That the criteria for being considered a member of the literate community have changed in the last few decades is clearly reflected in two recent surveys on literacy, the IALS survey on adult literacy (OECD, 2000) and PISA 2000 on literacy at the age of 15 (OECD, 2000b and 2001). The traditional approach, which is still represented in the IALS survey, measures literacy on the assumption that the subject is at the receiving end of communication, and primarily verifies his or her ability to extract information from a text and to deliver it back. The level of difficulty of the reading exercises is graded according to such parameters as the presence of distracting information or the number of inferences necessary to answer a question: that is, according to the computational effort required for processing the sentences (OECD, 2000, 93-97). Implicit in the underlying conception of the reading and writing process is the idea that information is received and transmitted as if it were an object that migrates from one container to the other, from the page to the head or the other way round: the student has understood a text if the ‘content’ in his head corresponds to the contents of the text, as far as this can be tested. This view of reading and writing is relatively easy to evaluate and makes sense as long as language and text are regarded as means for representing reality, and learning – for which reading is one prerequisite-skill – is understood (maybe implicitly) as storing facts and rules in one’s head. In contrast to the IALS survey, the more recent PISA 2000 survey entailed a more active role for the reader, who was required to recognize genre, function and point of view in a text and to collaborate with the text in the production of meaning by drawing inferences from her or his knowledge of the world. In other words, a certain degree of ‘criticality’ is an explicit requirement, in accordance with the spread of a view in which the function of communication is not only to transmit content but also to construct relationships and identities (Fairclough and Wodak, 1997); or, to use a formulation which I will prefer in this paper, ‘to pattern expectations and values’ (Raskin, 1982, 16; Raskin was actually referring to functions of art). The claim of this paper is that much research on language and culture can be productively seen as a contribution to fostering literacy, which I would first define in general terms as understanding and mastery of the communication tools that permit us to orient ourselves and others in our complex world. However, like ‘knowing’ or ‘learning’, ‘literacy’ can be associated with a wide range of practices in our society. As an addition to this broad conception, I propose a distinction between two types of literacy:
basic literacy, focused on the representational, face-value layer of language,
and founded on a view of communication as the simple transmission of contents or as self-expression; and advanced literacy, which implies a view of reading and writing as a means for creating and transforming knowledge, for understanding and influencing others, and for constructing identities and relationships. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the concept of advanced literacy as a goal for the study of language and culture by providing examples of how this educational goal can become a source of research questions and a catalyst for dialogue between different paradigms in the study of language and culture.