Redefining the Inequity of Modern Literacy

How do you define “literacy”?

The Director of Thought Leadership at the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, Ken Bigger, is a vocal and passionate advocate for literacy equity. His extensive experience in non-profit and civic fluency work has led him to focus on improving and facilitating conversations around the future of literacy

Striving for equity in literacy

Programs focused on general literacy have a commendable goal: to disseminate tools for building literacy in underserved populations. However, Ken’s focus is on literacy equity, which takes these goals even further, striving to lower the barriers to access that keep so many people from achieving a definition of literacy that is exclusive and incomplete. 

Much of Ken’s interest and work in this field lies in exploring more effective approaches to asset-based, data-informed community partnerships that can successfully implement these interventions.

An equitable definition of literacy

Believing that “literacy is a human right” is admirable, but it assumes that the root definition of literacy is equitable when, in fact, in many circles, it is not.

When asked what literacy means, most Americans will immediately think of reading and writing. From there, it’s an easy step to a binary distinction—a person is either literate or not. Inevitably, with this assumption comes unsubstantiated preconceptions about intelligence, social status, employability, and even morality.

When those working in the literacy sector consider a continuum, however, one where everyone can grow regardless of their current position, they are able to approach the systemic issues in solidarity with those who appear outside the narrow definition of literacy. Instead of viewing their community members as in need of salvation, they can focus on knowledge-sharing. 

Literacies lie beyond reading and writing

People in our modern society make the mistake of designating reading and writing aptitude as the only indicators of a literate person. Reading and writing only became a part of human cognitive capability a few thousand years ago. Storytelling and comprehending visual cues have been inherent to our species from our very beginnings. Yet,  in our deficit-centered discourse on literacy, it’s seen as a moral failing to reach adulthood without an arbitrary minimum of reading and writing ability. The idea that gaps in achievement precede gaps in opportunity is backward.

How can the literacy landscape improve?

Ken advocates for changes to the way we view literacy as a whole; if we continue to refuse to update the long-held imperialist definition of the term, the programs in place to improve it will always fall short. 

In addition to oral and visual communication, digital literacy, financial literacy, and media literacy hold more and more sway in our modern society and need to be respected, incorporated, and made accessible alongside reading and writing. 

Listen to Alida’s conversation with Ken Bigger to broaden your perspective about what literacy is and how to approach literacy equity differently. 

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