World illiteracy halved between 1970 and 2005.
is a concept claimed and defined by a
range of different theoretical fields. In everyday terms,
"literacy" is typically described as the ability to read and write.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has drafted a definition of literacy as
the "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create,
communicate, compute and use printed and written materials
associated with varying contexts.
Literacy involves a
continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their
goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate
fully in their community and wider society."
Many policy analysts consider literacy rates as a crucial measure
to enhance a region's human capital
This claim is made on the grounds that literate people can be
trained less expensively than illiterate people, generally have a
higher socio-economic status and enjoy better health and employment
prospects. Policy makers also argue that literacy increases job
opportunities and access to higher
. In Kerala, India, for
example, female and child mortality rates declined dramatically in
the 1960s, when girls who were schooled according to the education reforms after 1948 began to raise
Recent researchers argue, however, that such
correlations may have more to do with the overall effects of
schooling rather than literacy alone. In addition to the potential
for literacy to increase wealth, wealth may promote literacy,
through cultural norms and easier access to schools and tutoring
Broader and complementary definitions
Traditionally considered the ability to use written language
actively and passively, some definitions of literacy consider it
the ability to "read, write, spell, listen, and speak." Since the
1980s, some have argued that literacy is ideological, which means
that literacy always exists in a context, in tandem with the values
associated with that context. Prior work viewed literacy as
Some have argued that the definition of literacy should be
expanded. For example, in the United States, the National Council of
Teachers of English
and the International Reading
have added "visually representing" to the
traditional list of competencies. Similarly, in Scotland, literacy
has been defined as: "The ability to read and write and use
numeracy, to handle information, to express ideas and opinions, to
make decisions and solve problems, as family members, workers,
citizens and lifelong learners."
A basic literacy standard in many societies is the ability to read
the newspaper. Increasingly, communication in commerce or society
in general requires the ability to use computers and other digital
technologies. Since the 1990s, when the Internet
came into wide use in the United States,
some have asserted that the definition of literacy should include
the ability to use tools such as web
, word processing
programs, and text messages
expanded skill sets have been called multimedia literacy
, computer literacy
, information literacy
, and technacy
. Some scholars propose the idea
multiliteracies which includes Functional Literacy, Critical Literacy
, and [Rhetorical Literacy].
"Arts literacy" programs exist in some places in the United
Other genres under study by academia include critical literacy
, media literacy
, ecological literacy
and health literacy
With the increasing emphasis
on evidence-based decision making, and the use of statistical
graphics and information, statistical literacy
is becoming a very
important aspect of literacy in general. The
International Statistical Literacy Project
is dedicated to the
promotion of statistical literacy among all members of
It is argued that literacy includes the cultural, political, and
historical contexts of the community in which communication takes
Taking account of the fact that a large part of the benefits of
literacy obtain from having access to a literate person in the
household, a recent literature in economics, starting with the work
of Kaushik Basu and James Foster, distinguishes between a
'proximate illiterate' and an 'isolated illiterate'. The former
refers to an illiterate person who lives in a household with other
literates and the latter to an illiterate who lives in a household
of all illiterates. What is of concern is that many people in poor
nations are not just illiterates but isolated illiterates.
Although the history of literacy goes back several thousand years
to the invention of writing
constitutes literacy has changed throughout history. At one time, a
literate person was one who could sign his or her name. At other
times, literacy was measured only by the ability to read and write
Latin regardless of a person's ability to read or write his or her
vernacular. Even earlier, literacy was a trade secret of
professional scribes, and many historic monarchies maintained
cadres of this profession, sometimes—as was the case for Imperial Aramaic
—even importing them from
lands where a completely alien language was spoken and written.
the pre-modern societies with generally high literacy rates
Athens and the Islamic Caliphate.
Illiteracy rate in France in the 18th
and 19th centuries
In 12th and 13th century England, the ability to read a particular
passage from the Bible entitled a common
defendant to the so-called benefit of clergy
entitled a person to be tried before an ecclesiastical court
, where sentences
were more lenient, instead of a secular one, where hanging was a
likely sentence. This opened the door to literate lay defendants
also claiming the right to the benefit of clergy provision, and –
because the Biblical passage used for the literacy test was
inevitably Psalm 51
– "O God, have mercy upon me...") – an illiterate
person who had memorized the appropriate verse could also claim the
benefit of clergy provision.
mid-18th century, the ability to read and comprehend translated
scripture led to Wales having one
of the highest literacy rates.
This was the result of a
of circulating schools, which aimed to enable everyone to read the
in Welsh. Similarly, at least
half the population of 18th century New England was literate, perhaps as a consequence of the
Puritan belief in the importance of Bible reading.
By the time of the American Revolution
, literacy in New
England is suggested to have been around 90 percent.
The ability to read did not necessarily imply the ability to write.
church law (kyrkolagen) of the Kingdom of Sweden (which at
the time included all of modern Sweden, Finland, and
Estonia) enforced literacy on the people and by the end of
the 18th century, the ability to read was close to 100
But as late as the 19th century, many Swedes,
especially women, could not write.
Although the present-day concepts of literacy have much to do with
the 15th century invention of the movable
type printing press
, it was not
until the industrial
of the mid-19th century that paper and books became
financially affordable to all classes of industrialized society.
Until then, only a small percentage of the population were literate
as only wealthy individuals and institutions could afford the
prohibitively expensive materials. As late as 1841, 33% of all
Englishmen and 44% of Englishwomen signed marriage certificates
with their mark
as they were
unable to write (government-financed public education became
available in England in 1870). Even , the dearth of cheap paper and
books is a barrier to universal literacy in some
From another perspective, the historian Harvey Graff
has argued that the introduction
of mass schooling was in part an effort to control the type of
literacy that the working class had access to. According to Graff,
literacy learning was increasing outside of formal settings (such
as schools) and this uncontrolled, potentially critical reading
could lead to increased radicalization of the populace. In his
view, mass schooling was meant to temper and control literacy, not
Literacy has also been used as a way to sort populations and
control who has access to power. Because literacy permits learning
and communication that oral and sign language alone cannot,
illiteracy has been enforced in some places as a way of preventing
unrest or revolution. During the Civil War era in the United
States, white citizens in many areas banned teaching slaves to read
or write presumably understanding the power of literacy. In the
years following the Civil War, the ability to read and write was
used to determine whether one had the right to vote. This
effectively served to prevent former slaves from joining the
electorate and maintained the status quo. In 1964 in Brazil, Pablo
Freire was arrested and exiled for teaching the Brazilian peasants
Attitudes toward literacy
In South Asia
, attitudes toward literacy
vary by social sector. Many see literacy as associated with
schooling and not with everyday life, and some see greater prestige
in relying on memorized texts than on being able to read. However,
these ideas are slowly on the decline as modern education diffuses
into the region.
to UNICEF, there are over 100 million
children out of school in India.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, literacy is associated with colonialism,
whereas orality is associated with native traditions. In Ethiopia,
however, literacy in the Amharic
is seen as negative among other ethnicities, leading
to greater amounts of illiteracy in that country.
researches cross-cultural studies in literacy and finds common
themes worldwide. These include lower achievement levels for boys
in early years of schooling in reading, and different incidence
rates of diagnosed dyslexia across different cultures and
Literacy comprises a number of subskills, including phonological awareness
, and vocabulary
. Mastering each of these subskills is
necessary for students to become proficient readers.
Many children experience difficulty when learning to read. Learning
to read is difficult because reading requires the mastery of a code
that maps human speech sounds to written symbols. Mastering this
code is not a natural process, like the development of language,
and therefore requires instruction. Reading can be very difficult
if students do not get good instruction in this code.
Readers of alphabetic languages
must understand the alphabetic
in order to master basic reading skills. A writing
system is said to be alphabetic
if it uses symbols to
represent individual language sounds
the degree of correspondence between letters and sounds varies
across alphabetic languages. Syllabic writing
(such as Japanese kana
use a symbol to represent a single syllable, and logographic writing systems
(such as Chinese
) use a symbol to represent a
is an instructional technique that
teaches readers to attend to the letters or groups of letters that
make up words. A common method of teaching phonics is synthetic
phonics, in which a novice reader pronounces each individual sound
and "blends" them to pronounce the whole word. Another method of
instruction is embedded phonics instruction, used more often in
in which novice readers learn a little about the individual letters
in words, especially the consonants and the "short vowels."
Teachers provide this knowledge opportunistically, in the context
of stories that feature many instances of a particular letter.
Embedded instruction combines letter-sound knowledge with the use
of meaningful context to read new and difficult words.
- UNESCO Education Sector, The Plurality of Literacy and its
implications for Policies and Programs: Position Paper. Paris:
United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization,
2004, p. 13, citing a international expert meeting in June 2003 at
- Graff, 2003
- Moats, L.C. Speech to Print: Language Essentials for Teachers,
p. 3. Paul H. Brookes Co., 2000
- Street, B. (1984) Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.p. 2. ISBN 9780521289610. Introduction: "... I shall pose
an 'ideological' model of literacy."
- Chapter 1, The Autonomous Model I : Literacy and Rationality",
Chapter 2, " The 'Autonomous' Model II Goody" in Street (1984)
- Goody, J. (1986). The
logic of writing and the organization of society. New
York: Cambridge University.
- Curriculum Framework for Adult Literacy in
- Literacy in the Information Age: Final Report of
the International Adult Literacy Survey, OECD 2000. PDF
- Kress, G. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. London:
- Selber, Stuart. Multiliteracies for a Digital Age.
Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.
- Kennedy Center Partners in Education, Washington, D.C.; ABC
school in South Carolina; A Plus schools in a half dozen states;
Value Plus in Tennessee
- Janet C. Richards, Michael C. McKenna (2003). Integrating multiple literacies in K-8 classrooms: cases,
commentaries, and practical applications.
- Zarcadoolas, C., Pleasant, A., & Greer, D. (2006).
Advancing health literacy: A framework for understanding and
action. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.
M. (1999). Everyday literacies: Students, discourse, and
social practice. New York: Lang; Gee, J. P. (1996). Social
linguistics and literacies: Ideologies in Discourses.
- Baker, J.H. An Introduction to English Legal History. 3rd ed.
London: Butterworths, 1990. p.586
- Baker, J.H. An Introduction to English Legal History. 3rd ed.
London: Butterworths, 1990. p.587 n67.
- Gordon, Edward E. and Elaine H. Gordon. Literacy in America:
Historic Journey and Contemporary Solutions. Westport, CT: Praeger,
2003. p. 255.
- Lownd, Peter. “Freire's Life and Work.”
- Ferguson, Charles Albert and Huebner, Thom (1996) Sociolinguistic Perspectives: Papers on Language in
Society, 1959-1994, Oxford University Press US, p.
- Asia's street kids - a looming crisis, The
Asian Pacific Post
- Ferguson and Huebner, p. 69
- Tompkins, G. 2006. Literacy for the 21st Century.
Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.