OpenFiction [Blog]

Critical perspectives – Receptive vs. productive literacy

Posted in Uncategorized by scarsonmsm on August 24, 2005

What’s this?

One bone to pick with JSB and others who discuss a “new type of literacy” emerging with the new technologies of the producer culture. There have been two types of literacy for as long as there have been media, and we’ve taught both in as much as the media have allowed. I describe them as receptive and productive literacy. Receptive literacy as applied to written text is the traditional definition of literacy–the ability to read; productive literacy is the literacy one develops when one learns composition. It’s not the same as the ability to write–in fact, even poor writers can have high levels of productive literacy, which is the ability–as a reader–to understand how a piece of writing is constructed. It’s entirely possible to understand the content of a news article without understanding the technicalities of how news articles are constructed; knowing how they get written, though, can provide more insight into a range of issues, not the least of which are the biases of the writer.

Similarly, we have for many decades had a population that is receptively visually literate. There was a brief period in the early 1900’s when films were around, but quite literally people did not know how to watch them. Since that time, almost everybody has been trained to understand movies as an audience. One of the reasons movies seemed magical, though, was because few people were visually productively literate, and so the motives and biases of the filmmakers were largely opaque. What JSB and George Lucas and Elizabeth Daly are describing is the explosion of productive literacy in all media enabled by new technologies. Because it has become easy and inexpensive for most people to become producers in a range of media, a much wider range of people are developing an understanding of how works in those media are constructed.

I’d go even further and divide productive literacy into narrative and argumentative branches that span media. Of course you can’t directly translate all elements of narrative textual productive literacy into a productive understanding of visual narrative, but there are a lot of commonalities. Likewise with how arguments get constructed in various media. This is exactly why I find teaching fiction to have political implications. Understanding how fictional stories are created can provide students with the productive literacy required to pick apart stories they are told in other contexts…

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