Defining Literacy

Meaning and Importance Evolve Over Time

Two sisters reading books on the floor in bedroom.
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Simply put, literacy is the ability to read and write in at least one language. So just about everyone in developed countries is literate in the basic sense. In her book "The Literacy Wars," Ilana Snyder argues that "there is no single, correct view of literacy that would be universally accepted. There are a number of competing definitions, and these definitions are continually changing and evolving." The following quotes raise several issues about literacy -- its necessity, its power, and its evolution.

Observations on Literacy

  • "Literacy is a human right, a tool of personal empowerment and a means for social and human development. Educational opportunities depend on literacy. Literacy is at the heart of basic education for all and essential for eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality and ensuring sustainable development, peace, and democracy." -- "Why Is Literacy Important?" UNESCO, 2010
  • "The notion of basic literacy is used for the initial learning of reading and writing, which adults who have never been to school need to go through. The term functional literacy is kept for the level of reading and writing that adults are thought to need in a modern complex society. Use of the term underlines the idea that although people may have basic levels of literacy, they need a different level to operate in their day-to-day lives." -- David Barton, "Literacy: An Introduction to the Ecology of Written Language,"  2006
  • "To acquire literacy is more than to psychologically and mechanically dominate reading and writing techniques. It is to dominate those techniques in terms of consciousness; to understand what one reads and to write what one understands: It is to communicate graphically. Acquiring literacy does not involve memorizing sentences, words or syllables -- lifeless objects unconnected to an existential universe -- but rather an attitude of creation and re-creation, a self-transformation producing a stance of intervention in one's context." -- Paulo Freire, "Education for Critical Consciousness," 1974
  • "There is hardly an oral culture or a predominantly oral culture left in the world today that is not somehow aware of the vast complex of powers forever inaccessible without literacy." -- Walter J. Ong, "Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word," 1982

Women and Literacy

Joan Acocella, in a New Yorker review of the book "The Woman Reader" by Belinda Jack, had this to say in 2012:

"In the history of women, there is probably no matter, apart from contraception, more important than literacy. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, access to the power required knowledge of the world. This could not be gained without reading and writing, skills that were granted to men long before they were to women. Deprived of them, women were condemned to stay home with the livestock or, if they were lucky, with the servants. (Alternatively, they may have been the servants.) Compared with men, they led mediocre lives. In thinking about wisdom, it helps to read about wisdom -- about Solomon or Socrates or whomever. Likewise, goodness and happiness and love. To decide whether you have them or want to make the sacrifices necessary to get them, it is useful to read about them. Without such introspection, women seemed stupid; therefore, they were considered unfit for education; therefore, they weren’t given an education; therefore they seemed stupid." 

A New Definition?

Barry Sanders, in "A Is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word" (1994), makes a case for a changing definition of literacy in the technological age.

"We need a radical redefinition of literacy, one that includes a recognition of the vital importance that orality plays in shaping literacy. We need a radical redefinition of what it means for society to have all the appearances of literacy and yet to abandon the book as its dominant metaphor. We must understand what happens when the computer replaces the book as the prime metaphor for visualizing the self. ...

"It is important to remember that those who celebrate the intensities and discontinuities of postmodern electronic culture in print write from an advanced literacy. That literacy provides them the profound power of choosing their ideational repertoire.

No such choice -- or power -- is available to the illiterate young person subjected to an endless stream of electronic images." 

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Nordquist, Richard. "Defining Literacy." ThoughtCo, Oct. 7, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-literacy-1691249. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, October 7). Defining Literacy. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-literacy-1691249 Nordquist, Richard. "Defining Literacy." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-literacy-1691249 (accessed May 21, 2018).