Julia Scherba de Valenzuela, Ph.D.
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Definitions of Literacy

According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary online (www.m-w.com/cgi-bin/dictionary), literacy is "the quality or state of being literate."
Literate, according to this same source, derives from Middle English and Latin terms meaning "marked with letters" and "letters, literature." Two definitions are provided:

1) "able to read and write," and
2) "versed in literature or creative writing...having knowledge or competence <computer-literate><politically-literate>."
This dictionary source also provides an entry for visual literacy, defined as "the ability to recognize and understand ideas conveyed through visible actions or images (as pictures)."

The Literacy Development Council of Newfoundland and Labrador (www.nald.ca/PROVINCE/NFLD/NFLITCOU/litinfo.htm) defines this term in the following: "Literacy not only involves competency in reading and writing, but goes beyond this to include the critical and effective use of these in peoples' lives, and the use of language (oral and written) for all purposes."  This definition involves critical thinking about what one reads, as well as expanding the term to encompass oral forms of literacy.

According to the National Institute for Literacy (http://novel.nifl.gov/nifl/faqs.html):

"The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 defines literacy as 'an individual's ability to read, write, speak in English, compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual and in society.' This is a broader view of literacy than just an individual's ability to read, the more traditional concept of literacy. As information and technology have become increasingly shaped our society [sic], the skills we need to function successfully have gone beyond reading, and literacy has come to include the skills listed in the current definition."
This definition is important as it looks at literacy, at least to some extent, from a more contextualized perspective. The definition of 'literate', then, depends on the skills needed within a particular environment. Of note, also, is the emphasis on English.

In academia, the definition of literacy has also evolved from an exclusive focus on reading and writing to encompass a more inclusive and expansive perspective. Some of that work has come from researchers involved in exploring literacy among diverse populations and across cultural/political/socioeconomic boundaries. In the introduction to their edited volume, Dubin and Kuhlman (1992) discuss the changing definition of literacy:

On the way to becoming a book, the 'literacy' part of our title has taken on meanings that go beyond the simple definition of 'reading and writing' as we had conceived of it in 1984....we acknowledge that the word literacy itself has come to mean competence, knowledge and skills (Dubin). Take, for example, common expressions such as 'computer literacy,' "civic literacy,' 'health literacy,' and a score of other usages in which literacy stands for know-how and awareness of the first word in the expression. (p. vi)
The authors go on to state that:
The past decade has been marked by significant new directions in literacy research brought about by questions which seek to discover how literacy functions in families...in communities...and in workplaces... What does it mean to be 'literate' as a member of a particular culture? What are the patterns of literacy use within fields of work, within professions, within age-groups? (p. vii)
Hiebert (1991) takes an explicitly constructivist perspective to the definition of literacy:
For some time now, a new perspective on literacy, and the learning processes through which literacy is acquired, has been emerging. This new perspective does not consist of old ideas with a new name, but rather it represents a profound shift from a text-driven definition of literacy to a view of literacy as active transformation of texts. In the old view, meaning was assumed to reside primarily within text, whereas, in the new view, meaning is created through an interaction of reader and text. (p. 1)
Langer (1991) takes this notion of interaction of reader with text a step further, contrasting "literacy as the act of reading and writing and literacy as ways of thinking" (p. 13). This author brings up the notion, alluded to in the Workforce Investment Act definition provided above that the standards for literacy depend on the context within which one functions: "...literacy can be viewed in a broader and educationally more productive way, as the ability to think and reason like a literate person, within a particular society" (p. 11). The author argues that:
It is the culturally appropriate way of thinking, not the act of reading or writing, that is most important in the development of literacy. Literacy thinking manifests itself in different ways in oral and written language in different societies, and educators need to understand these ways of thinking if they are to build bridges and facilitate transitions among ways of thinking. (p. 13)
Yet this definition may be problematic when considering what literacy means for individuals with intensive communication needs and/or significant cognitive impairments. Discussing individuals with cognitive impairments, Beukelman, Mirenda, and Sturm (1998) stated
Because of these individuals' cognitive  limitations, educators may not consider literacy learning as an educational goal. As a result, individuals with cognitive impairments are at risk of being held to reduced expectations and lacking exposure to literacy materials, both at home and at school. If educators believe that reading does not begin until individuals possess certain prerequisite skills, and if educators think of literacy as an 'all or none' ability, they will not consider the potential for varying degrees of literacy learning by individuals with cognitive impairments. In truth, individuals with cognitive impairments can and should engage in the same emergent literacy activities as their peers without disabilities (e.g., listening repeatedly to stories, having access to writing tools). We cannot overemphasize the importance of intensive exposure to literacy materials in the early years. (p. 361)
Other authors have also pondered the complexity of applying definitions of literacy, whether traditional or evolving, to individuals with disabilities. While most authors in this area have recognized literacy as "interactive, constructive, strategic, and meaning-based" (Steelman, Pierce, & Koppenhaver, 1994, p. 201), they also typically maintain the notion that comprehension and use of written text is central to literacy. Steelman, Pierce and Koppenhaver's definition is a good example: "To be literate is to be able to gather and to construct meaning using written language" (p 201).

Others emphasize the importance of oral language development to written language by highlighting both in their definition of literacy. An example of this comes from Foley (1994): "[f]or the purposes of this discussion, the term 'literacy' will be used broadly to refer to the mastery of language, in both its spoken (or augmented) and written forms, which enables an individual to use language fluently for a variety of purposes" (p. 184). Yet this author also cautions that while "[t]here is general agreement today that spoken language abilities are closely related to the development of literacy skills in the normal population" (p. 185), "[l]inguistic ability, as opposed to speech production ability, appears to be the more critical factor" (p. 186).


Beukelman, D. R., & Mirenda, P. (1998). Augmentative and alternative communication: Management of severe communication disorders in children and adults (2nd ed.). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Dubin, F., & Kuhlman, N. A. (1992). The dimensions of cross-cultural literacy. In F. Dubin & N. A. Kuhlman (Eds.). Cross-cultural literacy: Global perspectives on reading and writing (pp. v-x). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Regents/Prentice Hall.

Foley, B. E. (1994). The development of literacy in individuals with severe congenital speech and motor impairments. In K. G. Butler (Ed.),  Severe communication disorders: Intervention strategies  (pp. 183-199).  Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen.

Hiebert, E. H. (1991). Introduction. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed.), Literacy for a diverse society: Perspectives, practices, and policies (pp. 1-6). New York: Teachers College Press.

Langer, J. A. (1991). Literacy and schooling: A sociocognitive perspective. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed.), Literacy for a diverse society: Perspectives, practices, and policies (pp. 9-27). New York: Teachers College Press.

Steelman, J. D., Pierce, P. L., & Koppenhaver, D. A. (1994). The role of computers in promoting literacy in children with severe speech and physical impairments. In K. G. Butler (Ed.),  Severe communication disorders: Intervention strategies (pp. 200-212).  Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen.

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Last updated: July 30, 2002