What is information-processing anyway?

Working in the field of adult literacy education here in Canada or elsewhere you may have come across the term information-processing in relation to literacy testing and even as a way to describe literacy itself. If you haven’t, don’t worry, you haven’t missed anything useful. If you are familiar with the term, it’s important to get at what it is and isn’t.

First, the term is not referring to cognitive sciences and the study of the way our mind takes in, recalls, stores and retrieves an array of incoming sensory information — any perceptual information — not just words on a page.

The term was lifted out of this context, stripped down to relate only to the processing of textual information and further curtailed to describe the way a test defines the processing of information.  This test is PIAAC (Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies), which uses the same testing approach and test items as previous tests, like the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS). These two tests and others have been carried out by the Organization for International Cooperation and Development (OECD) for over two decades.

The test-defined version of information-processing isn’t something that we actually do outside a testing situation. It was constructed for testing purposes. An information-processing model was developed in the 1980s to guide the construction of tests and their test questions.  The original model was not based on theories or even principles of reading. It was based on an analysis of errors that adults made in other tests that they took during the 1970s.

The model defines how a test-taker  must target, identify, match, cycle and cycle again through carefully constructed texts in order to respond to the test questions. People do not actually navigate printed documents and on-line information in such a prescribed way, unless they are in a situation in which questions are formulated and texts are assembled that prompt them to do so. The error-based model of reading (whether reading online or the page) has never been examined outside the testing situation. No one has ever asked and tried to answer: Do people actually adhere to the model when reading in daily life? The answer would very likely be no. While the target, identify, match, cycle and recycle process shares some similarities with skimming and scanning strategies, a high level reading comprehension skill, additional factors such as intentionally planted conflicting and confusing text called distratctors, make the test derived process different and more difficult.

Now, most bizarrely, this activity created for testing, which is seen only in a carefully controlled testing situation, is deemed to be a valuable skill. And the made-up testing skill has been reformulated as a reading pedagogy. This thing called information-processing that didn’t exist until it was formulated for testing, and likely doesn’t exist outside a controlled testing situation is now the basis of reading instruction. How this happened was the focus of my PhD research. I will share what I figured out and its impacts on learning in this blog.


One thought on “What is information-processing anyway?

  1. Thank you Christine for the clear explanation of the “literacy as information-processing” myth. It is very troublesome that this constructed testing method has become the policy lens toward the field of practice.


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