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What Is Aliteracy?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Aliteracy is the lack of interest in reading among literate people. Literacy programs usually focus on the problems of illiteracy and functional illiteracy, in which people have little to no reading ability. These problems are most significant in the developing world. Aliteracy, on the other hand, is most prominent in industrialized nations. The spread of electronic media is considered a leading factor in the waning influence of written literature.

For much of human history, illiteracy was widespread; only wealthy people and those in specialized occupations, such as the clergy, regularly learned to read. The advent of the printing press in the 15th century made written materials available to the public at large for the first time. By the 19th and 20th centuries, there were thousands of magazines, newspapers, and book publishers throughout the industrialized world. As written material was the primary means of communication, literacy was considered the foundation of a complete education. In the 1950s, television began to supplant the written word as a venue for information and entertainment, followed later by new electronic media such as the home computer.

By the early 1990s, computer use was spreading, a process that would only be hastened by the advent of the Internet. It was around this time that researchers began noticing the increasing trend of aliteracy. People were relying more and more on visual media for news, education, and recreation that had previously been provided by written literature. This was true even among teachers, editors, and others who relied on high literacy for their livelihoods. A 1999 survey found that less than half of the U.S. population made reading part of their daily routine.

In a world that offers a wide variety of visual and electronic alternatives to reading, aliteracy continues to rise. Many of these alternatives provide the same information as their written counterparts, such as audiobooks or films based on popular novels. Social networking websites emphasize brief written messages, often dispensing with standard conventions of grammar in the process. The runaway popularity of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series spurred interest in recreational reading among young people at the dawn of the 21st century. This was not, however, sufficient to save the Borders bookstore chain, which closed 700 stores and filed for bankruptcy in 2011.

Advocates of reading offer suggestions to combat aliteracy. Educators should emphasize the pleasure of reading rather than the dry acquisition of information encouraged by many schools. Technical aspects of reading, such as sentence diagrams, should be left to language professionals; these only serve to make reading seem dull and complicated. Most importantly, parents should read to their children and be seen reading for pleasure themselves. People who do not develop the love of reading in their early home environments are not likely to have strong interests in literature in later life.

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