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The Barbican Battle of the Ideas: What does Literacy Mean Today?


ALLi's Orna Ross joins a panel discussing literacy in the modern world

From 2.30pm GMT until 3.30pm GMT

At The Barbican

From the last Labour government’s controversial Literacy Hour through to Gove’s phonics and relentless testing strategy, and the current preoccupation with the apparent insights of psychology and brain science, campaigns often treat literacy as a technical matter and promote readingskills rather than reading itself. Critics worry this reduces reading to a chore, rather than valuing reading for its own sake. Furthermore, ‘reading literacy’ has become just one of many ‘literacies’ deemed important. Schools bombard young people with lessons on financial literacy, media literacy, emotional literacy, cyberliteracy, visual literacy and so on. American public-policy expert Paul Taylor argues young people need ‘a set of new literacies that amount to mastery of networking and troves of information - social and otherwise - that stream into their lives’. In this view, traditional, literature-based English education is considered to be outmoded. The UK exam board OCR has thus radically overhauled its English Language and Literature A-level syllabus to include Dizzee Rascal’s raps and Russell Brand’s musing on drugs ‘to give pupils a better opportunity to analyse a range of texts … literary and non-literary’.

Even conventional literature is sometimes treated as a means of achieving non-literary ends. Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, argues: ‘There’s a really strong relationship between literacy – reading and writing – and social outcomes, whether it’s earnings, home ownership, voting, or a sense of trust in society.’ But what about reading for its own sake? How can we cultivate a real love of reading and encourage the young to read with discernment, for pleasure, into adulthood, becoming ‘literate’ in a deeper sense? Is it time to discuss literacy less as a skill to be instilled in the young and more as a virtue to cultivate in children and adults alike?

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