Literacy Explained

Literacy has been described as the ability to read for knowledge and write coherently and think critically about the written word.Literacy can also include the ability to understand all forms of communication, be it body language, pictures, video & sound (reading, speaking, listening and viewing). Evolving definitions of literacy often include all the symbol systems relevant to a particular community. Literacy encompasses a complex set of abilities to understand and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture for personal and community development. In a technological society, the concept of literacy is expanding to include the media and electronic text, in addition to alphabetic and number systems. These abilities vary in different social and cultural contexts according to need and demand.

Literacy represents the lifelong, intellectual process of gaining meaning from print. Key to all literacy is reading development, which involves a progression of skills that begins with the ability to understand spoken words and decode written words, and culminates in the deep understanding of text. Reading development involves a range of complex language underpinnings including awareness of speech sounds (phonology), spelling patterns (orthography), word meaning (semantics), grammar (syntax) and patterns of word formation (morphology), all of which provide a necessary platform for reading fluency and comprehension. Once these skills are acquired the reader can attain full language literacy, which includes the abilities to approach printed material with critical analysis, inference and synthesis; to write with accuracy and coherence; and to use information and insights from text as the basis for informed decisions and creative thought.[1]

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."[2]

History

See also: History of writing and History of education.

Literacy in Europe

In 12th and 13th century England, the ability to read a particular passage from the Bible entitled a common law defendant to the so-called benefit of clergy provision, which entitled a person to be tried before an ecclesiastical court, where sentences were more lenient, instead of a secular one, where hanging was a likely sentence. This opened the door to literate lay defendants also claiming the right to the benefit of clergy provision, and because the Biblical passage used for the literacy test was always Psalm 51 (Miserere mei, Deus... - "O God, have mercy upon me...") - an illiterate person who had memorized the appropriate verse could also claim the benefit of clergy provision.

By the mid-18th century, the ability to read and comprehend translated scripture led to Wales having one of the highest literacy rates. This was the result of a Griffith Jones's system of circulating schools, which aimed to enable everyone to read the Bible in Welsh. Similarly, at least half the population of 18th century New England was literate, perhaps as a consequence of the Puritan belief in the importance of Bible reading. By the time of the American Revolution, literacy in New England is suggested to have been around 90%.

The ability to read did not necessarily imply the ability to write. The 1686 church law (kyrkolagen) of the Kingdom of Sweden (which at the time included all of modern Sweden, Finland, and Estonia) enforced literacy on the people and by the end of the 18th century, the ability to read was close to 100%. But as late as the 19th century, many Swedes, especially women, could not write. That said, the situation in England was far worse than in Scandinavia, France and Prussia: as late as 1841, 33% of all Englishmen and 44% of Englishwomen signed marriage certificates with their mark as they were unable to write (government-financed public education was not available in England until 1870 and, even then, on a limited basis).

The historian Ernest Gellner argues that Continental European countries were far more successful in implementing educational reform precisely because those governments were more willing to invest in the population as a whole. The view that public education contributes to rising literacy levels is shared by the majority of historians.

Although the present-day concepts of literacy have much to do with the 15th century invention of the movable type printing press, it was not until the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century that paper and books became financially affordable to all classes of industrialized society. Until then, only a small percentage of the population were literate as only wealthy individuals and institutions could afford the prohibitively expensive materials. Even, the dearth of cheap paper and books is a barrier to universal literacy in some less-industrialized nations.

From another perspective, the historian Harvey Graff has argued that the introduction of mass schooling was in part an effort to control the type of literacy that the working class had access to. According to Graff, literacy learning was increasing outside of formal settings (such as schools) and this uncontrolled, potentially critical reading could lead to increased radicalization of the populace. In his view, mass schooling was meant to temper and control literacy, not spread it. Graff also points out, using the example of Sweden, that mass literacy can be achieved without formal schooling or instruction in writing.

Literacy in North America

Canada

The literacy rate of Canada, being almost 99% in 2003, has declined, and will be under world's average literacy rates for adults in the next two decades, depending on the rate of declining.

United States

See main article: Literacy in the United States. In 1870, 20 percent of the entire adult population was illiterate, and 80 percent of the black population was illiterate. By 1900 the situation had improved somewhat, but still 44 percent of black people remained illiterate. The statistical data show significant improvements for black and other races in the early portion of the 20th century as the former slaves who had no educational opportunities in their youth were replaced by younger individuals who grew up in the post Civil War period and often had some chance to obtain a basic education. The gap in illiteracy between white and black adults continued to narrow through the 20th century, and in 1979 the rates were about the same.[3]

Full prose proficiency, as measured by the ability to process complex and challenging material such as would be encountered in everyday life there, is achieved by about 13% of the general, 17% of the white, and 2% of the black population.[4] [5] However 86% of the general population had basic or higher prose proficiency as of 2003, with a decrease distributed across all groups in the full proficiency group vs. 1992 of more than 10%, consistent with a general decline.[6]

Literacy in South America

In 1964 in Brazil, Paulo Freire was arrested and exiled for teaching the Brazilian peasants to read.[7]

Literacy in Africa

Algeria

The literacy rate of Algeria is around the 70% mark, which is attributed to the fact that education is compulsory and free in Algeria up to age of 17.

Botswana

Botswana has among the highest literacy rates in the developing world with around 85% of its population being literate.

Egypt

Egypt has a relative high literacy rate in proportion to its population size. Education is compulsory from the ages six to 15 and free for all children to attend. 93% of children enter primary school today, compared with 87% in 1994. Major universities include Cairo University (100,000 students), Alexandria University, and the 1,000-year-old Al-Azhar University, one of the world's major centers of Islamic learning. [8]

Notes and References

  1. Margie Gillis, Ed.D., President, Literacy How, Inc., and Research Affiliate, Haskins Laboratories at Yale University; Sally Grimes, Ed.M., Executive Director, Literate Nation and Founder, Grimes Reading Institute; Cinthia Haan, Author and Chair, The Haan Foundation for Children and President, Power4Kids Reading Initiative; Peggy McCardle, Ph.D., M.P.H., Chief, Child Development and Behavior Branch, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Louisa Moats, Ed.D., President, Moats Associates Consulting, Inc.; Anthony Pedriana, Author and retired urban schoolteacher and principal; Susan Smartt, Ph.D., Senior Research Associate, National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, Vanderbilt University; Catherine Snow, Ph.D., Author, Researcher and Professor of Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Harvard University; Cheryl Ward, M.S.M., C.A.L.P., Co-founder of Wisconsin Reading Coalition and academic language practitioner; Maryanne Wolf, Ed.D., Author and Director, Center for Reading and Language Research, Tufts University.
  2. The Plurality of Literacy and its implications for Policies and Programs. UNESCO Education Sector Position Paper. 2004. 13.
  3. Web site: National Assessment of Adult Literacy. Nces.ed.gov. 2011-11-23.
  4. Web site: NAAL web site graphic. Nces.ed.gov. 2011-11-23.
  5. Web site: "Average scores increase for Blacks and Asians, Decrease for Hispanics". PDF. 2011-11-23.
  6. Web site: "SAT reading scores drop to lowest point in decades" ''Washington Post'' 2011-09-14. Washingtonpost.com. 2011-02-24. 2011-11-23.
  7. Lownd, Peter. “Freire's Life and Work.”
  8. http://hdrstats.undp.org/en/indicators/6.html hdrstats.undp.org
  9. Krausz, Tibor. “People Making a Difference”. Christian Science Monitor, February 21, 2011
  10. Wells, Bonnie. "Picturing Laos”. Amherst Bulletin, August 27, 2010
  11. Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. (2006). New literacies: Everyday practices and classroom learning. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
  12. Web site: Phonics. It's Profitable. The Phonics Page. 2007-12-11. harv. .
  13. Web site: nala.ie. PDF. 2011-11-23.
  14. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/158952/0043191.pdf Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Scotland (2001)
  15. http://www1.oecd.org/publications/e-book/8100051e.pdf Literacy in the Information Age: Final Report of the International Adult Literacy Survey, OECD 2000. PDF
  16. Web site: Literacy in the New Media Age.
  17. Zarcadoolas, C., Pleasant, A., & Greer, D. (2006). Advancing health literacy: A framework for understanding and action. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.
  18. [Michele Knobel|Knobel, M.]
  19. Web site: Glossary of Reading Terms - The Cognitive Foundations of Learning to Read: A Framework. Sedl.org. 2008-04-23. 2011-11-23.
  20. Web site: Paul Halsall. Chinese Cultural Studies: Chinese Logographic Writing. Acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu. 2011-11-23.
  21. Web site: Glossary. LD OnLine. 2011-11-23.
  22. Book: Introduction to Public Librarianship. McCook, Kathleen de la Peña. 2011, New York, Neal-Schuman, pp. 58-59..
  23. Weibel, M.C. (2007). "Adult Learners Welcome Here: A Handbook for Librarians and Literacy Teachers". Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc., New York. ISBN 1555705782.
  24. Selnick, S. (2004). ["READ/Orange County: Changing lives through literacy"] "Public Libraries", 43(1), p.53-56.
  25. Sherry, D. (2004). ["Providing reading buddies for the children of adult literacy students: One way to provide onsite child care while also addressing intergenerational illiteracy"] "Colorado Libraries", 31(1), p.40-42.
  26. http://hillsboroughliteracy.org Hillsborough Literacy Council
  27. Web site: Ethiopia

    Kenya

    The literacy rate of Kenya is well over 70% due to fact that the first 8 years of primary school are provided tuition-free by the government. In January 2008, the government began offering a program of free secondary education, subject to some restrictions.

    Literacy in Asia

    China and Japan

    See main article: article, Literacy in China and Literacy in Japan. The PRC conducts standardized testing to assess proficiency in Putonghua

    ] but it is primarily for foreigners or those needing to demonstrate professional proficiency in the Beijing dialect. Literacy in logographic languages like Chinese has been graded on the number of characters in the speaker's lexicon, with a few thousand considered the minimum for practical literacy. Similar tests exist in other countries where Chinese is an official language. Chinese can be expressed phonetically and alphabetically but Chinese speakers prefer the Chinese logographic system. Japan has both logographic and alphabetic scripts.

    India

    See main article: article and Literacy in India.

    Laos

    Obstacles to literacy vary by country and culture. Writing systems, quality of education, availability of written material, competition from other sources (television, video games, cell phones, and family work obligations) and cultural influences all influence literacy levels.

    In Laos, which has a phonetic alphabet, the mechanics of reading are relatively easy to learn. It is easier than in English, where spelling and pronunciation rules are filled with exceptions, and far easier than Chinese, with thousands of symbols to be memorized. But a lack of books and other written materials has hindered functional literacy. Many children and adults are able to read, but do it so haltingly that the skill is of no real benefit. For this and other reasons, Laos has the lowest level of adult literacy of any Southeast-Asian nation except for East Timor.[8]

    A literacy project in Laos addresses this by using what it calls "books that make literacy fun!" The project, Big Brother Mouse, publishes colorful, easy-to-read books, then delivers them by holding book parties at rural schools. Some of the books are modeled on successful western books by authors such as Dr. Seuss. The most popular titles, however, are traditional Lao fairy tales. Two popular collections of folktales were written by Siphone Vouthisakdee, who comes from a village where only five children finished primary school.[9]

    Big Brother Mouse has also created village reading rooms, and published books for adult readers about subjects such as Buddhism, health, and baby care.[10]

    Pakistan

    In Pakistan, the National Commission for Human Development (NCHD) aims to bring literacy to adults, especially women.

    Philippines

    In the Philippines, the DepEd CHED and other academic institutions encourage children to improve literacy skills and knowledge. The government has a program of literacy teaching starting in kindergarten.

    Literacy in the 21st century

    See main article: New literacies. This idea has forever changed the landscape of information access, and is integral in an understanding of Literacy as a practice, in the 21st Century. It is no longer sufficient to consider whether a student can 'read' (decoding text, really) and 'write' (encoding text), and it is necessary to consider more meaningful aspects of literacy in education and in society as a whole, if we are to complete the transition we are in, from a society in which communication was never possible on the level of 'many to many', to one in which it is.[11]

    Economic impact

    Many policy analysts consider literacy rates as a crucial measure to enhance a region's human capital. This claim is made on the grounds that literate people can be trained less expensively than illiterate people, generally have a higher socio-economic status[12] and enjoy better health and employment prospects. Policy makers also argue that literacy increases job opportunities and access to higher education.

    In Kerala, India, for example, female and child mortality rates declined dramatically in the 1960s, when girls schooled according to the education reforms after 1948 began to raise families. In addition to the potential for literacy to increase wealth, wealth may promote literacy, through cultural norms and easier access to schools and tutoring services.

    In 2009, the National Adult Literacy agency (NALA) commissioned an economist to do a cost benefit analysis of adult literacy training in Ireland. He reported that there were economic gains for the individuals, the companies they worked for, the Exchequer, as well as the economy, for example, increased GDP, and society at large. The annual income gain per person per level increase on the Irish ten level National Qualifications Framework being €3,810 and the gain to the Exchequer, in terms of reduced social welfare transfers and increased tax payments, being €1,531 per annum.[13]

    Broader and complementary definitions

    Traditionally considered the ability to use written language actively and passively, some definitions of literacy consider it the ability to "read, write, spell, listen, and speak." Since the 1980s, some have argued that literacy is ideological, which means that literacy always exists in a context, in tandem with the values associated with that context. Prior work viewed literacy as existing autonomously.

    Some have argued that the definition of literacy should be expanded. For example, in the United States, the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association have added "visually representing" to the traditional list of competencies. Similarly, in Scotland, literacy has been defined as: "The ability to read, write and use numeracy, to handle information, to express ideas and opinions, to make decisions and solve problems, as family members, workers, citizens and lifelong learners."[14]

    A basic literacy standard in many societies is the ability to read the newspaper. Increasingly, communication in commerce or society in general requires the ability to use computers and other digital technologies.[15] Since the 1990s, when the Internet came into wide use in the United States, some have asserted that the definition of literacy should include the ability to use tools such as web browsers, word processing programs, and text messages. Similar expanded skill sets have been called multimedia literacy, computer literacy, information literacy, and technological literacy.[16] Some scholars propose the idea multiliteracies which includes Functional Literacy, Critical Literacy, and Rhetorical Literacy.

    "Arts literacy" programs exist in some places in the United States.

    Other genres under study by academia include critical literacy, media literacy, ecological literacy and health literacy[17] With the increasing emphasis on evidence-based decision making, and the use of statistical graphics and information, statistical literacy is becoming a very important aspect of literacy in general. The International Statistical Literacy Project is dedicated to the promotion of statistical literacy among all members of society.

    It is argued that literacy includes the cultural, political, and historical contexts of the community in which communication takes place.[18]

    Taking account of the fact that a large part of the benefits of literacy obtain from having access to a literate person in the household, a recent literature in economics, starting with the work of Kaushik Basu and James Foster, distinguishes between a 'proximate illiterate' and an 'isolated illiterate'. The former refers to an illiterate person who lives in a household with other literates and the latter to an illiterate who lives in a household of all illiterates. What is of concern is that many people in poor nations are not just illiterates but isolated illiterates.

    Teaching literacy

    See main article: Learning to read. Teaching English literacy in the United States is dominated at present by a conception of literacy that focuses on a set of discrete decoding skills. From this perspective, literacy - or, rather, reading - comprises a number of subskills that can be taught to students. These skill sets include: phonological awareness, phonics (decoding), fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. Mastering each of these sets of subskills is necessary for students to become proficient readers.

    From this same perspective, readers of alphabetic languages must understand the alphabetic principle in order to master basic reading skills. A writing system is said to be alphabetic if it uses symbols to represent individual language sounds,[19] though the degree of correspondence between letters and sounds varies across alphabetic languages. Syllabic writing systems (such as Japanese kana) use a symbol to represent a single syllable, and logographic writing systems (such as Chinese) use a symbol to represent a morpheme.[20]

    There are any number of approaches to teaching literacy; each is shaped by its informing assumptions about what literacy is and how it is best learned by students. Phonics instruction, for example, focuses on reading at the level of the word. It teaches readers to attend to the letters or groups of letters that make up words. A common method of teaching phonics is synthetic phonics, in which a novice reader pronounces each individual sound and "blends" them to pronounce the whole word. Another approach to phonics instruction is embedded phonics instruction, used more often in whole language reading instruction, in which novice readers learn about the individual letters in words on a just-in-time, just-in-place basis that is tailored to meet each student's reading and writing learning needs. That is, teachers provide phonics instruction opportunistically, within the context of stories or student writing that feature many instances of a particular letter or group of letters. Embedded instruction combines letter-sound knowledge with the use of meaningful context to read new and difficult words.[21] Techniques such as directed listening and thinking activities can be used to aid children in learning how to read and reading comprehension.

    Public library efforts to promote literacy

    The public library has long been a proponent for literacy in its communities.[22] The release of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) report in 2005 revealed that approximately 14 percent of adults function at the lowest level of literacy and 29 percent of adults function at the basic functional literacy level, meaning they are not able to help their children with homework beyond the first few grades[23] The lack of reading skills hinders adults from reaching their full potential. They might have difficulty getting and maintaining a job, providing for their families, or even reading a story to their children. For adults, the library might be the only source of a literacy program.[24]

    United States

    Programs have been instituted in public libraries across the United States in an attempt to improve the literacy rates in this country. Some example of various literacy programs across the country are listed below.

    The READ/Orange County program, initiated in 1992 by the Orange County Public Library in California is an example of a flourishing community literacy program. The organization builds on what people have already learned through experiences as well as previous education, rather than trying to make up for what has not been learned. The organization then provides the student with the skills to continue learning in the future. The program operates on the belief that an adult who learns to read creates a ripple effect in the community. An adult who learns to read impacts not just himself but the whole community; he becomes an example to his children and grandchildren, and can then better serve his community. The mission of READ/Orange County is to "create a more literate community by providing diversified services of the highest quality to all who seek them." Potential tutors train during an extensive twenty-three hour Tutor Training Workshop in which they learn the philosophy, techniques and tools they will need to work with adult learns After completing the training, the tutors invest at least fifty hours a year to tutoring their student.

    Another successful literacy program is the BoulderReads! program in Boulder, Colorado. The program recognized the difficulty that students had in obtaining child care while attending tutoring sessions, and joined with the University of Colorado to provide reading buddies to the children of students. Reading Buddies matches children of adult literacy students with college students who meet with them once a week throughout the semester for an hour and a half. The college students receive course credit, ensuring the quality and reliability of their time[25]

    Each Reading Buddies session focuses primarily on the college student reading aloud with the child. This helps the child gain interest in books and feel comfortable reading aloud. Time is also spent on word games, writing letters, or searching for books in the library. Throughout the semester the pair work on writing and illustrating a book together. The college student’s grade is partly dependent on the completion of the book. Although Reading Buddies began primarily as an answer to the lack of child care for literacy students, it has evolved into another aspect of the literacy program. While the children are not participants in the tutoring program, they do show marked improvement in their reading and writing skills throughout the semester, due in part to the admiration and respect they gain for their college reading buddy.

    The Hillsborough Literacy Council, operating under The Florida Literacy Coalition, a statewide literacy organization, strives to improve the literacy ability of adults in Hillsborough County, Florida. Working since 1986, the HLC is "committed to improving literacy by empowering adults through education"[26] The HLC also provides tutoring for English-speakers of other languages (ESOL). Approximately 120,000 adults in Hillsborough County are considered illiterate, or read below the fourth grade level. Through one on one tutoring the organization works to help adult students reach at least the fifth grade level. 95,000 adults living in Hillsborough County do not speak English; volunteers in the organization typically work with small groups of non-English speaking students to help practice their English conversation skills.

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