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Literacy: A History

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Literacy is often simply defined as the ability to read and write. Generally, this definition is effective. However, for those scholars, theorists, educators, librarians, and policy makers who promote, teach, and study literacy this basic definition proves to be limiting and problematic. Different approaches to the study of literacy and who is deemed "literate" and "illiterate" have been rapidly changing.


Quantitative Approach

The earliest approach to studying literacy in the 20th century was quantitative. Often literacy was determined by years of schooling (for example: in the US in the 1950's those who had a 5th grade education or higher were determined to be literate (Roberts 413)). Now the favored quantitative method to determine literacy is the widely criticized, yet heavily employed standardized test. Some major criticisms of standardized testing and quantitative methods in general:

  • Quantitative research (standardized testing) only focuses on a very specific literacy that relies primarily on reading skills, and does not give equal focus to writing, or omits writing all together.
  • Promotes that only one uniform type of literacy is valuable, while excluding the many historical/ social/ cultural factors that effect literacy(ies).(Race, class, gender, culture, religion, familial habits/ traditions of literacy etc.)
  • Often, if not exclusively, used by policy makers to generate false numerical data and therefore the false legitimacy of numerical data to promote specific political agendas.

Qualitative Approach

The 1970's saw a lot of reforms in education, including reforms of the way literacy was studied. Researchers and scholars began to explore literacy from a qualitative perspective. (Of course, it should be noted that this new approach did not do away with quantitative methodology, all of these methodologies have and do overlap.) Qualitative studies of literacy are often centered around creating a prescriptive or fixed definition of literacy. This proves to be problematic because this method also creates an ideological understanding of literacy that is not useful in practical applications.

Pluralist Method

In recent history, a pluralist method has also been used to examine literacy. Meaning that instead of trying to achieve one perfect definition of literacy as the qualitative method attempts to achieve, multiple literacies have been created and defined in order to examine the multiple stages and types of literacy.


  • Survival literacy, meaning the literacy skills necessary to survive in the modern world.(Ability to read road signs, fill out forms...)
  • Functional literacy as being able to successfully work with occupational, political, and commercial documents in day to day life.
  • Critical literacy is the ability to transform information through reflection, action, and the ability to disassociate information from it's social context.

Peter Robert's created a useful formula in order to accurately define different types of literacy:

"for purpose X, under social circumstances Y, within historical period Z."

It is the pluralist approach to literacy that is now considered by many scholars to be the most useful when studying or working to define literacy.

A Note from the Author

It should be noted that when I differentiate between digital literacies and traditional literacies (simplistically the ability to read and write) I will use the term alphabet literacy to describe traditional literacies. According to my research there is no agreed upon term for traditional ideas of literacy, book literacy is often used as well as print literacy, but I have decided to shy away from that classification after our research showing the complex relationship books have with the digital world. Alphabet literacy at this time seems an apt term to describe traditional literacies in the context of this wiki and is a term used by many scholars. Definitions of other commonly used literacies in this body of work are available in Defining Digital, Information, and Multimodal Literacies.


The Consequences of Literacy in Pragmatic and Theoretical Perspectives
by Akinnaso, F. Niyi

Orality and Literacy: the technologizing of the word
by Ong, Walter

Defining Literacy: Paradise, Nightmare or Red Herring?
by Roberts, Peter