I Can Read, That Means I'm Literate, Right? Wrong!

Many people have the impression that being literate suggests an ability to read and write text in print. In fact, literacy is a multifaceted concept, one whose understanding has changed considerably over time. On this International Literacy Day, learn more about what it means to be literate.

By Douglas Fehlen

An Evolving Concept

Literacy has been conceptualized with varying degrees of complexity over the years. At one time, it primarily referred to the ability to use written language. Others in the field eventually forwarded definitions that incorporate spoken language and numeracy skills. Even this expanded understanding, however, is quite simplistic when compared to conceptions of literacy that have emerged.

Open Book

In the second half of the twentieth century, scholars began to align notions of literacy with an understanding of cultural, political and social knowledge. From this expanded understanding emerged the idea of 'functional literacy'; this standard for being 'literate' depended upon a person having the skills needed to thrive socially and economically within a given society. Political participation was also accounted for, with literacy gauging a person's readiness for responsible citizenship.

An influential 1993 definition from UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) incorporated these aspects of literacy, reading: 'Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using 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.'

Literacy in the 21st Century

Trends in the understanding of literacy have shifted away from individual, isolated technical skills like decoding and phonemic awareness in favor of evaluating more contextualized criteria. As a result, gauging literacy has become a more nuanced exercise - one requiring more intensive assessments than those previously utilized. One influential measure of literacy that has been referenced extensively in academic and public policy venues is the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL).

Last used in 2003, the U.S.-centric evaluation featured three primary metrics for assessing literacy: prose literacy (ability to understand and use continuous texts), document literacy (ability to understand and use non-continuous texts like job applications and food or drug labels) and quantatative literacy (ability to calculate numbers for tasks like balancing a checkbook). The purpose of the assessment was to determine adults' ability to comprehend and use information for tasks at work, at home and in the community.

While widely acknowledged to be a functional approach for evaluating literacy rates in this country, the NAAL has not quieted debate over what being literate entails. Some analysts have felt compelled to break down literacy into many different components. Respected education research organization North Central Regional Educational Laboratory released a 2003 publication titled enGauge, which identified eight categories of literacy for the Digital Age: basic literacy, scientific literacy, information literacy, multicultural literacy, visual literacy, global awareness, economic literacy and technological literacy.

Increasingly, experts are acknowledging the need to include other literacy skills for using and thinking critically about materials in audio, visual, video and other formats. Gwyneth Anne Jones, works as a teacher/librarian in Laurel, Maryland, and writes a blog called 'The Daring Librarian.' In an interview with M.E. Steele-Pierce for the 'Powerful Learning Practice,' Jones suggested that the 21st technical landscape requires an idea of literacy that accommodates change: 'Literacy has evolved, to not be defined or confined by container or format. It's not just reading words on a page. It might be decoding graphic novels, it might be decoding video. It will be literacy in forms we haven't even dreamed yet. . . . That is the future. The literacy of the future is finding meaning in many forms.'

Many important groups are working to promote literacy in the U.S. Learn about the Student Coalition for Action in Literacy Education (SCALE), a University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill initiative that organizes literacy programs on college campuses nationwide.

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