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Definitions of Literacy

Dictionary definitions

Barton traces definitions in over 20 dictionaries from 1755 to early 1900s:

  • Initially the meaning of literate as early as 1432 in the Oxford English Dictionary was 'to be educated'.
    *In 1894, a new meaning of 'being able to read and write' was added.
    *The term later became used to refer to economic literacy in 1943, and then later in the 1960's the idea of literacy was extended to other areas such as musical literacy, film literacy and the like.
    *From an historical perspective, over a hundred years ago literacy was conjoint in meaning with literature.
    *Literacy has then come to be more associated with work, where a person needs to be literate as a pre-requisite before they can do certain types of work (Spencer 1986:442).

Typical definition (as per

  • **The condition or quality of being literate, especially the ability to read and write.
    **The condition or quality of being knowledgeable in a particular subject or field: cultural literacy; biblical literacy.

Specific definitions


  • The ability to read and write in the mother tongue (1960s).
    *A person who is functionally literate is able to engage in all activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his group and community and also for enabling him to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his own and the community's development.
    *"'Literacy' is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society."

Fordham et al (1995:9)

  • One way of defining literacy might be to say that for any one person it requires an ability to communicate through reading and writing all that can be understood and communicated through speech

Bhola (1994:30)

  • … the ability of a person to code and decode … a living and growing system of marks ... which have become part of the visual language of the people.

Gudschinsky (1973:5)

  • That person is literate who, in a language that he speaks, can read and understand anything he would have understood if it had been said to him; and who can write, so that it can be read, anything that he can say.

Chris Nugent (2005)

  • Literacy is communication by either reading or writing.

Wagner (1993:11)

  • Literacy is both a social and an individual phenomenon: social in that social practices are shared among members of a given culture, and individual in terms of the specific set of attitudes and learned behaviors and skills involved in encoding, decoding, and comprehending written language (author’s italics).

Barton and Hamilton (1998:7)

  • “Literacy is best understood as a set of social practices; these can be inferred from events which are mediated by written texts”.

Brian Street (1984) and (1993)

  • Street (1993) describes how, before the 1980s, a person was labeled as either literate or illiterate, depending on their ability to read and write or otherwise. That is, literacy was a technical, neutral, context free skill. Being literate was defined technically as the ability to read a given text, or to write a short passage, presumably in a language that you spoke. It was regarded as neutral in the sense that it was not value laden. The ability to read would be equivalent to being able to walk down the road (or track), for example; it was purely a physical motor skill. One’s sociocultural environment was not relevant to the traditional view, which regarded literacy as a context free skill. Furthermore, the categories of literate or illiterate were in absolute contrast. That is, you were either literate or you were not, as determined by some objective measure, such as a parametric testing instrument.
    *Street (1984) prefers to divide literacy into two models, representing firstly a narrow skills-based definition of literacy, which is technical, neutral and context free, as defined above. This he labels the autonomous model. And secondly, there is the ideological model, which is formulated on the precept that literacy practices are inextricably linked to social, cultural and power structures in a given society. When we are looking at literacy practices in a cross-cultural context, as is frequently the situation in PNG, the relevance of the ideological model becomes extremely important.

Barton, David and Mary Hamilton 1998

Local literacies. Reading and writing in one community. London: Routledge.

Bhola, H.S. 1994

A source book for literacy work. Perspective from the grassroots. London,

England: Jessica Kingsley Publishers/UNESCO Publishing.

<br> Fordham, Paul, Deryn Holland and Juliet Millican 1995

Adult literacy a handbook for development workers. Oxford, England: Oxfam

(UK and Ireland) Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).

<br> Gudschinsky, Sarah C. 1973

A manual of literacy for preliterate peoples. PNG: SIL.

<br> Nugent, Chris (2005)

Keep your definition of literacy simple or fail. Submission to National Inquiry into Literacy Teaching

<br> Street, Brian V 1984

Literacy in Theory and Practice. Studies in Oral and Literate Culture 9.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Street Brian V ed 1993

Cross-cultural approaches to literacy. Cambridge studies in oral and literate

culture 23. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wagner, Daniel A 1993

Literacy, culture and development. Becoming literate in Morocco. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press.