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Nonfiction in Brief

THE CULTURE AND POLITICS OF LITERACY by W. Ross Winterowd (Oxford University Press: $19.95; 226 pp.)

August 20, 1989|SONJA BOLLE

Numerous writers in recent years have deplored the high rate of illiteracy in the United States and advocated political action to combat the problem. W. Ross Winterowd approaches the problem from another perspective. What is literacy, he asks. Is it the ability to read an employment application? The morning paper? The answer he proposes is that literacy is culturally determined. A practical approach to increasing literacy, he argues, begins with an examination of what is needed in this society at this time, how literacy is acquired and what it means.

He begins with a historical overview, pointing out that literacy has always been an important political tool. He shows how various types of illiteracy are linked to certain mental abilities; introducing literacy necessarily changes not only a person's social position, but also his way of thinking of traditional life. Using examples from his own teaching, Winterowd illustrates how the individual learns to read, both at the elementary level--learning to recognize words--and at the level of "cultural literacy"--learning the associations that distinguish the simply literate person from the educated person. He also discusses the common neurological problems that interfere with the process of learning to read.

Although "The Culture and Politics of Literacy" proposes no easy solutions, it does provide a thoughtful and clear look at a complex part of human life. It is that rare book that offers something of use to everyone it purports to address: parents of school children, teachers, politicians.

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