Towards Possibilities of Being Literate

Amanda Fulford

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


    This thesis is concerned with the idea of being literate. It takes as its starting point two commonly held views: first that the skills associated with literacy are reading, writing, speaking and listening, and second, that it is in having these skills that one is literate. The thesis explores this relationship between literacy and being literate; in particular it asks whether being literate can be described adequately in terms of possession of a set of skills, and whether to demonstrate an ability to read, write, speak and listen is all that should constitute our being literate.

    Part I of the thesis outlines the field of literacy and of literacy studies and thereby sets the context for the discussions that are developed later. It traces the development of two influential positions: functionalism (which emphasises literacy as skill) and the New Literacy Studies (in which the emphasis is on literacy as social practice). It argues that both these movements are concerned primarily with having, or demonstrating, literacy skills. In order to develop the central concept of being literate, the thesis turns, in Chapter Two, to consider how some of philosophy’s writings on language and the self might enable a richer understanding. In doing this it draws attention to aspects of the work of Martin Heidegger, of the American writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and of the philosopher Stanley Cavell.

    Part II of the thesis - comprising Chapters Three to Five - discusses the elements of what we traditionally think of as literacy: Chapter Three considers reading, Chapter Four discusses writing, and Chapter Five examines speaking and listening. It broaches each of these topics, however, in a distinctive way, subverting some of the assumptions that normally support analysis of this kind. Each chapter opens with a scenario from a different educational context and explores how current understandings of what it is to be literate have shaped the practices of literacy in these contexts. The discussion in Chapters Three and Four then opens onto how a richer understanding of our being literate might come from thinking about our relationship to reading and writing, to society and the self, as expressed in some of the writings of Thoreau, of Emerson and their interpretation by Cavell. In Chapter Five a slightly different approach is taken: following discussion of the scenario, speaking and listening is explored with reference to Michel Foucault’s analysis of the Greek notion of parrhēsia before returning to Cavell and his development of John Austin’s notion of performative utterance.

    Part III of the thesis returns to Heidegger to risk, somewhat ambitiously, extending the original scope of his idea of the ontological difference. In so doing it makes three claims: first, that our being literate - epitomised by reading and writing - is an ontological condition; second, that for our being human, to be literate is in a sense, and paradoxically, prior to our acquiring literacy; and third, that we are always on the way to being literate. This concluding section seeks to show that how we are in the world in relation to reading and writing is the possibility for our being literate. It concludes by considering what the implications for educational practice might be of this richer understanding of our being literate.

    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • UCL Institute of Education
    Award date13 Jun 2012
    Publication statusUnpublished - 2012


    • Literacy
    • literate
    • Cavell
    • Thoreau
    • Heidegger


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