Literacy: generic or specific skills?

The belief that reading and writing were generic skills predominated for many years among teachers and is probably still predominant among lay people. It is sometimes seen in media representations of literacy teaching and in some published teaching materials:

“If only our children were taught to spell, they would be able to write with complete confidence.”

“There are forty four sounds in English. If children learn all of these sounds, they will be able to read anything.”

A generic skill is one that, once learned, can be applied in any situation. For example, if I learn the generic skill of hammering a nail, it follows that I can then hammer any nail. If I learn how to ride a bicycle, I can then ride any bicycle. The same reasoning applied to literacy produces the claim that: once I learn how to read, then I can read anything; once I learn how to write, then I can write anything. This view assumes that if pupils can read or write words, they can read or write sentences; if they can read or write sentences, they can read or write stories; and, if they can read or write stories, they then have what it takes to read or write history texts, science texts, etc.

We now know, however, that reading and writing are not generic skills. Even adults who are able to read novels, poetry and information books proficiently can have trouble with insurance policies, tax forms, directions for putting together DIY furniture, computer manuals, and information material on topics unfamiliar to them. Similarly, adults who can write perfectly good accounts of their careers can fail completely to rework the information in these accounts into a persuasive argument as to why they are the best people for particular jobs.

In fact, there are no truly generic skills. Just because I can ride an ordinary bicycle does not mean that I can ride a multi-speed racing bike. Similarly, different nails are used in different materials for different purposes, and they are not all hammered the same way. We learn things not in isolation, but in a context. We learn how to hammer a particular kind of nail into a particular material using a particular hammer. If the situation changes – if the nails, material or hammer are different – then what I have already learned may actually be a hindrance. Think about someone who has learned to hit a large, long nail very hard to drive it deeply into a wooden beam. Now he has a short, thin nail that he wants to drive into a plaster wall to hang a picture. If he applies his learnt nail-driving skill in this situation, he may crack the plaster, bend the nail, hit his thumb, or, even if all else goes well, drive the nail too far into the wall.

Nothing we learn can be transferred directly to all situations. However, we do use what we already know to deal with new situations. When we must hammer a new kind of nail, we use what we already know from past experiences with nails, plaster and picture-hanging and put it all together to hypothesize what to do. We draw on all our relevant past experiences to deal with new situations. If the new experience is very similar to our past experiences, our behaviour may be very similar to past behaviour. But if the new experience is dissimilar, our previous experiences may not be very helpful at all.

What does this mean for literacy? Like everything else, reading and writing are learnt in particular contexts. We learn how to read and write particular texts and we develop a number of strategies for achieving our goals.

When the context changes – when we are faced with different reading or writing tasks, with different purposes – we use what we have learnt from previous literacy experiences. However, what we learnt during these experiences may not work in the new situation. Strategies developed for hitting one kind of nail do not work with all nails, and strategies learned for reading or writing one kind of text do not necessarily work with all texts.

Literacy skills are always used within a context and are specific to that context. Four main factors influence the use of these skills – the reader/writer, the kind of text being read or written, the topic or content of that text and the situation within which the reading or writing takes place. These factors overlap and interact to affect the nature of the literacy employed at any given time. 

The reader/writer 

The state of the reader or writer affects the process of reading or writing. Physical and emotional states such as tiredness, hunger and mood can all make a difference to the way readers approach texts and writers set about composing. A pupil, for example, whose parents are separating, might be upset and unable to concentrate on reading a science text. On the other hand, the same pupil may eagerly read a story about a child of divorced parents or information material about coping with divorce.

The prior knowledge of readers/writers is also important. Readers’ familiarity both with the topics and the formats of reading materials substantially influences their ability to understand them. If the topic is very familiar, then a reader may have some difficulty but will probably be able to work through any problems. A pupil who knows about space exploration can often read new material about space missions even if the format is not completely familiar. If both topic and format are unfamiliar, however, then readers are likely to have difficulty comprehending. This is why so many adults have trouble with, for example, income tax forms. We know little about the topic – we are not familiar with the rules and regulations regarding taxes. In addition, we rarely read material that is structured like the tax forms and directions. Because both the topic and format are unfamiliar, we have trouble with this reading. Tax accountants, on the other hand, know the rules and regulations governing income taxes and, having read thousands of these forms and directions, are very familiar with their structure. Their familiarity with both the topic and format makes income tax forms very readable for them.

The text

The vocabulary, sentence structure and organizational patterns of texts vary. While fictional pieces differ from poems and information texts, there are also differences within each type. All poems are not alike, and it demands different textual knowledge to read or write a haiku or a ballad. Similarly, not all information texts are the same. The difference between, say, a history text and a science text can be as great as between a history text and a piece of fiction. Because each type of text needs to be read differently, these variations affect the reading process. Composing these text types will also affect the writing process.

Text content

Texts, especially information texts, contain a wide variety of content material. There will be marked vocabulary and grammatical differences between texts because of this content difference. Of these differences, vocabulary is the most widely recognised. Most people will know, for example, that a text containing words such as ‘perimeter’, ‘angle’, ‘equation’ and ‘hypotenuse’ will usually contain mathematical content, even though they might not be sufficiently familiar with such vocabulary to understand (or write) such a text effectively. Grammar, however, is also content specific. To take one example, the sentence, “Harry carefully added the sparkling white powder to the rest of the ingredients”, could probably only occur in a work of fiction. The subject of the sentence is a named person, the sentence is active and declarative, and its object is given two adjectives one of which suggests a subjective judgement. A similar sentence about science content would probably have read, “The white powder was added to the mixture”. Note the use of the passive, the lack of subjective description and the vanishing subject.

If they are to understand the texts they read, and if they are to write text successfully, readers/writers need to have some familiarity with the vocabulary and grammar of texts in different subject areas.


The context of the reading/writing situation includes the physical location of the reader/writer, the constraints and expectations surrounding the reading/writing, and its purpose. For example, the same material found in a textbook, a newspaper, an advertisement, or a novel will not be read in the same way. Readers tend to have different expectations of various types of material and these expectations influence the process of their reading. They might expect newspapers to be easy to read as well as biased, or novels to focus on human events in chronological order and to be enjoyable, or textbooks to contain lists of facts, have a categorical, logical organization, or to be boring and hard to read. Because of these expectations, they approach these reading materials differently.

Similarly, if a writer’s purpose is to produce a story in an examination, he or she will tackle this task very differently from if the purpose were to add an entry to a personal diary. Writing style, the balance of attention between composing ideas and transcribing them and the use of redrafting may all differ widely between these two acts of writings.

Literacy variation in school

This variation between different experiences of reading and writing has important consequences for the teaching of literacy in schools.

The first important piece of information all teachers need to know is that readers do not read different sorts of texts in the same way. A reader who is proficient in some contexts may lack proficiency in others. At primary level, we typically make judgements about pupils’ reading abilities on the basis of their performance in reading fiction texts, yet the types of text read and the purposes for reading them actually change the nature of the interaction between the reader and text. We do not read fiction in the same way that we read non-fiction, and even the way we read fiction will depend on factors well beyond the text itself. Reading Jane Eyre on the beach for relaxation is quite different to reading it for a GCSE examination or as part of a PhD on the construction of women in nineteenth-century literature. The words on the page remain the same but the experience and meaning of the reading varies significantly. It is quite common for pupils to take it for granted that to read correctly is to understand, as if recognising the words and what they mean was all there was to it. This assumption may be true in some cases – reading an exciting story may well proceed in this fashion. But most reading for information and subject-based reading is done quite differently. Much of it requires the reader to skim and scan for potentially useful passages, to make repeated readings and rereadings of passages to establish and check for meaning, and to pause to reflect on and summarise developing ideas. The evidence suggests that many pupils are less competent at this sort of reading than in the reading of fiction.

A parallel picture applies to writing. There is plenty of evidence that the writing experience of primary pupils is, firstly, predominantly fiction-based, and, secondly, that non-fiction writing tends to consist of the production of narrative recounts. Yet writing in different curriculum subjects will, typically, demand different processes, structures and language choices. Even when different subjects demand what seem at first sight to be similar text types, the differences will still be considerable. Pupils may, for example, be asked to explain phenomena in Science and in History, but the precise ways in which they write these explanations will be different. Each subject has a distinct ‘discourse style’ over and above the textual range which characterises work in that subject.

All of this suggests, then, that generic literacy skills teaching will only take pupils so far as they begin to develop subject-based expertise. There are specific reading and writing skills which are necessary to effective learning and performance in History and these are different from the specific skills necessary in Science, etc. The deliberate teaching of these specific skills within the context of the subject area to which they belong will enhance pupils’ command of literacy. But it will also, and this, for subject specialists, is a crucial argument, enhance pupils’ learning and achievements within those subjects.


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