Literacy LO30170

From: AM de Lange (
Date: 05/14/03

Replying to LO30158 --

Dear Organlearners,

Alan Cotterell <> writes:

>I was talking to a secondary school teacher the other day.
>I asked him why there were so many tertiary level students
>who cannot read competently, and did he attempt to improve
>reading skills amongst his students?
>He answered that he was too busy teaching Shakespear!
>It would seem to me that literacy is absolutely the key to
>success in modern life, and we do the kids a disservice by
>neglecting this part of their education.
>So what's the story? Am I dumb or something?

Greetings dear Alan,

You have pressed your mental finger onto something which is a sore point
for many of us teaching at tertiary institutions. Thank you for bringing
it under our attention.

I would dare to claim that the literacy level of a student is the most
important single factor proportional to the academical perfomances of that
student. The literacy level of far too many students are inadequate for
academical success at a tertiary level. Yet they have been certified by
secondary education as fit for tertiary education.

It seems superficially to be a mismatch between what seconday education
delivers and what tertiary education requires. But i think it goes far
deeper than that. Perhaps i can articulate it as the degree of awareness
to any "language as a living entity". Most students as well as the
societies from which they come believe that a language consists of a fixed
grammer and vocabulary -- there is no life in it. Once a prescribed level
of competancy has been reached, the student is ready to explore and
conquer the world without any further learning of that language.

The depiction of all the facets of a language in books is as inanimate as
those books are. It is but information which exists outside the mind. But
once that language becomes an integral part of the knowledge which dwells
within the mind, it becomes alive. Unless we are artists in any medium
other than literature, almost all of our thinking is encapsulated within
language. Should we then consider language as rigid (fixed?) and that a
prescribed level of competancy is sufficient, our thinking becomes rigid
and limited too. Thus our continual learning becomes also seriously
impeded because learning often requires breaking out of old ways of

Whenever i am involved with any organisation i try to observe as much
as possible how proficient its members are in communicating with each
other as well as outsiders. The degree in which a person articulates
his/her own thinking IN TERMS OF the language proficiency of the
person he/she is talking to, is an indication for me of that person's
awareness to organisational learning. I once read an article on the web
in which somebody claimed that conversational proficiency is the
emergence of the Sixth Discipline of a LO (Learning Organisation). I
did manage to find that article with Google. It is at
< >
Upon reading the article again, i was impressed with its serious nature.
I can recommend it to fellow learners, although i will not go so far as
to agree that conversational proficiency is the Sixth Discipline of a LO.

Let me explain my reluctance to agree to that claim. Consider an orchestra
consisting of musicians playing different kinds of instruments. Each
individual musician may be an excelent performer with his/her particular
instrument. But to play beautifully together in an orchestra requires
something else which is definitely not "conversational proficiency". It
can rather be articulated as "symphonical proficiency". The musicians may
even have different languages to such an extent that they cannot talk
sensibly to each other. Yet it is possible to emerge into "symphonical

I am also reminded of chemistry. Many students find it a difficult subject
to master. There are many reasons for this, all pointing to the complexity
of chemistry. But i want to single one reason out. It is their "symbolical
proficiency" involving mathematics, measurements, chemical formulae,
reaction mechanisms, phase transitions, etc. Once a class of students have
reached a certain level of "symbolical proficiency", it is a sight for
sore eyes to see how they form learning groups and communicate like
chemists do. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to convince them that all
these different kinds of chemical symbolics have an important
communication value.

I am of opinion that we have to think of "communicational proficiency"
which may be exemplified into specifical cases such as "conversational
proficiency", "symphonical proficiency" and "symbolical proficiency".
However, the mother of them all remains to be "conversational
proficiency". Without it all the great literary works of the world become
closed books. The result is nothing else than a closing of the mind. I
still remember vividly a book which i studied many years ago. It is Alan
Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind". I can recommend it.

The disconcerting thing is that despite the publication of this book and
the shock waves it caused, things go on (and deteriorate) as usual. So
what is the reason for this serious problem? I would like to read what
fellow learners think. I myself think that is a concequence of the
information explosion which far too many humans have been exposed to.
Their entropy (fitness) landscape gets flattened and that makes them lame
to any effort in communicating effectively.

>It's quite simple to ask a twenty year old student to read
>a passage from a book, out loud, and find out whether
>he/she has reasonable reading skills.

It is not done anymore because the results are too shocking to endure. The
mirror does not lie.

With care and best wishes


At de Lange <> Snailmail: A M de Lange Gold Fields Computer Centre Faculty of Science - University of Pretoria Pretoria 0001 - Rep of South Africa

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