Why, exactly, do we think that it is important that students read and write?
Educationalist Margaret Meek posed this question in 1987, challenging a literacy norm that is ingrained in many societies.
In 2021, the Office for Students produced a report that pushed for the improvement of literacy standards in higher education. Susan Lapworth, director of regulation at the Office for Students, stated in a press release that “it is not possible to analyse and explore complex theories and arguments without being able to write well…”.
The suggestion that complex ideas can only be analysed through text-based means reinforces ableism. Craig Collinson discusses the idea of “lexism” – the theory that dyslexia is actually created because of society’s obsession with the written word.
In education, we frequently judge people on their ability to acquire and express ideas through written forms and devalue those who communicate in other ways. This tendency for education (and society in general) to consider written language to be the only legitimate way to engage in higher-order thinking leads to the delegitimisation of other forms of communication, such as oral or visual methods.
Indigenous author, Sweeney Windchief explains how oral history is simplistically described as “oral tradition” and relegated to the idea of cultural studies rather than being included in the canon of history. Yet, narrative or artistic forms of communication can amplify the voices of those who are marginalised through text-based means.
The hierarchy of communication has historical roots that can be traced to the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ period. In 17th-century Europe, works of literature would be read in public spaces, such as the increasingly popular coffee houses, for others to listen to. Those who read were considered enlightened and intelligent, whereas those who listened were unthinking and uneducated.
These ideas still influence how we view literacy today. Adhering to a “lexist” mindset of literacy correctness is terribly antiquated when assistive technology apps and AI can tidy and improve grammar, spelling, and punctuation. And yet higher education still elevates the conventions of writing above creativity and originality. Does an insistence on metrics contribute to this, lauding writing that is easily quantifiable?
Meek suggests young people are writing more frequently and creatively than ever before. This is illustrated in the increasing use of social media. However, focusing on the mechanics and accuracy of writing can justify the dismissal of what young people have to say.
Rather than simply training our students to absorb and reproduce the written word and judging them on the accuracy of this, we could challenge the hierarchy of literacy and forge a more holistic path to framing our expectations of reading and writing.
Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, said that we need to teach students the value of learning the standard dominant language while still valuing their own vernacular and method of communication. He argues that learning to read and write is not simply about decoding or constructing words or about the quantity of books read. Instead, literacy allows us to learn, describe, and converse about the world. For this reason, it is essential to provide students with the tools to engage in this conversation.
American educator, Vicki Spandel, supported literacy development by introducing the Write Traits to pupils. The programme broke down writing into six essential elements to help students visualise the distinct parts of the writing process. These elements were:
- Idea development
- Word Choice
Students could then focus on developing each aspect. Employing this holistic strategy in higher education could improve the confidence and self-esteem of dyslexic, neurodivergent, or indeed any students for whom text-based expression is not the default form of communication.
Universities like Falmouth, which recognise the value of arts-based courses and visual communication, empower students to look at writing as a holistic process that fosters and develops creativity and thinking. Students can be encouraged to embrace multiple forms of expression, legitimising their creative communication styles whilst being taught the value of text-based language.
The right to be educated should exist for all, and therefore, access needs to be universal. As exemplified by Universal Design for Learning, education will become more inclusive when we enable various forms of representation and expression. One way to achieve this is to deconstruct the hierarchy of literacy that has, to this point, marginalised dyslexic, neurodivergent and other learners whose primary form of communication is not text-based.