Food for Thought – Literacy – What Does it Really Mean?

Too often “literacy” is used as a catch-all word without any understanding of its true historical meaning. Today there are many “literacies.”  To illustrate the changing meaning of “literacy” consider that the “International Reading Association” recently changed its name to “The International Literacy Association. Thus expanding the “meaning of “literacy” to include those “literacies” listed below, and minimizing the true foundation of ALL “literacies” by diminishing the need of the foundational requirement to become a truly “literate” person.  Unless students master the alphabetic principle, that is the phonology and morphology of our phonetic alphabet, then all of the other “literacies” will be difficult if not impossible to achieve.

For example, here are some definitions of “literacy” suggested by a member of the National Writing Project in 2013:

1. Digital Literacy- Cognitive skills that are used in executing tasks in digital environments

2. Computer Literacy- Ability to use a computer and software

3. Media Literacy- Ability to think critically about different types of media

4. Information Literacy-Ability to evaluate, locate, identify, and effectively use info

5. Technology Literacy- The ability to use technology effectively in several different ways

6. Political Literacy- Knowledge and skills needed to actively participate in political matters

7. Cultural Literacy- The knowledge of one’s own culture

8. Multicultural Literacy- The knowledge and apperciation of other cultures

9. Visual Literacy- The ability to critically read images

To become truly “literate” in any of these fields of study one MUST be able to read proficiently.  Below is a bit of the history of the word”literacy” and how it has morphed into something so broad one can “drive a truck through it.”

Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language

Literate – “Learned, lettered, instructed in learning and science.”

Lettered – “Literate, educated, versed in literature or science.”

Learned – “Versed in literature and science, as a learned man.”

Illiterate – “Unlettered; Ignorant of letters or books; untaught; unlearned; uninstructed in science.”

Illiteracy – “The state of being untaught or unlearned; want of knowledge of letters; ignorance.”

Unlearned – “Not learned, ignorant, illiterate, not instructed.”


Webster’s 1994 Collegiate Dictionary 10th Edition

Literate – “Educated, cultured, able to read and write; having knowledge or competence.”

Lettered – “Learned, educated, characterized by learning.”

Learned – “Characterized by or associated by learning or acquired by learning.”

Illiterate – “Having little or no education, unable to read or write, showing a lack of familiarity with language and literature.

Illiteracy – “The quality or state of being illiterate, the inability to read or write.”

Unlearned – “Possessing inadequate learning or education, a deficit in scholarly attainments as characterized by or revealing ignorance.”

As you can see the common ingredients in the definition of “literacy” are the following:  the ability to read and write; knowledge of subject matter; educated; competent in one’s field.  Based on this I would define “literacy” this way:

Literacy:  The ability to read fluently with comprehension, write with clarity, have an adequate knowledge of history, mathematics, science, literature, and where possible mastery of such subject matter as art, music, technology, and government that are required for success in life.

Or, in summary:

Literacy:  The ability to read fluently, write with clarity, and have an in depth knowledge of history, science, literature, and other subject matter in one’s field of endeavor.  

Erudite is a term not widely in use today, but this was once considered the definition of a literate person.

The Thearusus offers these defining descriptions of “Erudite:”

“scholarly, knowledgeable, educated, well read, well informed, intellectual; intelligent, clever, academic, literary, bookish…and more.”

Too often “literacy” is used in such a broad sense that the ability to read and write is essentially left out of the definition of a literate person.  Without that ability, one cannot be truly literate even if a person can “get by” in everyday life.  That has been defined as “functional literacy.”  The ability to read with comprehension is necessary if one is to understand freedom, private enterprise, limited government and individual freedom and realize one’s full potential.

America has become vulnerable over the past century because our educated, “erudite” education leaders have abandoned the instructional approach that propelled our nation to become a beacon of hope in the world.  Todays generation is losing an appreciation of the principles of freedom that our forefathers fought for over the past two plus centuries:  limited government, individual liberty, and private enterprise.

One cannot understand these foundational principles, all of which are embodied in the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, if they are denied the ability to read proficiently.

It does not have to be this way. We have the knowledge, the tools and the teachers who could change this in a generation.  We shall see if America will remain a “shining city on a hill” or fall into the dustbin of history.  I hope and pray the latter will be the case.


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