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Feminist Literacy and Numeracy – A Path to Empowerment for Grassroots Women: Conceptions of Literacy – A Review of Related Literature


When the question “What is literacy?” is posed, the answer seems simple enough to divine, but the ensuing grapple with concepts and complexities assures us that the answers to this question are anything but simple. The following discussion outlines the general development of concepts of literacy and some of their critiques.

 Literacy as an Absolute State, Made up of Autonomous Skills

Literacy is generally understood to be a set of easily perceived and measured autonomous skills, with an assumed universality in acquisition and competence, especially in reading and writing. It had been commonly characterized as an absolute state: a person either knew how to read and write or not; and, depending on these basic abilities, a person would be appraised based on one’s productivity – or potentially productivity – as an individual as well as a member of society. Although to be considered literate required only that one simply be able to read and write, this conception of literacy is heavily linked with the school-based acquisition of these skills, achieved step by step through classroom instruction.

Definitions of literacy within this vein did not consider immediate environments or contexts of the person acquiring these skills, nor the background of the learner, thus becoming the basis for the creation of pre-packaged programs to address needs as perceived by the planner. This skills-based definition was later challenged because of views that it espoused an extremely limiting meaning in the light of an emergent broader use of the term that valued skill sets as enablers for access to knowledge and considered differing contexts and situations giving rise to various “literacies” of differing natures.

Generally regarded as a supplement to literacy or an area it encompasses, numeracy had been loosely defined as a “solid mathematical education”[1] or competence. The term had been coined “to represent a ‘mirror image of literacy’”[2] and is defined in sum as “not only the ability to reason quantitatively but also some understanding of scientific method and some acquaintance with the achievement of science.”[3] Le Roux gives an interesting definition: “the ability of mathematicians and non-mathematicians to communicate with each other.”[4] A more modern definition of numeracy, “the knowledge and skills required to effectively manage and respond to mathematical demands of diverse situations”[5], and the characterization of numeracy as a skill for coping and general familiarity with numbers[6], accommodates the changes in perceptions of literacy and developments in adult education, where it is seen as the “bridge between mathematics and the real world”[7]

Even as the views on literacy and numeracy have evolved and developed, however, the skills-based definitions of literacy and numeracy continue to be the dominant view taken by agencies the world over and still enjoy widespread use in planning.

different literacies

different literacies

Shifting Conceptions of Literacy

The broader use of the term literacy, with consideration to how various contexts require and give rise to particular literacies, had established literacy as possessing a wider scope to include ranges in views and accommodate key concepts such as the following:

literacy event – first coined by Shirley Brice Heath and originally defined “any occasion in which a written text is involved in a social interaction”[8], it is now broadly defined to be any activity where literacy plays a central role and evokes or fosters interactions, the interpretation and/or assignment of significance to the activity, and other such processes.

literacy practices – sets of reading and writing tasks or activities that is rooted in social structures, exists within relationships, and is associated with “values, attitudes, feelings, and social relationships”[9]; these “not only incorporate ‘literacy events – observable occasions in which literacy plays a part – but also the ways in which we understand, feel and talk about those events.”[10]

local literacy – a specific set of literary practices peculiar and relevant to a community and valued as a shared resource which affects their quality of life within a particular period.[11]

multiple literacies – “ways of ‘reading the world’ in specific contexts, e.g. technological, health, information, media, visual, scientific, and so on; [also] has been used to understand the multiple forms of literacy among minority communities with shifting cultural identities.”[12]

numeracy – “numerate behaviour is observed when people manage a situation or solve a problem in a real context; it involves responding to information about mathematical ideas that may be represented in a range of ways; it requires the activation of a range of enabling knowledge, behaviours, and processes.”[13]

Perceptions regarding who is literate and who is not thus began to be challenged because universal assumptions and judgments of literacy tend to render “illiterate” productive persons who make specific uses of literacy skills which are not covered by dominant umbrella definitions but are significant and have everyday uses within their own societies.

akhmadreiza photos flickr commons

Literacy and Andragogy: The Adult Education Model

Amidst the continuing debates on what should be included in definitions of basic literacy also lies the undefined area which is Adult Education. Having pedagogy, the “ideology based on assumptions about teaching and learning that evolved between the seventh and twelfth centuries in the monastic and catherdral schools of Europe out of their experience of teaching basic skills to young boys” (Knowles The Adult Learner p.61), as the only model of education, the assumptions about learners which permeate it are inappropriate for adult learners. The natural orientation as well of a model rooted in medieval religious academic institutions of a dictatorial nature which relegates absolute power into the hands of the teacher may well be in direct conflict with the psychological nature of an adult, particularly the aspects of agency and self-direction.

Malcolm S. Knowles, the father of Andragogy (also known as “the adult education model” or, more popularly, “the adult learning theory”) emphasized the importance of distinguishing pedagogy from andragogy to fully appreciate the concept of adult education:

“The pedagogical model, designed for teaching children, assigns to the teacher full responsibility for all decision making about the learning content, method, timing, and evaluation. Learners play a submissive role in the educational dynamics. In contrast, the andragogical model focuses on the education of adults and is based on the following precepts:

  • Adults need to know why they need to learn something;
  • Adults maintain the concept of responsibility for their own decisions, their own lives;
  • Adults enter the educational activity with a greater volume and more varied experiences than do children;
  • Adults have a readiness to learn those things that they need to know in order to cope effectively with real-life situations;
  • Adults are life-centred in their orientation to learning; and adults are more responsive to internal motivators than external motivators.

“The pedagogical model is an ideological model that excludes the andragogical assumptions. The andragogical model is a system of assumptions that includes that [sic] pedagogical assumptions. The andragogical model is not an ideology; it is a system of alternative sets of assumptions, a transactional model that speaks to those characteristics of the learning situation.”[14]

Knowles devised seven steps for the implementation of the assumptions of his method:

“These steps include:

  • creating a cooperative learning climate;
  • planning goals mutually;
  • diagnosing learner needs and interests;
  • helping learners to formulate learning objectives based on their needs and individual interests;
  • designing sequential activities to achieve these objectives;
  • carrying out the design to meet objectives with selected methods, materials and resources; and
  • evaluating the quality of the learning experience for the learner that included reassessing needs for continued learning.”[15]

The development of the andragogical model of education had positive implications for the pedagogical model, with schools of thought in pedagogical education adapting some of Knowles’ assumptions and reporting more teaching effectiveness when providing a learning climate, context of learning and shared responsibility for learning espoused by andragogy.  His continuous development of his theory later led him to revise his views regarding “andragogy vs. pedagogy” and move towards andragogy and pedagogy” – acknowledging that both approaches to be appropriate depending on the needs of the learner.

Some criticisms of andragogy include the contention that andragogy lacks a “sense of historical economic, and cultural forces that shape the possibilities for and the meaning of individual growth and transformation.”[16]  According to Jennifer Sandlin, feminist critiques that     the assumptions of this method generalize the “White, European, middle class male ‘adult learner’ who possesses values such as individualism, self-directedness, and self-fulfilment”[17] to be normal and universal, thus ignoring “other ways of knowing”.  Furthermore, she states that feminist and critical perspectives share the view that andragogy is politically neutral, and will better serve as a methodology aimed towards social conditions and change, and not merely an adjustment to individual attitudes and preferences.[18]

In defense of andragogy, Laurie Blondy stated in her article reviewing the application of andragogy in online learning that criticisms of andragogy are founded on superficial analyses, and may abound “because Knowles stated his concepts of adult education as assumptions vs. goals.”[19] Ultimately, amidst criticisms and developments, the impact of andragogy and self-directed learning on adult education remains unquestionable.

Paulo Freire and his Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Perhaps the most critically-acclaimed and celebrated contributor to literacy and adult education is Paulo Freire, whose ideas have influenced and inspired adult learning within social contexts and revolutionized thinking in educational approaches and philosophies. Profoundly influenced by Karl Marx, Freire experienced poverty early in life and the way it affected his education put him on the path towards the field of education and the discovery of the “culture of silence of the dispossessed”[20]. Freire developed a theory for literacy education based on the belief that every person has the ability to examine one’s world critically during exchanges with others, and when each person is properly equipped for such discussions, he can progressively discern his personal and social reality, and devise critical thought and action. The transformation induced by critical thought of the once illiterate brings a self-awareness that spurs critical action as well against the culture of silence and oppressive structures in society.

Freire viewed reading, speaking and writing as interconnected parts of a learning process and of social transformation. He emphasized the following aspects of informal education: dialogue (conversation) over curricula, praxis (informed action), conscientization, relevance (situating the educational activity within the experiences and realities of participants), and his attention to naming the world.[21]  and his continued development of this theory and numerous literacy campaigns he led gave birth to his groundbreaking text, which became the foundation and inspiration for the development of critical literacy and literacy within the social context.

Freire’s thinking has been criticized for being “shallow”, “inadequate” and “imbalanced”[22], but it had also been noted that critiques are rarely published due to a reluctance of being viewed as lacking in critical perspectives.[23] However, Freire continues to enjoy enduring respect and continues to influence teachers and students alike.


Literacy as a Social Practice

Another individual whose influence has been felt in the development of literacy as a social practice is Amartya Sen, who points out in his “Reflections on Literacy” (2003) the following things that illiteracy brings:

  • “Not to be able to read or write or count or communicate is itself a tremendous deprivation”[24] ;
  • “Any country that neglects basic education tends to doom its illiterate people to inadequate access to the opportunities of global commerce”[25];
  • “When people are illiterate, their ability to understand and invoke their legal rights can be very limited. This can be a sever handicap for those whose rights are violated by others, and it tends to be a persistent problem for people at the bottom of the ladder, whose rights are often effectively alienated because of their inability to read and see what they are entitled to demand and how”[26];
  • “Illiteracy can also muffle the political opportunities of the underdog, by reducing their ability to participate in political arena to express their demands effectively”[27]; and
  • “The survival disadvantage of wmen compared with men in many developing countries… seems to go down sharply – and may even get eliminated – with progress in women’s empowerment, for which literacy is a basic ingredient”[28].

Literacy practices are embedded in our lives – so much so that everything we do in our communications or dealings with others involve an engagement with literacy. Literacy as a social practice[29] thus depicts literacy as embedded in a spectrum of practices within particular contexts – a view that promotes social inclusion because it acknowledges that the necessary skills for particular literacies are shaped by purposes and relationships within social contexts. As such, reading and writing are never done and should not be analysed within a vacuum.

David Barton had used the analogy of an ecosystem[30] to describe the social practice approach, which puts a premium on the ways that literacy works within a particular society and “focuses attention on the cultural, political, economic practices within which the written word is embedded – the ways in which texts are socially regulated and used and the historical contexts from which these practices are developed.”[31]

Literacy as a Situated Social Practice

The view of literacy as “socially located” or as a “situated social practice” puts forth that literacy is not a state of being but an act or an activity. It is about how groups of people use reading and writing in their daily activities, where particular literacy events and practices are shaped and determined as needs arising from specific social situations and occasions. Literacy, thus, is “integral to context”[32], with literacy events and practices as being a “cultural way of utilising literacy”[33], subject to social rules of production and access. Since literacy events and practices are rooted in society and culture, these change along with them.

The literacy practices and events of everyday life encompass how people utilize texts, what significance these hold for them, and how they figure in the conduct of people’s lives. Thus, various contexts give rise to differing literacies – with contexts referring to different areas of study, industries, cultures, and domains of life (such as home, school, work, and the like).

The groups of people who participate and interact within these contexts are referred to as discourse communities, which are affected and regulated by social institutions also situated within these contexts, e.g. family, religion and education.[34] This has thus given rise to particular literacies – some more dominant and influential than others, depending on how powerful the social institution supporting it is.

According to Mary Hamilton (2010), having written texts as part of all aspects of our lives stresses even more the importance of literacy for social inclusion. The world is way past the conception of literacy as being simply a set of discrete skills considering the advances in technology and the variety of media which require people to recognize different kinds of texts vis-a-vis purposes and audiences in addition to the many contexts that have abounded before these technological advents. Literacy as an “elastic idea” acknowledges that it will inevitably mean different things for different people:

  • a set of functional skills that help people to meet the demenads that society puts on them, especially in term of employment;
  • “a civilizing tool, allowing people to access a literary culture that is part of their cultural heritage;
  • “a means of emancipation, enabling people to control their lives, challenge injustice and become autonomous, participating citizens in a democracy.”[35]

Literacy within the situated social practice approach espouses that societies shape the literacy practices which exist within them, and focuses on the ways that literacy functions within a given “social ecosystem”[36] and how it is embedded, used, and regulated within cultural, economic and political practices.

Development Literacy

Influenced by Freire as well as the concept of literacy as a social practice, adult literacy in development examines “the relationship between literacy and development, the role of literacy in development, and the importance of literacy to development.”[37] Since people will have their own ideas of what is literacy, the focus is not the complexities of literacy, but the answers to the following key questions: “Who needs literacy? What do they need it for? What kind of literacy do they need? How will the programme be planned and implemented?”[38] It values the effects of literacy on people – the renewed confidence and personal liberation – and the social and political significance and benefits these bring. Literacy is viewed as important because it may not be the immediate answer, such as food would be, but it is a means to that answer as an enabler. Asking questions such as, “What kind of literacy?” “What is functional literacy?” and “What are the purposes of literacy?” are important in determining what a community truly needs, and not what an outside planner interprets its needs to be. It promotes the idea of the participation – the planned involvement of community members in literacy programmes at all levels of decision making. The kind of participation advocated is clarified below:

  • “one which recognises, values, and uses the contribution of everyone in the community;
  • “which recognises people’s individual differences, rather than assuming they are all the same;
  • “which offers information, rather than seeking to persuade people to make certain choices;
  • “which accepts that knowledge of insiders is worth as much as that of outsiders;
  • “which seeks to exchange that information on an equal basis, where learners will also be teachers and teachers will also be learners;
  • “which takes a holistic approach, keeping in mind the physical, emotional, and learning needs of a community;
  • “which does not start from the belief that a literate society is in any way ‘superior’ to an oral society;
  • “and, finally, one which does not seek to work towards goals imported from outside by planners, but is free to follow the learning needs of the community which it intends to serve.”[39]

Fordham, Holland and Millican make no mention of this approach being feminist, but importance is given to planning with consideration to viewing women as a separate group because of:

  •  differences in the demands on their work time and the elasticity of their work days in relation to the time they will have left for a literacy program and the demands this will put on them;
  • The correlation between little power of women and the high demand on their time;
  • The issue of men objecting to and prohibiting their participation in educational programmes;
  • Addressing attitudes of men in the community; and
  • Also looking into the differences between women, even as they share needs as a group.

Critical Literacy

Another view influenced by Freire is critical literacy, which seeks to set learners on the academically-ordained track learning tracks while also “preparing them to be responsible citizens, change agents, and participants in a democratic society” by drawing from literature and bringing learners to a level where they can competently deal with texts and analyze them. It is defined as seeking to “critique problematic textual and social practices and, at the same time, construct productive and agentic narratives for all students”[40] and is said to emerge from existing community literacy practices used in carrying out important social tasks. It employs reading education techniques such as “teaching for literacy acceleration”, “reading recovery”, “context-based strategies” and “responsive teaching”

The two final conceptions of literacy –development literacy AND critical literacy –appeal to me the most: the first is the most akin to the approach I have taken with the Literacy and Numeracy Class and the second approach is what I wish to apply once they have overcome all barriers to reading more difficult texts. Development literacy’s avoidance of attempts to define literacy in light of the view that there is no one literacy acceptable for all people, times and places, and the valuation instead of principles for determining a community’s literacies and for defining community members’ full participation in the processes of any literacy programmes planned for them speaks well to me of a product that will truly serve the needs of the people. Furthermore, I appreciate critical literacy’s transformation of the socially excluded in traditionally literacy circles into competent and competitive participants within institutionalized spaces, and view it not as a subscription to the status quo, but as a way of transforming institutions from within.

[1] “Education for All: Global Monitoring Report” By UNESCO (2006), p.149.

[2] “What is this thing called numeracy” by Joy Joseph (1990). Insights from research and practice: a handbook for adult literacy, numeracy and ESOL practitioners (Leicester: NIACE) p361.

[3] Joseph (1990), p.361.

[4] Joseph (1990), p.361.

[5] “Adult Language, Literacy, Numeracy and Problem-Solving Skills in the Workplace” by J. A. Athanasou Australian Journal Of Adult Learning52(1) (2012). 173-182.

[6] Joseph (1990), p.361.

[7] “Time for a ‘great numeracy debate’” by Dave Tout (2003). Insights from research and practice: a handbook for adult literacy, numeracy and ESOL practitioners (Leicester: NIACE) p381.

[8] Teaching Adult Literacy: Principles and Practice by Nora Hughes and Irene Schwab (Berkshire: Open University Press, 2010), p.9.

[9]Local Literacies: Reading and Writing in One Community by David Barton and Mary Hamilton (London: Routledge, 1998), p.6.

[10] Hughes (2010), pp.9-10.

[11] Barton(1998), p.xvi.

[12] UNESCO (2006), p.150.

[13] “Tout (2003, p381.

[14] The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development by Malcolm Knowles, Elwood Holton III and Richard Swanson (San Diego: Elsevier, 2005), pp. 71-72.

[15] “Evaluation and Application of Andragogical Assumptions to the Adult Online Learning Environment” by Laurie C. Blondy. Journal of Interactive Online Learning (Volume 6, Number 2, Summer 2007) from, p.17.

[16] “Andragogy and Its Discontents: An Analysis of Andragogy from Three Critical Perspectives” by Jennifer Sandlin. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning (Volume 14, 2005) from, p.26.

[17] Sandlin (2005), p.30.

[18] Sandlin (2005 , p.29.

[19] Blondy (2007) from, p.127.

[20] Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire (New York: Penguin Books, 1980), p.10.

[21] Smith, M. K. “Paulo  Freire”, by M.K. Smith ( May 29, 2012) from . Retrieved on April 12, 2013 from

[22] “Is It Time to Shelve Paulo Freire?”  by Douglas J. Simpson and Sally McMillan , Editors (2008), Journal of Thought, Spring-Summer 2008 from Retrieved April 12, 2013 from

[23] “A Critique of Freire, and Dreams” by Rachel Martin (2001). Listening Up: Reinventing Ourselves as Teachers and Students from Retrieved on April 12, 2013 from

[24] “Reflections on Literacy” by Amartya Sen (2003). Literacy as Freedom, (Paris: UNESCO Roundtable) p.22.

[25] Sen, p.23.

[26] Sen, p.24.

[27] Sen, p.25.

[28] Sen, p.26.

[29] Barton and Hamilton (1998) theorized that literacy is a social practice, with six propositions detailing its nature:

  • Literacy is best understood as a set of social practices, and these can be inferred from events which are mediated by written texts.
  • There are different literacies associated with different domains of life.
  • Literacy practices are patterned by social institutions and power relationships, and some literacies become more dominant, visible and influential than others.
  • Literacy practices are purposeful and embedded in broader social goals and cultural practices.
  • Literacy is historically situated.
  • Literacy practices change, and new ones are frequently acquired through processes of informal learning and sense making.

[30] “Literacy flourishes in particular ‘niches’, will take on the characteristics of that niche while other literacies fail to take root, may be diminished or even disappear. For instance, many kinds of specialist workplace literacies flourish – a business or organization will develop ways of keeping records or reporting on its production processes, for example. Reading novels, however, would be inappropriate in most workplaces, except during lunch breaks. Reading and speaking in minority languages very obviously flourishes within communities in the UK, but may be limited within educational or work settings. Train travel favours portable reading that can be engaged with quietly by individuals, whereas a political campaign meeting might involve noisy and collaborative reading, or the drafting of a document.” – taken from Teaching Adult Literacy: Principles and Practice by Nora Hughes and Irene Schwab (Berkshire: Open University Press, 2010), p.10.

[31] Teaching Adult Literacy: Principles and Practice by Nora Hughes and Irene Schwab (Berkshire: Open University Press, 2010), p.10.

[32]Local Literacies: Reading and Writing in One Community by David Barton and Mary Hamilton (London: Routledge, 1998), p.4.

[33]Local Literacies: Reading and Writing in One Community by David Barton and Mary Hamilton (London: Routledge, 1998), p.7.

[34] Local Literacies: Reading and Writing in One Community by David Barton and Mary Hamilton (London: Routledge, 1998), p.10.

[35]“The social context of literacy” by Mary Hamilton (2010) in Teaching Adult Literacy edited by Nora Hughes and Irene Schwab (Berkshire: Open University Press), p.8.

[36] Hamilton (2010), p.10.

[37] Adult Literacy: A Handbook for Development Workers” by Paul Fordham, Deryn Holland, and Juliet Millican (Oxford: Oxfam, 1995), p.ix.

[38] Fordham (1995) p.x.

[39] Fordham (1995), p.8.

[40] Adult Education Practices: Designing Critical Literacy Practices by Rebecca Rogers and Mary Ann Kramer (2008), p.31.

Next: The Whole Language Philosophy


Author: cindycatz: occasional pianist and coffee shop philosopher

fond of the sun, sky, sea, sand and starfish; passionate about literacy, education, media, feminisms, development, popular culture, counterculture, migration phenomenon, anthropology and the fourth world; fascinated with crochet, sushi-making, fiction, creative non-fiction, storytelling, some films and series | books and comics | anime and manga | music and videos | bands and groupies, Latin and Italian, mom-and-pop consumerism, tavern bards and cafe philosophers, trinkets and bric-a-bracs, and steampunk and lolita couture; and absolutely enamored with nail polish and bag charms, frappucinos and margaritas, conversations and moments, her 41 year-old piano, and - of course - CATS. credentials? visit &

3 thoughts on “Feminist Literacy and Numeracy – A Path to Empowerment for Grassroots Women: Conceptions of Literacy – A Review of Related Literature

  1. Pingback: Feminist Literacy and Numeracy – A Path to Empowerment for Grassroots Women: Table of Contents | Papers, Pursuits and Purrsuasions

  2. Pingback: Feminist Literacy and Numeracy – A Path to Empowerment for Grassroots Women: Abstract and Blog List | Papers, Pursuits and Purrsuasions

  3. Nice discussion , I loved the facts ! Does someone know if my assistant might be able to find a sample NV 2920-EM version to work with ?

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