Keralites claim to have high rate of literacy. However, it is ironic that many do not even know what they mean by ‘high rate’ and ‘literacy.’ It is all the more shocking that the Catholics, the leader in education have only a superficial understanding about the meaning and significance of ‘literacy’ albeit their claim of providing the ‘best education’ to Indian citizens. This short write up tries to provide some fresh perspectives about literacies and its significance in the life of the Church.


Many think that literacy is the skill of reading and writing. Even Church leaders have slipped into the rut of this minimalist definition. Of course reading and writing are basic features of literacy, but one becomes completely literate only when they are able to think critically about the written or spoken word as well as to conceptualise and state his/her own ideas coherently. If one lacks this later part s/he cannot said to be literate.

Literacy and Learning

Scribner and Cole (1999) in their interesting study on the The Psychology of Literacy have identified that literacy in itself has not made any difference to people’s cognitive skills. But it was in fact the education that accompanied literacy that made the difference. They found that the idea of a ‘great divide between being literate and illiterate’ a claim that had dominated academic research in the West is not completely true. Scribner and Cole stated that “specific literacy practices promote specific skills. It was no longer enough to simply ‘give’ people literacy and assume that cognitive and social consequences would follow.”

Reading and Listening

Whilst the basis of education primarily are reading, listening and observation, the important question to be raised is what do we read? What do we observe? What do we critically engage with? A cursory observation shows that our reading practices are very minimum. A number of people do not even read newspapers regularly. Even the everyday readers read just for the sake of information than to engage critically with the content.

The key to all literacy is reading development, a progression of skills that begins with the ability to understand spoken words and decode written words, and culminates in the deep understanding of text. This involves a range of complex language skills including awareness of speech sounds (phonology), spelling patterns (orthography), word meaning (semantics), grammar (syntax) and patterns of word formation (morphology), all of which provide a necessary platform for reading fluency and comprehension. Limited reading makes one less literate.

New Perspectives on Literacies

In today’s changed cultural and social atmosphere reading alone does not make one literate. Until the previous century books served the central position of literacy. The beginning of the present century witnessed a revolution in information technology which scholars named the “post-literate culture.” This culture “has been fundamentally and irreversibly defined and shaped by literacy, but in which new technologies and practices of representation and communication have largely superseded writing and the written word” (de Castel, 1996, p. 399).

In the last decades of the previous century when images have taken a significant role in communication cultures scholars developed the idea of visual literacy (Elkins, 2007; Mitchell, 2007a, 2007b). It was a time when people thought reading and books would die. This changed perspective had significant affect in the information sciences and literacy theories. This marked the end of the “autonomous model of literacy” which views reading and writing as individualised private practice (Street, 1995).

Literacies and meaning-making

Literacy is no more considered limited to reading and writing, but as a skill of information process through decoding and constructing meanings (Perez, 2004) from the information presented. For a person to be competent, hence, it becomes necessary to have many literacies such as visual literacy, media literacy, cultural literacy etc., apart from the traditional alphabetical literacy.

Fortunately, in the networked cultures of today reading and writing had not become completely obsolete, but have taken new forms with the possibility of hypertext and interactivity. Today scholars understand ‘literacies’ in plural and consider it as social practices among users (Baker & Luke, 1991; Kress, 2003; Pahl & Rowsell, 2006) because “literacies are foregrounded in relations of meaning making specific to social institutions and are ideologically charged” (Hagood, 2000, p. 312). So it becomes a pressing need to acquire skill of information literacies and cultural literacies for one to be competent in the media age.

Whether or not one uses the advanced technologies is not a significant matter, but how does one use them. It is extremely crucial that what one reads whether they read it from a borrowed book or subscribed newspapers or on an expensive iPad. It is all the more important how one critically, creatively and constructively engages with its content. It is these skills that make one literate and not the statistical data presented about literacy by NGOs or the Government.

Implications on the Church

Today Catholics do not seem to have a culture of reading. There could be many reasons for that and I will write about it in a different article. But, our teaching system which fosters a curriculum that does not encourage reading may be successful in producing a few efficient doctors or engineers but not a literate generation who participate in the public affairs by making public opinions. An alarming deficiency in reading among Catholic clergy and religious would only risk the very social role of the Church in the public affairs. The fourth century Desert Father Pachomius for this reason has far-sightedly required basic literacy skills from all the candidates who wished to be a monk in his monastery. He stipulated that an illiterate candidate “shall stand before [a learned teacher] and learn very studiously and with all gratitude… and even if he does not want to, he shall be compelled to read (Pachomius, Rule 139).”

Austin Phelps once said: “Wear the old coat and read the new book.” But in our circles people wear the newest (dearest) of coats and even don’t read the oldest (simplest) of books. They have become more exhibitionists in their attires and costumes, and intellectual pursuit is valued least in their lives.


Baker, C. D., & Luke, A. (1991). Towards a critical sociology of reading pedagogy : Papers of the XII World Congress on Reading. J. Benjamins Pub. Co.

de Castel, S. (1996). On finding one’s place in the text: Literacy as a technology of self- formation. Contemporary curriculum discourses: Twenty years of JCT. New York: Peter Lang.

Elkins, J. (2007). Visual Literacy. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Hagood, M. C. (2000). New Times, New Millennium, New Literacies. Reading Research and Instruction, 39(4), 311–28.

Kress, G. (2003). Literacy in the New Media Age. New York: Routledge.

Mitchell, W. T. . (2007a). Four fundamental concepts of image science. In J. Elkins (Ed.), Visual Literacy (pp. 14–30). New York: Taylor & Francis.

Mitchell, W. T. . (2007b). Visual Literacy or Literary Visualcy? In J. Elkins (Ed.), Visual Literacy (pp. 11–14). New York: Taylor & Francis.

Pahl, K., & Rowsell, J. (2006). Travel Notes from the New Literacy Studies: Instances of Practice. Multilingual Matters.

Perez, B. (Ed.). (2004). Sociocultural Contexts of Language and Literacy. Psychology Press.

Scribner, S., & Cole, M. (1999). The Psychology of Literacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Street, B. V. (1995). Social literacies : critical approaches to literacy in development, ethnography, and education. London; New York: Longman.