Hearing Other Voices: A Critical Assessment of Popular Views on Literacy and Work

Publication November 1991

Interviewer: What about reading and writing? People are always saying that you need reading and writing for whatever you do. Do you need reading and writing skills in banking?

Jackie: I don’t think so, ’cause, say, if you don’t know how to spell somebody’s name, when they first come up to you, they have to give you their California ID. So you could look on there and put it in the computer like that . . . push it in on those buttons.

Alma: But you still gonna have to look at it and read and write. . . . You’ve got to read those numbers when you cash their money; that’s reading and writing. . . . If you can’t read and write, you’re not going to get hired no way.

Jackie: That’s true.

Jackie and Alma, students in a vocational program on banking and finance, disagree about the nature and extent of the reading and writing actually involved in being a bank teller. But they do not doubt, even were such skills unimportant in carrying out the job itself, that literacy (or some credential attesting to it) would be a requirement for getting hired in the first place. From what I can tell by examining a popular literature that is noteworthy for its doomsday tone, Jackie and Alma are right: There is consensus among employers, government officials, and literacy providers that American workers to a disturbing extent are “illiterate”; that higher levels of literacy are increasingly needed for many types of work; and that literacy tests, “audits,” and instruction are, therefore, necessary phenomena in the workplace.

I find most current characterizations of workplace (il)literacy troublesome and harmful, and in this paper I hope to show why. To begin, I will illustrate some widely held, fundamental assumptions about literacy, work, and workers–the debatable though largely uncontested beliefs which turn up again and again in policy statements, program descriptions, and popular articles. Most troubling to me is the now commonplace assertion, presented as a statement of fact, that because they apparently lack literacy skills American workers can be held accountable for our country’s lagging economy and the failure of its businesses to compete at home and internationally. I want to give space to this dominant rhetoric–the calls to arms by leaders in business, industry, and government to educate American workers before it is too late–for efforts proceed apace to design, implement, and evaluate workplace literacy programs largely on the basis of these notions.

The rest of the paper is spent complicating and challenging these views. Drawing on recent sociocognitive and historical research on literacy and work, I suggest that many current characterizations of literacy, literacy at work, and workers as illiterate–as deficient–are inaccurate, incomplete, and misleading. I argue that we have not paid enough attention, as we measure reading rates, design curricula, and construct lists of essential skills, to how people experience instructional programs and to how they accomplish work. Nor have we often or critically examined how literacy can play a role in promoting economic productivity or in facilitating personal empowerment in the context of particular work situations and training programs for work. Nor is it common, in studies of work or reading and writing at work, to acknowledge the perspectives of workers–to discover the incentives and disincentives they perceive and experience for acquiring and exercising literate skills.

Alternate points of view and critical reassessments are essential if we are ever to create frameworks for understanding literacy in relation to work; if we are ever to design literacy programs that have a prayer of speaking to the needs and aspirations of workers as well as employers; and most importantly, if we are ever to create structures for participation in education and work that are equitable and democratic. The main point of this paper is that we have got to let some different voices be heard, voices like those of Alma and Jackie. We have got to see how different stories and other voices can amend, qualify, and fundamentally challenge the popular, dominant myths of literacy and work.

Hull, G. (1991, November). Hearing other voices: A critical assessment of popular views on literacy and work. Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

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