Global adult literacy according to the CIA Factbook.
World illiteracy halved between 1970 and 2005.

Literacy has traditionally been described as the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently and think critically about printed material.

Literacy represents the lifelong, intellectual process of gaining meaning from print. Key to all literacy is reading development, which involves a progression of skills that begins with the ability to understand spoken words and decode written words, and culminates in the deep understanding of text. Reading development involves a range of complex language underpinnings including awareness of speech sounds (phonology), spelling patterns (orthography), word meaning (semantics), grammar (syntax) and patterns of word formation (morphology), all of which provide a necessary platform for reading fluency and comprehension. Once these skills are acquired the reader can attain full language literacy, which includes the abilities to approach printed material with critical analysis, inference and synthesis; to write with accuracy and coherence; and to use information and insights from text as the basis for informed decisions and creative thought.[1]

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines literacy as 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."[2]



Literacy in Europe

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 law defendant to the so-called benefit of clergy provision, which 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 always Psalm 51 (Miserere mei, Deus... - "O God, have mercy upon me...") - an illiterate person who had memorized the appropriate verse could also claim the benefit of clergy provision.[3]

By the 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 Griffith Jones's system of circulating schools, which aimed to enable everyone to read the Bible 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%.

The ability to read did not necessarily imply the ability to write. The 1686 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. That said, the situation in England was far worse than in Scandinavia, France and Prussia: 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 was not available in England until 1870 and, even then, on a limited basis).

The historian Ernest Gellner argues that Continental European countries were far more successful in implementing educational reform precisely because those governments were more willing to invest in the population as a whole.[4] The view that public education contributes to rising literacy levels is shared by the majority of historians.

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 Revolution 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. Even today, the dearth of cheap paper and books is a barrier to universal literacy in some less-industrialized nations.

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 spread it.[5] Graff also points out, using the example of Sweden, that mass literacy can be achieved without formal schooling or instruction in writing.[6]

Literacy in North America


The literacy rate of Canada, being almost 99% in 2003, has declined, and will be under world's average literacy rates for adults in the next two decades, depending on the rate of declining.[7]

United States

In 1870, 20 percent of the entire adult population was illiterate, and 80 percent of the black population was illiterate. By 1900 the situation had improved somewhat, but still 44 percent of black people remained illiterate. The statistical data show significant improvements for black and other races in the early portion of the 20th century as the former slaves who had no educational opportunities in their youth were replaced by younger individuals who grew up in the post Civil War period and often had some chance to obtain a basic education. The gap in illiteracy between white and black adults continued to narrow through the 20th century, and in 1979 the rates were about the same.[8]

Full prose proficiency, as measured by the ability to process complex and challenging material such as would be encountered in everyday life there, is achieved by about 13% of the general, 17% of the white, and 2% of the black population.[9][10] However 86% of the general population had basic or higher prose proficiency as of 2003, with a decrease distributed across all groups in the full proficiency group vs. 1992 of more than 10%, consistent with a general decline.[11]

Literacy in South America

In 1964 in Brazil, Paulo Freire was arrested and exiled for teaching the Brazilian peasants to read.[12]

Literacy in Africa

In Sub-Saharan Africa, literacy is associated with colonialism, whereas orality is associated with native traditions.[13]

In Ethiopia, a national literacy campaign introduced in 1975 increased literacy rates to between 37% (unofficial) and 63% (official) by 1984.[14]

Literacy in Asia

Chinese and Japanese

The PRC conducts standardized testing to assess proficiency in Putong Hua (Mandarin) but it is primarily for foreigners or those needing to demonstrate professional proficiency in Beijing dialect. Literacy in logographic languages like Chinese has been graded on the number of characters in the speakers lexicon with a few thousand considered the minimum for practical literacy. Similar tests exists in other countries where the Chinese language is an official language. Chinese can be expressed alphabetically but Chinese speakers prefer the Chinese logographic system. Japan has both logographic and alphabetic scripts.


Three Laotian girls sit outside their school, each absorbed in reading a book they received at a rural school book party.

Obstacles to literacy vary by country and culture. Writing systems, quality of education, availability of written material, competition from other sources (television, video games, cell phones, and family work obligations) and cultural influences all influence literacy levels.

In Laos, which has a phonetic alphabet, the mechanics of reading are relatively easy to learn. It is easier than in English, where spelling and pronunciation rules are filled with exceptions, and far easier than Chinese, with thousands of symbols to be memorized. But a lack of books and other written materials has hindered functional literacy. Many children and adults are able to read, but do it so haltingly that the skill is of no real benefit. For this and other reasons, Laos has the lowest level of adult literacy of any Southeast-Asian nation except for East Timor.[15]

A literacy project in Laos addresses this by using what it calls "books that make literacy fun!" The project, Big Brother Mouse, publishes colorful, easy-to-read books, then delivers them by holding book parties at rural schools. Some of the books are modeled on successful western books by authors such as Dr. Seuss. The most popular titles, however, are traditional Lao fairy tales. Two popular collections of folktales were written by Siphone Vouthisakdee, who comes from a village where only five children finished primary school.[16]

Big Brother Mouse has also created village reading rooms, and published books for adult readers about subjects such as Buddhism, health, and baby care.[17]


In Pakistan, the National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) aims to bring literacy to adults, especially women.

Literacy in the 21st century

This idea has forever changed the landscape of information access, and is integral in an understanding of Literacy as a practice, in the 21st Century. It is no longer sufficient to consider whether a student can 'read' (decoding text, really) and 'write' (encoding text), and it is necessary to consider more meaningful aspects of literacy in education and in society as a whole, if we are to complete the transition we are in, from a society in which communication was never possible on the level of 'many to many', to one in which it is.[18]

Economic impact

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[19] and enjoy better health and employment prospects. Policy makers also argue that literacy increases job opportunities and access to higher education.

In Kerala, India, for example, female and child mortality rates declined dramatically in the 1960s, when girls schooled according to the education reforms after 1948 began to raise families. In addition to the potential for literacy to increase wealth, wealth may promote literacy, through cultural norms and easier access to schools and tutoring services.[citation needed]

In 2009, the National Adult Literacy agency (NALA) commissioned an economist to do a cost benefit analysis of adult literacy training in Ireland. He reported that there were economic gains for the individuals, the companies they worked for, the Exchequer, as well as the economy, for example, increased GDP, and society at large. The annual income gain per person per level increase on the Irish ten level National Qualifications Framework being €3,810 and the gain to the Exchequer, in terms of reduced social welfare transfers and increased tax payments, being €1,531 per annum.[20]

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."[21] 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.[22][23] Prior work viewed literacy as existing autonomously.[24][25][26][27]

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 Association have added "visually representing" to the traditional list of competencies. Similarly, in Scotland, literacy has been defined as: "The ability to read, 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."[28]

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.[29] 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 browsers, word processing programs, and text messages. Similar expanded skill sets have been called multimedia literacy, computer literacy, information literacy, and technological literacy.[30][31] Some scholars propose the idea multiliteracies which includes Functional Literacy, Critical Literacy, and Rhetorical Literacy.[32]

"Arts literacy" programs exist in some places in the United States.[33]

Other genres under study by academia include critical literacy, media literacy, ecological literacy and health literacy[34] 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 society.

It is argued that literacy includes the cultural, political, and historical contexts of the community in which communication takes place.[35]

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.

Teaching literacy

Teaching English literacy in the United States is dominated at present by a conception of literacy that focuses on a set of discrete decoding skills. From this perspective, literacy - or, rather, reading - comprises a number of subskills that can be taught to students. These skill sets include: phonological awareness, phonics (decoding), fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. Mastering each of these sets of subskills is necessary for students to become proficient readers.[36]

From this same perspective, readers of alphabetic languages must understand the alphabetic principle in order to master basic reading skills. A writing system is said to be alphabetic if it uses symbols to represent individual language sounds,[37] though the degree of correspondence between letters and sounds varies across alphabetic languages. Syllabic writing systems (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 morpheme.[38]

There are any number of approaches to teaching literacy; each is shaped by its informing assumptions about what literacy is and how it is best learned by students. Phonics instruction, for example, focuses on reading at the level of the word.[37] It 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.[37] Another approach to phonics instruction is embedded phonics instruction, used more often in whole language reading instruction, in which novice readers learn about the individual letters in words on a just-in-time, just-in-place basis that is tailored to meet each student's reading and writing learning needs.[37] That is, teachers provide phonics instruction opportunistically, within the context of stories or student writing that feature many instances of a particular letter or group of letters. Embedded instruction combines letter-sound knowledge with the use of meaningful context to read new and difficult words.[39] Techniques such as directed listening and thinking activities can be used to aid children in learning how to read and reading comprehension.

Public library efforts to promote literacy

The public library has long been a proponent for literacy in its communities.[40] The release of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) report in 2005 revealed that approximately 14 percent of adults function at the lowest level of literacy and 29 percent of adults function at the basic functional literacy level, meaning they are not able to help their children with homework beyond the first few grades[41] The lack of reading skills hinders adults from reaching their full potential. They might have difficulty getting and maintaining a job, providing for their families, or even reading a story to their children. For adults across the country, the library might be the only source of a literacy program.[42] Programs have been instituted in public libraries across the country in an attempt to improve the literacy rates in this country. Some example of various literacy programs across the country are listed below.

The READ/Orange County program, initiated in 1992 by the Orange County Public Library in California is an example of a flourishing community literacy program. The organization builds on what people have already learned through experiences as well as previous education, rather than trying to make up for what has not been learned. The organization then provides the student with the skills to continue learning in the future.[42] The program operates on the belief that an adult who learns to read creates a ripple effect in the community. An adult who learns to read impacts not just himself but the whole community; he becomes an example to his children and grandchildren, and can then better serve his community.[42] The mission of READ/Orange County is to "create a more literate community by providing diversified services of the highest quality to all who seek them." Potential tutors train during an extensive twenty-three hour Tutor Training Workshop in which they learn the philosophy, techniques and tools they will need to work with adult learns[42] After completing the training, the tutors invest at least fifty hours a year to tutoring their student.

Another successful literacy program is the BoulderReads! program in Boulder, Colorado. The program recognized the difficulty that students had in obtaining child care while attending tutoring sessions, and joined with the University of Colorado to provide reading buddies to the children of students. Reading Buddies matches children of adult literacy students with college students who meet with them once a week throughout the semester for an hour and a half. The college students receive course credit, ensuring the quality and reliability of their time[43]

Each Reading Buddies session focuses primarily on the college student reading aloud with the child. This helps the child gain interest in books and feel comfortable reading aloud. Time is also spent on word games, writing letters, or searching for books in the library. Throughout the semester the pair work on writing and illustrating a book together. The college student’s grade is partly dependent on the completion of the book. Although Reading Buddies began primarily as an answer to the lack of child care for literacy students, it has evolved into another aspect of the literacy program.[43] While the children are not participants in the tutoring program, they do show marked improvement in their reading and writing skills throughout the semester, due in part to the admiration and respect they gain for their college reading buddy.

The Hillsborough Literacy Council, operating under The Florida Literacy Coalition, a statewide literacy organization, strives to improve the literacy ability of adults in Hillsborough County, Florida. Working since 1986, the HLC is “committed to improving literacy by empowering adults through education”[44] The HLC also provides tutoring for English-speakers of other languages (ESOL). Approximately 120,000 adults in Hillsborough County are considered illiterate, or read below the fourth grade level. Through one on one tutoring the organization works to help adult students reach at least the fifth grade level. 95,000 adults living in Hillsborough County do not speak English; volunteers in the organization typically work with small groups of non-English speaking students to help practice their English conversation skills.

Each volunteer must attend a five-hour training session before they are matched with their students. The tutor training objectives include recognizing the problem of illiteracy, performing the responsibilities of being an HLC tutor, exhibiting qualities of a good tutor, and identifying the difference between an adult learner and a child. Additionally, basic literacy tutors must be able to name the basic principles of teaching reading and become comfortable leading a tutoring session using the Laubach Way to Reading Series. Tutors are also encouraged to stay informed about literacy issues by reading online articles and visiting literacy websites. Once matched with a student, tutors contact the student to decide on a meeting place and time. Depending on each schedule, tutors and students might meet once or twice a week for one to two hours at a time. Tutors must document each meeting and maintain a portfolio of the student’s intake, assessments, and goals. Throughout the year, tutors must attend two other supplemental resource workshops to further their tutor training.


  1. ^ Margie Gillis, Ed.D., President, Literacy How, Inc., and Research Affiliate, Haskins Laboratories at Yale University; Sally Grimes, Ed.M., Executive Director, Literate Nation and Founder, Grimes Reading Institute; Cinthia Haan, Author and Chair, The Haan Foundation for Children and President, Power4Kids Reading Initiative; Peggy McCardle, Ph.D., M.P.H., Chief, Child Development and Behavior Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Louisa Moats, Ed.D., President, Moats Associates Consulting, Inc.; Anthony Pedriana, Author and retired urban schoolteacher and principal; Susan Smartt, Ph.D., Senior Research Associate, National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, Vanderbilt University; Catherine Snow, Ph.D., Author, Researcher and Professor of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard University; Cheryl Ward, M.S.M., C.A.L.P., Co-founder of Wisconsin Reading Coalition and academic language practitioner; Maryanne Wolf, Ed.D., Author and Director, Center for Reading and Language Research, Tufts University.
  2. ^ "The Plurality of Literacy and its implications for Policies and Programs". UNESCO Education Sector Position Paper: 13. 2004. 
  3. ^ Baker, John R. (2002). An introduction to English legal history. London: Butterworths LexisNexis. ISBN 0-406-93053-8. 
  4. ^ Gellner, Ernest (1983). Nations and nationalism. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-9263-7. 
  5. ^ Graff, Harvey J. (1991). The literacy myth: cultural integration and social structure in the nineteenth century. Transaction Publishers. p. xxvi. ISBN 9780887388842. 
  6. ^ op.cit. Graff 1991, pp. xxii, xxiv.
  7. ^ Gordon, Elaine H.; Gordon, Edward E. (2003). Literacy in America: historic journey and contemporary solutions. New York: Praeger. pp. 255. ISBN 0-275-97864-8. 
  8. ^ National Assessment of Adult Literacy
  9. ^ NAAL web site graphic.
  10. ^ "Average scores increase for Blacks and Asians, Decrease for Hispanics"
  11. ^ "SAT reading scores drop to lowest point in decades" Washington Post 2011-09-14
  12. ^ Lownd, Peter. “Freire's Life and Work.”
  13. ^ Christopher L. Miller. Theories of Africans: Francophone literature and anthropology in Africa. University of Chicago Press; 1990. ISBN 9780226528021. p. 69.
  14. ^ "Literacy". Ethiopia: A Country Study.. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress. 1991. ISBN 0844407399. 
  15. ^, accessed June 27, 2011
  16. ^ Krausz, Tibor. “People Making a Difference”. Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 2011
  17. ^ Wells, Bonnie. "Picturing Laos”. Amherst Bulletin, August 27, 2010
  18. ^ Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2006). New literacies: Everyday practices and classroom learning. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
  19. ^ "Phonics. It's Profitable". The Phonics Page. Retrieved 2007-12-11 
  20. ^
  21. ^ Moats, Louisa (2000). Speech to print: language essentials for teachers. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Pub. ISBN 1-55766-387-4. 
  22. ^ Goody, Jack (1986). The logic of writing and the organization of society. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-33962-6. 
  23. ^ Jack Goody (1986). The logic of writing and the organization of society. Google Books. ISBN 9780521339629. 
  24. ^ Brian V. Street (1984). Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521289610. 
  25. ^ Brian V. Street (1984). "Overview". Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521289610. 
  26. ^ Brian V. Street (1984). "The 'Autonomous' Model I". Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521289610. 
  27. ^ Brian V. Street (1984). "The 'Autonomous' Model II". Literacy in theory and practice. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521289610. 
  28. ^ Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Scotland (2001) (pdf)
  29. ^ Literacy in the Information Age: Final Report of the International Adult Literacy Survey, OECD 2000. PDF
  30. ^ Kress, Gunther R. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-25356-X. 
  31. ^ "Literacy in the New Media Age". 
  32. ^ Stuart Selber (2004). Multiliteracies for a digital age. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 0-8093-2551-9. 
  33. ^ McKenna, Michael C.; Richards, Janet C. (2003). Integrating multiple literacies in K-8 classrooms: cases, commentaries, and practical applications. Hillsdale, N.J: L. Erlbaum Associates. ISBN 0-8058-3945-3. 
  34. ^ Zarcadoolas, C., Pleasant, A., & Greer, D. (2006). Advancing health literacy: A framework for understanding and action. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.
  35. ^ Knobel, M. (1999). Everyday literacies: Students, discourse, and social practice. New York: Lang; Gee, J. P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideologies in Discourses. Philadelphia: Falmer.
  36. ^ National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and its Implications for Reading Instruction: Reports of the Subgroups. U.S. Government Printing Office 
  37. ^ a b c d
  38. ^
  39. ^
  40. ^ McCook, Kathleen de la Peña (2011, New York, Neal-Schuman, pp. 58-59.). Introduction to Public Librarianship. 
  41. ^ Weibel, M.C. (2007). "Adult Learners Welcome Here: A Handbook for Librarians and Literacy Teachers". Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., New York. ISBN 1555705782.
  42. ^ a b c d Selnick, S. (2004). ["READ/Orange County: Changing lives through literacy"] "Public Libraries", 43(1), p.53-56.
  43. ^ a b Sherry, D. (2004). ["Providing reading buddies for the children of adult literacy students: One way to provide onsite child care while also addressing intergenerational illiteracy"] "Colorado Libraries", 31(1), p.40-42.
  44. ^ Hillsborough Literacy Council, 2010.

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