This paper explores three current notions of literacy, which underpin the theorisation and practice of teaching and learning for both children and adults in England. In so doing, it raises certain problems inherent in these approaches to literacy and literacy education and shows how Stanley Cavell's notions of reading, and especially his reading of Thoreau's Walden, help to construct a notion not of literacy, but of being literate. The paper takes four themes central to Cavell's work in his The senses of Walden: awakening; estrangement and familiarity; conviction; and the obligation to read, and argues that these ideas offer an approach to language, and an understanding of reading in particular, that is different from current iterations of literacy. Such ideas, though alien to current – mainly empirical – work within literacy studies, have a resonance for literacy research and education today.
- Being literarate