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."¹
The inability to read or write is called illiteracy or analphabetism. Visual literacy includes the ability to understand all forms of communication, including body language, pictures, maps, or video. The inability to read or understand body language is one of the defining features of autism and Asperger’s Syndrome.
In our technological society, literacy is expanding to include the media and electronic text as well as number systems. The primary goal of literacy is the intellectual process of gaining meaning from the critical interpretation of text.
Reading development is key to literacy. Reading starts with the ability to understand spoken words and evolves into understanding written words, and finally to get deep understanding from text.¹
Reading involves the awareness of speech sounds, spelling patterns, word meaning, grammar, and patterns of word formation. Once a student has grasped reading they can begin to write with accuracy and coherence and use text as the basis for making decisions.¹
In ancient times, literacy was confined to a small elite. Rulers were literate in order to show their dignity. Additionally, literacy was a distinguishing factor of the elite. In more recent times, literacy has expanded to include people from all classes in most countries.
In Western countries, literacy is mandatorily taught to children. In some third-world countries, it is illegal for women to attend school and they therefore remain illiterate. As an extreme example of the suppression of literacy in developing nations, in 1964 in Brazil Paulo Freire was arrested and exiled for teaching peasants to read.²
Literacy rates are a crucial measure of the value of a region’s human capital. Literacy increases job opportunities and access to higher education.
1. The Plurality of Literacy and its Implications for Policies and Programs. UNESCO Education Sector Position Paper: 13. 2004.
2. Lownd, Peter. Freire’s Life and Work.
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