylvania saw local and state government officials invited to attend. They were invited to speak at the conference and were introduced to that year’s learners. By the way, it was not coincidental that the annual conferences were usually held in Harrisburg, the capital of the state. And, as often as possible, the conferences were held within walking distance of the state legislative building.

  • Program curricula could include information on Human Rights

In our chapter in the Handbook of Adult and Continuing Education, my colleagues and I promoted the value of encouraging empowerment of learners in our literacy and basic education classrooms and tutoring situations, as follows:

We argue for a pedagogy that introduces how social structures can become personal barriers. We advocate for more politically based curricula to help adult learners understand and access the political system, to help them identify their rights as adult citizens, and build their capacities to see and challenge literacy classism into the 21st century. (Zacharakis, Patterson, & Quigley, 2021, p. 424)

By giving learners the knowledge and tools, they can see the path from being hidden in shame to becoming visible and enacting change.

There are many other possibilities…in fact several of the above ideas came from learners themselves. No one gains by being voiceless or invisible in adult literacy. We need a new conversation.