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.
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!
Question: Do you have resources outside of the United States you would like to share?