Complexities of Finding a Modern Definition of Literacy

As the world continues to develop and grow, so does the apparent need for literacy. However, although many might agree that yes, being literate is incredibly important in modern times, many would not be able to offer a conclusive definition of literacy which encompasses and applies to all of the people and cultures around the world. The greatest challenge of finding this definition is that being literate means something different for everyone; for some, it might simply mean being able to read the newspaper or follow directions. For others, it might mean being able to read challenging writings or create them themselves. For others still, it might simply be the ability to recognize a warning label or a STOP sign.

Therefore, a distinction must then be made between “literacy” and “functional literacy.” Although neither term is as simple as it seems, the end result of this paper will be on “functional literacy” simply because it focuses on the practical usage of literacy in daily life; no doubt the goal to which those who strive to be literate wish for. However, before going further it must be established that, although the majority of those who wish to be literate wish to be so in a way that can be used in their daily life, it is impossible to establish what exactly this means in a broad, worldly context. Simply put, the necessity of being literate (or the level to which one is literate) varies so much between cultures and even societies within a single culture that it is impossible to choose a definition which can take into account all of these factors. Therefore, for the sake of argument, this paper will be focusing on finding an idealistic definition of literacy within the United States that is considerate of the differences between individuals, evaluates literacy in modern areas such as mathematics and technology, and therefore work towards the betterment of society. To arrive at something of a “finite” definition of literacy then, this paper will begin by evaluating the merits as well as shortcomings of past definitions and ideas about literacy.

To begin, the most basic of descriptions of literacy can be found in what seems to be the foremost authority on words: the dictionary. According the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, to be literate is defined in a few basic words as “able to read and write.” The greatest advantage of using this particular definition is that, at first glance, it seems quite simple. However, at once this is both its greatest advantage and disadvantage. It is disadvantageous in that there are many different levels of reading and writing. For example, it is quite obvious that an individual that is not able to read anything more complex than a children’s book has a very different level of reading than an individual who reads Shakespeare for enjoyment. Therefore, should readers of both these levels be grouped under the single term “literate?” Or, does it seem that this boundary of what is considered able to read and able to write must be identified?

Another definition of literacy that was discussed in class actually does try to define this boundary in an indirect way by stating that a person is literate if he or she has completed 5 or more years of schooling. The greatest advantage of this definition is that, unlike the dictionary definition, it is absolutely measurable. After all, in this case a person’s literacy becomes quite black and white; either they did or didn’t complete the schooling. Therefore, a definition such as this could be used to measure worldwide literacy in a way that the first definition couldn’t. However, like the above definition, using schooling as a measurement may not exactly be practical and does not consider individual cases. After all, two people who have completed 5 years of school have not necessarily achieved the same level of literacy. To use the above example again, one might have only achieved the ability to read a children’s book while the other might be able to read Shakespeare. Alternatively, it is also possible that even after 5 years of schooling a person has remained completely illiterate due to personal circumstances. Therefore, this definition does not serve as an accurate measurement of literacy.

The critique of these two, basic definitions lend themselves to the necessity of evaluating not just literacy, but what is called functional literacy, from which we may arrive at a final definition. Functional literacy essentially describes one’s ability to use one’s literacy for practical purposes, which, generally, is why a person chooses to become literate in the first place; so that it may be used in his or her daily life.

A third definition that was offered in class was that “a person was literate if he can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for the 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.” This definition, although seemingly better than the others, is still not flawless. In a perfect world, the ideal that each individual would be using his or her literacy to better society does seem to be an excellent end goal. However, what this definition fails to recognize and establish is that not all individuals would like to be literate for the benefit of society. He may want to be literate simply for his own benefit or maybe to support his family. In one example offered by Jonathon Kozol, an author on education, a woman describes her fear of not being able to help her children if they are in trouble because of her illiteracy. She worries that, in the case of an accident, she will be unable to either look up the number of a hospital in the phone book or give an ambulance the name of the street that she and her children are on (27). In this case, it is clear that the woman’s major impetus to become literate would be to support her family and not societal institutions.

Continuing with this idea, it is also important to consider that each individual has a different level of demand of literacy in his or her daily life. George Dawson, for example, in his memoir Life is so Good, describes how he managed to get through 98 years of his life without knowing how to read. It wasn’t for lack of desire that he didn’t learn, but for lack of practicality. In all honesty, knowing how to read when he was younger simply would not have helped him. Instead, it would have simply distracted him from his main priority which, just as it was with the woman in the example above, was to support himself and his family.

Considering these examples, it then seems quite presumptuous to assume that each person’s needs and daily literacy usage are exactly the same as this is clearly not the case. Therefore, a good base for our new definition of literacy should begin by describing an individual as literate if he or she is able to use his or her literacy (in terms of reading and writing) to the level that his or her particular daily life and circumstance calls for as opposed to the level that society deems to be acceptable.

Several more interesting and important facets to consider in this new definition of literacy, particularly as it applies to the modern world, are the ideas of quantitative and technological literacy. When one thinks of literacy, generally one thinks simply of literacy in the reading and writing sense. However, if we are to develop a definition of literacy and being literate as based around an individual’s need to interact with and establish his or herself in the modern world, these then become important considerations. Quantitative literacy is, more or less, literacy with numbers. To fit into our above definition of literacy, we will then describe one as quantitatively literate if he or she is able to interpret and understand documents with numbers as well as be able to perform basic functions as required by his or her daily life. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, examples of quantitative literacy usage range from being able to calculate the cost of ordering items from a catalog, adding the amounts on a bank deposit slip, or at a higher level comparing the cost per ounce of food items (29). As a rather strong emphasis in society is placed on money and it is considered possibly the most important factor in achieving a decent standard of living, being quantitatively literate is important in that an individual then has control over his or her finances. In another example offered by Kozol, an illiterate woman explains that she “couldn’t understand the bills” nor could she “write the checks to pay them” and frequently was forced to entrust other people to take care of this for her and thus ended up signing things that she didn’t what they were, simply hoping that she was not being taken advantage of (10). Naturally, when it comes to personal finances, it can be quite scary to not have control. Therefore, quantitative literacy is another aspect of literacy that should be included into our new definition, keeping in mind that its necessity will vary among individuals.

A final type of literacy that should be considered in our new definition should be technological literacy. As frequently discussed above, it is important to recognize that being technologically literate is neither essential nor practical for everyone on the same degree. However, as society increasingly progresses in technology, it is worth taking a look at and examining its value. Technological literacy can, more or less, be described in the same terms as written literacy. Namely, that it is a matter of decoding and interpreting information (Waetjen). In this case, it is a matter of decoding and interpreting technological messages as well as being able to create them oneself. The importance in being technologically literate lies in the fact that, in this day and age, technology is so prominent and seemingly essential to the lives of society, particularly in that of the younger generations. One example of many (that I can personally attest to) explaining the apparent necessity of technology in modernity is that, being a university student, it is simply impossible to get through one’s school years without a computer. At this point, between online assignments, research, digital textbooks, and email communication between student and teacher, technology has become essential to succeed in a university setting. For those who are not university students, technology has also proved to be useful in daily lives through work (such as the exchange of email messages or creation of technological presentations via Microsoft PowerPoint or Word), keeping track of finances or paying bills online, looking up phone numbers or company information, setting up appointments, or making online purchases. Therefore, for many a knowledge and ability to use such technologies has become ingrained in daily life.

From here, considering all the above qualifications, it seems we have a new definition for literacy. To oversimplify, literacy is, more or less, one’s ability to read, write, and both understand and use numbers and technology to the extent that is necessary in his or her daily life. Of course, like most definitions, this definition still has limitations, the greatest being that now literacy is essentially immeasurable. However, the merits of this particular definition seem to outweigh this particular flaw and seem to question whether or not it is necessary that it be measurable. This definition is successful in that it caters particularly to the differing needs of each individual by recognizing that not everyone will need to use these skills to the same extent. Furthermore, as it is quite possible that a particular person’s daily life will call for one form of literacy but not another, it works to broaden the categories in which a person may need to be literate by moving beyond just reading and writing by including quantitative and technological factors. This, hopefully, will then lead to a better and more-inclusive society in which those who are considered “less-literate” are no longer stigmatized and instead supported. In the end, perhaps educational reforms can also be formed from this definition in a way that no longer tries to cause each individual to reach what is deemed “literate” by societal standards, but instead allows each person to obtain literacy in the way that is most applicable and beneficial to his or her daily life.

Works Cited

Dawson, George, and Richard Glaubman. Life is so Good. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.


Kozol, Jonathon. “Illiterate America.” ENG 3741 Course Packet. Ed.

Eric Daigre. Minneapolis: 2013. 9-12, . Print.

“literate.” Merriam-Webster, 2013. http://www.merriam- (24 February 2013)

National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL). “A First Look at the Literacy of America’s

Adults in the 21st Century.” ENG 3741 Course Packet. Ed. Eric Daigre. Minneapolis:

  1. 27-54. Print.

Waetjen, Walter B. “Technological Literacy Reconsidered.” Journal of Technology Education.

4.2 (1993). n pag. Web. 24 February 2013.

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