The Power of Literacy Narratives

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I first learned to read at the age of three while sitting on my grandmother’s lap in her high-rise apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, IL. While flipping casually through Time magazine, she noticed how I took a keen interest in the blur of black and white shapes on the page. Soon, I was following her wrinkled finger from one word to the next, sounding them out, until those words came into focus, and I could read. It felt as though I had unlocked time itself.

What Is a “Literacy Narrative?”

What are your strongest memories of reading and writing? These stories, otherwise known as “literacy narratives,” allow writers to talk through and discover their relationships with reading, writing, and speaking in all its forms. Narrowing in on specific moments reveals the significance of literacy’s impact on our lives, conjuring up buried emotions tied to the power of language, communication, and expression.

To be “literate” implies the ability to decode language on its most basic terms, but literacy also expands to one’s ability to "read and write" the world — to find and make meaning out of our relationships with texts, ourselves, and the world around us. At any given moment, we orbit language worlds. Soccer players, for example, learn the language of the game. Doctors talk in technical medical terms. Fishermen speak the sounds of the sea. And in each of these worlds, our literacy in these specific languages allows us to navigate, participate and contribute to the depth of knowledge generated within them.

Famous writers like Annie Dillard, author of "The Writing Life," and Anne Lammot, "Bird by Bird," have penned literacy narratives to reveal the highs and lows of language learning, literacies, and the written word. But you don’t have to be famous to tell your own literacy narrative — everyone has their own story to tell about their relationships with reading and writing. In fact, the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers a publicly accessible archive of personal literacy narratives in multiple formats featuring over 6,000 entries. Each shows the range of subjects, themes, and ways into the literacy narrative process as well as variations in terms of voice, tone, and style.

How to Write Your Own Literacy Narrative

Ready to write your own literacy narrative but don’t know where to begin?

  1. Think of a story linked to your personal history of reading and writing. Perhaps you want to write about your favorite author or book and its impact on your life. Maybe you remember your first brush with the sublime power of poetry. Do you remember the time you first learned to read, write or speak in another language? Or maybe the story of your first big writing project comes to mind. Make sure to consider why this particular story is the most important one to tell. Usually, there are powerful lessons and revelations uncovered in the telling of a literacy narrative.
  2. Wherever you begin, picture the first scene that comes to mind in relation to this story, using descriptive details. Tell us where you were, who you were with, and what you were doing in this specific moment when your literacy narrative begins. For example, a story about your favorite book may begin with a description of where you were when the book first landed in your hands. If you’re writing about your discovery of poetry, tell us exactly where you were when you first felt that spark. Do you remember where you were when you first learned a new word in a second language?
  3. Continue from there to explore the ways in which this experience had meaning for you. What other memories are triggered in the telling of this first scene? Where did this experience lead you in your writing and reading journey? To what extent did it transform you or your ideas about the world? What challenges did you face in the process? How did this particular literacy narrative shape your life story? How do questions of power or knowledge come into play in your literacy narrative?

Writing Toward a Shared Humanity

Writing literacy narratives can be a joyful process, but it can also trigger untapped feelings about the complexities of literacy. Many of us carry scars and wounds from early literacy experiences. Writing it down can help us explore and reconcile these feelings in order to strengthen our relationship with reading and writing. Writing literacy narratives can also help us learn about ourselves as consumers and producers of words, revealing the intricacies of knowledge, culture, and power bound up in language and literacies. Ultimately, telling our literacy stories brings us closer to ourselves and each other in our collective desire to express and communicate a shared humanity.​

Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein is a poet, writer, and educator from Chicago, IL (USA) who currently splits her time in East Africa. Her essays on arts, culture, and education appear in Teaching Artist Journal, Art in the Public Interest, Teachers & Writers Magazine, Teaching Tolerance, The Equity Collective, AramcoWorld, Selamta, The Forward, among others.

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Lichtenstein, Amanda Leigh. "The Power of Literacy Narratives." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Lichtenstein, Amanda Leigh. (2021, December 6). The Power of Literacy Narratives. Retrieved from Lichtenstein, Amanda Leigh. "The Power of Literacy Narratives." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).