What Is Literacy?

What Is Literacy?

We have literacy proliferation these days. I just Googled emotional literacy, physical literacy, health literacy, social literacy, and different kinds of literacy. I was amazed at what I found.

So what is literacy? To me literacy means the ability to read. The invention of writing is one of mankind’s most useful creations. With writing, we can record things. Writing is at the heart of the development of civilization and science. What is more, reading is an essential skill in today’s society. People who read well do better professionally and academically.

Children’s success in school depends on their ability to read well. As the above video points out, listening is closely related to reading. Children who read well also listen well. Children who read poorly have trouble listening in class. It is a vicious circle, since the ability to listen and to understand the spoken word is extremely important in the development of reading skills.

For people who read well, the written word provides instant meaning. If we see something written, we cannot help but read it and understand it, assuming we know that language. People who don’t read, or read poorly, are missing out on a major opportunity to learn and discover things about their world.

Once people read well they can read about health, politics, or any other subject that interests them. As to terms like physical or emotional literacy, these concepts have nothing to do with reading, and represent a misuse of the word literacy, in my view.

Reading is a powerful way to improve one’s vocabulary and familiarity with a new language. I mostly listen when learning another language because I can do so while engaged in other tasks. However if I have dedicated time to devote to language learning, my favourite activity is reading. Someone who is a poor reader in his or her own language, will probably have difficulty reading in a second language.

What Is Literacy? Many jobs require the ability to read fairly difficult texts. Safety manuals, operating manuals, or even instructions on products that we buy are often written in very difficult to understand language. People who have trouble reading are at a significant disadvantage.

So I think it would be a good idea if educators and social scientist stopped confusing the issue of literacy with other forms of knowledge, social skills, or physical training.

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5 comments on “What Is Literacy?

In fact, ‘literacy’ does not exclusively refer to the ability to read and write.
It also refers to specialised or developed knowledge in a particular area or field – in fact I’m surprised you haven’t come across it used in such situations before (perhaps you have). Surely you’ve heard of computer literacy?

I think it makes sense for it to be used as a word denoting competency in a specified skill. I think it is well recognised that ‘literacy’ by itself means the ability to read and write, so I don’t think it is confusing anyone.


James Chalmers

I agree with Daniel. The term ‘literacy’ has come to mean something more along the lines of being able to navigate a means of communication and therefore information. The meaning of the word has changed with the onset of new forms of communication and information.

Even with the ‘traditional’ view that literacy is just about reading and writing is an overly simplistic view of a very complex skill set. There are many types of reading; there are many types of writing. For example, teenage texting is reading and writing, yet I have no idea what have the acronyms and symbols really mean. I don’t think I’m literate in this type of communication at all, yet it is based on ‘traditional’ reading and writing. John McWhorter gives a great talk at TED about this exact topic.

Name *Margaret Rustick

I wonder why, as a linguist, you are so surprised when the meaning of a word changes. Word meanings change all the time. But I do agree that the use of “literacy” to describe these broader ways of making meaning or navigating information might be confusing. When we simply accept the word as meaning something vaguely like “comprehending,” we also obscure the concept of reading as something more than simply decoding print, which is apparent in your description of good readers: “For people who read well, the written word provides instant meaning. If we see something written, we cannot help but read it and understand it, assuming we know that language.”
With a PhD in English, I feel safe saying I am a pretty good reader. That doesn’t mean I never work hard at understanding printed texts, or that all printed text “provides instant meaning.” I probably work harder at reading than most people, bringing a much larger toolbox to the task. Assuming that reading–or writing–require nothing more than connecting print and sound, decoding or encoding, really misses the knowledge we rely on to make meaning out of language. Even in speaking, people are misunderstood. What about semantics, pragmatics, sociolinguistics? Try to translate a simple idiom or codify the rules for politeness. Nope. Sorry. The word literacy may have become so broad that its meaning is diluted, and basic reading and writing may still be too important to get lost in the overgrown field called literacy. But until we have a better word to describe complex acts of making meaning, literacy may have to suffice.

    Steve Post author

    Literacy, the ability to read, is so important, I am strongly opposed to watering down the meaning of this term. YTou obviously think otherwise.

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