Literacy is

  • “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute” (UNESCO 2006).
  • “the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential” (National Center for Education Statistics)
  • “the ability to read and write in home, workplace, and community settings.” (See World Bank,

“One hears a great deal of protest today about the lack of interest in reading. Much of this protest is justified, but the implication which it often carries is not, for it often implies that matters used to be greatly different, that educators a hundred years ago or more did a better job of teaching both reading and writing. That they did is by no means certain. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence indicating quite the opposite. Bad as we are today, our predecessors were very likely even worse.”

Walter Ong. Revision of a 1959 article

Literacies Evolve!

Literacy is a fairly fluid concept. How one defines literacy is determined by one’s rhetorical situation (especially purpose) and moment in time (especially psychocultural context).

Definitions of literacy are constantly evolving. In the early 1700s being able to sign your name was a significant act of literacy. That evolved over time to being able to read a bus pass or a daily newspaper.

Manipulating photos, subscribing to and publishing podcasts, moving content across digital platforms, and writing in html are now considered to be basic literacies.

Consider, e.g., the following billboard that was posted by Electronic Arts to advertise job vacancies for programmers. Can you read the code? It says “Now Hiring!”

Source:  Prensky, Marc,

Functional Literacy

At the national and international level, world governments focus on functional definitions of literacy–i.e., how well citizens can understand words and sentences and how well they can interpret, make inferences from, and act on what they read across multiple texts. For instance, can citizens understand a newspaper? Can they understand an airplane or bus schedule? Can they read the job announcement and submit a job application.

Seven Key Skills Sets
White, S., and McCloskey, M. (2003). Framework for the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NCES 2005-531). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Critical Literacy

In educational contexts, critical literacy, rather than functional literacy, has been a robust field of scholarship.

Critical literacy is concerned with rhetorical analysis of power relationships. Critical literacy engages students in metacognition and self reflection about the Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose of knowledge claims.

Digital Literacy

New communication technologies (e.g., the pen, pencil, printing press, internet) alter how people collaborate, design, edit, invent, organize, research, and revise documents. As communication technologies evolve, they create new media and new genres.

Digital literacy concerns how individuals navigate and employ digital tools to consume and produce information.

Information Literacy Perspectives & Practices

Information Literacy Perspectives & Practices are

  • critical points of view, theoretical lenses, that shape one’s perceptions about consuming and producing information.
  • core competencies associated with identifying, finding, evaluating, applying, and acknowledging information.

Quantitative Literacy

Quantitative Literacy refers to the ability to understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute numerical information

Visual Literacy

Visual Literacy refers to the ability to understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute numerical information

Works Cited

UNESCO. (2006) Education for All: A Global Monitoring Report. Chapter 6: “Understandings of Literacy.” p. 147-159,

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