The importance of literacy

Charlie Carroll

Charlie Carroll is a writer, musician, teacher, traveller and Cornishman. He is the author of three non-fiction travel books – THE FRIENDSHIP HIGHWAY (Summersdale, 2014); NO FIXED ABODE (Summersdale, 2013) and ON THE EDGE (Monday Books, 2010). In 2012, he won the K Blundell Trust Award for “writers under 40 who aim to raise social awareness with their writing”. He has written for The Guardian, The Big Issue and Walk, been featured in National Geographic, The Telegraph and The Times, and been serialised in the Daily Mail and The Week. He currently works with LendMeYourLiteracy, an organisation which nurtures and celebrates children's writing.

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Back in January, my school set upon a new initiative. The marking of core writing skills – that is, spelling, punctuation and grammar (or SPAG as us educators, who never shy away from a good acronym, like to call it) – was to be implemented across all departments. No longer just a proviso of the English faculty, now History teachers would have to check for syntactical errors in their students’ essays; Science teachers would have to ensure that methodologies and conclusions which came to them did so with the required requisite of full-stops and capital letters; Geography teachers would have to supervise not just the correct spelling of ‘oxbow lake’, but also the correct spelling of all the words which surrounded it in their pupils’ books.

As a member of the English department, it fell to me and my team to ensure that this was effectively disseminated across the rest of the school at the next twilight INSET session. We worried over the session for weeks. The other teachers, we surmised, would view this new policy as, at best, intrusive and impositional and, at worst, as them doing our jobs for us.

It came as some surprise to us – though it perhaps shouldn’t have – that our session was welcomed by all.

But of course it was. Education has its cornerstones. Numeracy is one. The knowledge and implementation of scientific reasoning is another. The ability to effectively utilise Information Technology is perhaps the youngest, but no less important for it. And literacy – well, literacy is the lynchpin.

The etymological root of the word literate comes from the Latin literatus, which means ‘to be educated’ or literally (another derivation) ‘one who knows the letters’.

Thus, to be educated is to know the letters. This premise-driven conclusion – that is, to know the letters – is more important than we often give it credit for. Knowing the letters entails knowing the language. Understanding it. Utilising it. Manipulating it.

For many centuries, philosophers debated what it was that separated humans from animals. Was it our capacity to rule? No: that skill can be witnessed in most mammalian packs. So was it our capacity for its opposite, perhaps – to love? No again: we can see evidence of love in animals as ancient as birds, some of whom mate for life. And, if you don’t believe that’s a true exhibition of love, then ask any dog-owner, and they will doubtless talk to you for hours about their pet’s capacity for love. Finally, the issue was resolved. What sets us apart from animals is our ability to use language, to use words, to be literate.

Of course, communication is rife in the animal kingdom. Bees do a waggle-dance to communicate to their hive the location of the choicest nectar. Cats mewl at us to communicate their desire to be fed, or stroked, or even stroked with both hands. Dolphins, who have the most developed form of communication below us, are able to communicate whole schools into attack-formations via a series of fine squeaks and pops.

But communication is not language. Communication can only indicate, but the beauty of language lies in its ability to specify with absolute clarity. While a bee might be able to point out where the nectar is, I can tell you what that nectar tastes like, how much of it there is, and whether or not it’s worth fighting through all those bees to get to it. The ability to harness fire, the invention of the wheel – these were all milestones in human development. But none were so important, none were so cohesive and empowering to us as a species, as the development of language.

To say that facilitating a deep and worthy appreciation of language is vital for our children as it is this which sets us apart from animals may sound a little hyperbolic, but it is not. Because – get this – we can all do it! We may all speak different languages, but we can all speak a language. Children may not be born with the innate ability to talk, but they are all born with the innate capacity to learn to talk. Language is not just inherent to our various cultures, it is what our cultures are built upon and continue to thrive off through the use of.

And so we come back to literacy – ‘to be educated’; ‘to know the letters’. It may be clear to you by now that I have a deep and abiding love of literacy. Knowing the letters has not just educated me, it has empowered me. It’s why I became an English teacher. I wanted to pass on not just my love of language and literacy, but also my understanding of its necessary importance. It’s also why, when I left teaching after ten years, I did so to join an organisation which promoted the same agenda in schools across the UK and, indeed, across the world.

There are many things we need to provide our children with – love, safety, the freedom to observe and question, good health, the means to play and to laugh. They are all of equal importance. And in there, standing shoulder to shoulder with the rest, is literacy. For it is through literacy that our children can learn to love meaningfully, can understand safety, can use their observations and questions to further the common good, can appreciate their health, can play and laugh and then share how to play and how to laugh with others.

And, above all that, literacy can give them that most important of things: to ability to grow into adults and have the whole world available to them. For the child who can speak well, can write well and can read well is the child who can step out into the world with the skills to be successful and happy and who can – perhaps most importantly of all – pass on to their own children the means ‘to be educated’, ‘to know the letters’, to be literate.

After all, without that, what are we?

Do Charlie’s thoughts on literacy mirror your own? Have you tried similar strategies? Let us know in the comments!

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