Once upon a time, being literate meant being able to read and write.  Centuries ago, literacy was only achieved by members of an elite, usually religious, class of males.  (Yes!  Boys once had the upper-hand in reading skills!) Copies of books had to be handwritten by scribes, so even if women and lower classes were literate, they wouldn’t have had anything to read. 


The Changing Definition of Literacy
Technology changed all that.  The moveable type printing press was invented in the 1400’s, making copies of books easier to come by.  But it wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution in the mid 1900’s that books and paper and writing materials were made cheap and accessible to the masses. 
The past few decades have brought remarkable technological advances.  The definition of literacy has advanced right along with technology.  Different countries have their own definitions for literacy; here is a United States definition created by UNESCO, or The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization: "Literacy is 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 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."  (Make sure to check out Mike McQueen’s interview with David Warlick about the changing definition of literacy.)
To give you an idea of the broad scope of the 21st century definition of literacy, here are different literacy studies being taught in education programs:
  • critical literacy
  • visual literacy
  • computer literacy
  • multimedia literacy
  • information literacy
  • health literacy
  • digital literacy
Why Literacy is So Important
Literacy breeds success.  Kids who can read and write, type fast, navigate through the internet, and understand how to use Microsoft Word, etc, are going to excel. Kids who lack these skills flounder.  And, hundreds of years later, it is still the poor whose literacy skills are lacking.  Books may be cheaper, but computers!  Those things are expensive! Underprivileged schools lack the money and therefore the resources to provide critical literacy skills.  Now it is now boys whose reading and writing skills are deficient!  Statistically, boys are significantly behind girls in literacy skills by the time they reach the age of 15. 
Literacy Resources
Fortunately, there are a lot options out there for parents and teachers who desire to bolster children’s literacy skills.  Local libraries and state-funded programs provide young children, adolescents, and even adults with support to help them become proficient readers, writers, and expert multimedia navigators.  Many teachers and administrators are not even aware of these programs and are therefore unable to utilize services that would strengthen their own libraries and literacy programs.  Ignorance of available help also makes teachers and administrators unable to recommend programs to parents. The following are just some of many helpful websites that offer literacy assistance.  Hopefully, browsing these will be an encouragement to teachers and parents who feel they are struggling out there all alone:
www.literacydirectory.org: a database of over 5000 literacy programs in the U.S.  Just enter your zip code and poof!  An organization near you pops up!
http://www.ed.gov/programs/lsl/index.html:  The U.S Department of Education website provides online resources as well as information about applying for grants to improve your school’s library.
http://www.scholastic.com/librarians/programs/grants.htm:  Scholastic website lists library grants, as well as literacy programs and activities to help schools in need. 
Question:  Do you have resources outside of the United States you would like to share?

{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Kristen Bevilacqua

    Really great post, Holly! You bring up so many good points.

    It’s so true that while literacy evolves with changes in the way we communicate, work and live, underprivileged schools and children fall even further behind. This really struck a chord with me and my experience so far with literacy in South Africa. And you’re right, there is good news!

    Although millions of adults remain illiterate, the South African government is making huge efforts to educate and skill its citizens in order to improve their lives. Literacy resources here are greatly improving. I’ve learned of situations where both parents and schools are utilizing those resources as much as possible. It’s a huge change from the literacy support that was provided for most of the kids’ parents when they were young. Thanks for writing about this topic. It’s definitely something we should be thinking about. Great links too!

    Here are a few resources in South Africa:

    http://www.familyliteracyproject.co.za – Resources for families in the rural areas of SA, provides literacy support that starts at home.

    http://www.help2read.org – This is the org I volunteer with in South Africa. Help2Read has an active literacy program in over 100 schools in the greater urban Cape Town area.

  • Mike McQueen

    You touch on a hot topic of under privileged kids not having access to the same reading experience. The "digital divide" is ahuge issue in the US and even more so across the globe.

    Kristen, it’s very interesting what you have to say about the South African government. I’m sure many people would love to read an article from you about reading problems with boys in S. Africa. I know I would :-)

  • Joy

    What we have in the Philippines before are the “SINE SKWELA” Series, which are TV programs that covers different school subjects. The there was the “EPOL APPLE” Series that is all about the English Language. The foundation that was promoting this had another program that coincides with this, which is donating a TV Set for a public school wherein the children could watch the above mentioned programs as they air or the video tape copy. Until now, the series are still being aired in Knowledge Channel on Cable…


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