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Literacy is a tough word to define. Beverly Moss writes that “defining literacy is a complicated task which has far-reaching consequences” (3) and urges us to consider a “concept of literacies rather than literacy” (2). Although in the strictest sense, literacy  can be thought of as specific skill or knowledge which allows us to do particular tasks- -use a computer, read a train schedule, succeed in school—Moss suggests that  literacy is actually a far richer concept than this narrow definition implies. Eleanor Kutz, whose writing you will read in Unit 4, tells us that “literacy involves not just reading and writing but all the ways of using language and of interpreting texts and the world” (249). As we move from home, to school, to work, or to the gym, we modify the discourse we use for each environment, illustrating the way that our literacies are shaped by particular contexts. As Kutz writes, “[o]ur literacies are acquired within particular contexts and they are shaped by those contexts” (249). We may flow easily from one literacy to the next as we change contexts: from home, to school, to sports; from writing essays to IM’ing to reading newspapers and blogs.  Or we may experience friction among the identities created and supported by the various literacies we use.  At what place do these all intersect? How does this intersection reflect our personal, cultural and academic identities? And how does our definition of literacy determine what language practices we value?

In this course we will talk, read, and write about the myriad literacies by which and through which we negotiate our worlds and how these literacies shape who we are.
We will engage with texts, those in the book and ones we create, in ways that allow us to explore and question the literacies we control as well as the ones we seek to control.  We will analyze the role of home literacies and their relationship to school literacies and how the literacies we bring from outside the academy can enrich the language we develop and use in school.  We will also examine the ways that society privileges some forms of literacy and restricts other and the impact this has on personal identity.

The Course:

The course text, Engaging Literacies, provides the basis for the Basic Writing course at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  While focused on composition, this course approaches writing as an activity deeply connected to reading.  And this curriculum also recognizes that to learn to read and write in meaningful and purposeful ways, we need to read and write about content that is personally and academically engaging.  Therefore, this course focuses on literacy as a central theme, with each chapter exploring this topic from a different angle.  This approach allows us to engage deeply with many facets of one issue over an entire semester, each unit adding more insight and knowledge about it to our reading and writing. The choice of literacy as a theme for this course represents our desire to engage students and teachers in the very important activity of examining the language(s) we use at home, in school, and in the many contexts we find ourselves in to try to understand how these multiple literacies interact with one another.  As Beverly Moss writes, we will attempt to “examine literacy (and/or) literate behavior as it fits within the social structure of a particular community or group” (3), with special attention to the discourse communities we ourselves inhabit.


The bulk of the readings for this class are contained in Engaging Literacies.  A few additional readings are accessible through your classroom management syste.  All of these readings offer a place to engage in meaningful ways with content through active reading strategies, discussion, and exploratory writing exercises. Throughout the semester, these readings will help develop the ability to read critically and to develop a broad vocabulary on the issue of literacy.


A major focus of this course is writing.  Along with the readings, we will engage in various generative and exploratory writing, leading to a polished essay at the end of each unit.  In each unit we will read to expand ideas of the particular content area introduced, produce drafts, discuss writing with the class, revise substantially and finally copy-edit the final draft.


An important focus of this course is class discussion, revolving around both the content areas in the book and on writing issues covered in class. Together we will explore the texts we read, our relationships to those texts, and the ways that we can use our interactions with these essays to create, in writing, new understandings of the literacies operate in the world.

This course will engage us in a wide variety of rich, language activities. We believe that a holistic approach to language and writing will enable the development of academic writing ability while exploring concepts about literacy that are key to the understanding of how language works. Our hope is that from this class, we will take not only a keener sense of writing, but a critical eye to issues of language in society.

-- Deirdre Vinyard, Deputy Director of the Writing Program

Kutz, Eleanor.  Language and Literacy:  Studying Discourse in Communities and Classrooms. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers, 1997.

Moss, Beverly “Introduction.”  In Literacy Across Communities. Ed. Beverly Moss.  Cresskill, NJ:  Hampton Press, 1994. 1-7.

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