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What is Literacy?

Diane Goettel
Updated May 23, 2024
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Literacy, in its simplest definition, is the ability to read and write. The antonym to literacy is illiteracy, the inability to read and write. Traditionally, these two terms were used to discuss a person’s ability to create or interpret the printed word. However, literacy can also be used to discuss the ability to work with certain kinds of codes. For example, a scholar of English literature is clearly literate. However, she might not be able to understand computer code. In terms of computer code then, the scholar is illiterate.

It is important to note that differently abled people often read and write in different ways. The blind cannot, of course, read a traditional book. Audio books and braille books, however, are tools through which someone who is blind or visually impaired may come to know a text identical to a text that a sighted person would read from a page.

Literacy is sometimes divided up into levels. The English literature scholar, for example, would be said to have a high level of literacy. An adult who ended his education in the fourth grade and did not study outside of school would most likely have a low level of literacy. It is very common for a student to be categorized by his or her literacy level or “reading level.” Educators have created systems through which they can grade and rank students based on their literacy rate. Using such a program, school systems hope to track how the literacy of their students progresses over the years of their education. These tests often help teachers and school administrators to detect the students who are excelling and might need to be placed in a more advanced class, and those who are not meeting the benchmark and therefore might need to take a remedial reading course.

It is widely accepted that literacy is a crucial skill to have. Most people who are able to read take the skill for granted, almost as though it were a natural ability. This is especially true for people who learned to read at a young age. However, being illiterate in the modern world can be rather hazardous. If a person does not know how to read, it is impossible to review a document before signing it, fill out a job application, interpret a standard map, read the ingredients on a package of food or medicine, or understand caution signs. These are just a few instances in which literacy is crucial.

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Diane Goettel
By Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount Vernon, New York with her husband, Noah. They are the proud parents of a Doberman Pinscher named Spoon. Specialties: book editing, book marketing, book publishing, freelance writing, magazine publishing, magazine writing, copywriting,"
Discussion Comments
By anon105612 — On Aug 21, 2010

being literate is definitely hazardous but what about those who are literate and only know the english codes, not the computer ones? It means that being literate in any major is also dangerous.

By anon82664 — On May 06, 2010

What is interpretation? The person is literate if they can understand what is being read. It is through the use of developed vocabulary they are understanding what is being read.

By anon66591 — On Feb 20, 2010

I don't agree that a person with visual impairments who cannot read the printed word (Braille) is literate. Listening to audiobooks alone are not the same as reading a book. Lack of Braille instruction robs the person with visual impairment of the opportunity to interpret the written word himself.

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel
"Diane Goettel has a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MA in English from Brooklyn College. Diane lives in Mount...
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