Introduction to Literacy

Reference as: Mkandawire, Sitwe Benson (2015) LTC1100 Introduction to Literacy. The University of Zambia Lecture notes for week 1. Retrieved from

1.2 What is Literacy?
In today’s world, Literacy as an emerging academic field of study is one of the complex terms to define as it has been defined differently by different scholars from various fields. The following is a list of definitions with their reflections.
Definition 1: literacy is being able to identify letters in Latin (Etymology Dictionary, 2000).
This definition is void and redundant. It is null and invalid because literacy is more than mere identification of scant letters in Latin. One would wonder, does it mean that a person is still illiterate when they can identify letters in Tumbuka or English language but they cannot identify a letter in Latin?
Although the first definition is null and invalid, it is important because it provides a foundation for literacy discussions. The fact that it is making reference to the origins of the term literacy (Litera in Latin), it is enough for ground breaking.
The online etymology dictionary notes that the word literacy has its origins from Latin word litterātus (literate) which also came from littera or lītera which means letter to refer to the ‘one who knows the letters’ (literate).
Early writings in the 12th century indicate that the oldest kings of England including King Henry I and those that followed were instructed in Latin through a series of letters from the church superiors particularly pope of the catholic church. These letters stressed the need for the king of England to be literate with his clan’s men. It is believed that the word must have existed long before the 12th century.
The 12th century was a significant time in the expansion of literacy and literate usage. There is evidence that the kings of England from Henry I onward were instructed in Latin. The desire to be litteratus extended to the aristocracy of the court in the reign of Henry II, as learned discussion on matters intellectual in the manner of the clerical school men was evidently quite the done thing at court.

Definition 2: “Literacy is the ability to read and write” The National Literacy Framework (2013:6)

Critique 2: This definition is very vague and misleading. One would ask, reading and writing what? Arrows for road signage or traffic control? Is it reading and writing pictorial images? Or is it reading and writing Chinese Characters such as 你叫什么名字?In this case, if someone is not able to read and write Chinese for example, does it mean they are illiterate? Therefore, the second definition raises a lot of questions than answers.

It is important to note that the second definition is very significant as it is introducing a discussion on a type of literacy called Conventional Literacy. A detailed discussion on the subject matter is provided in the next unit.

Definition 3: “Literacy is the ability to read and write in a particular Language” Mkandawire (2010:1)
Critique 3: This definition is interesting as it is a practical orientation to Conventional Literacy and a direct response to the second critique, but it is not a true representation of the phenomenon. Literacy is a broad discipline and it cannot be reduced to merely reading and writing or encoding and decoding of skills in a named language. Where do you put for example computer literacy, Profession literacy, media literacy, legal literacy, family literacy and health literacy? We cannot use this definition to describe literacy in general. The definition is only correct for one type of literacy called Conventional Literacy.
It is important to note that this definition has a fundamental difference as it is relating reading to interpretation of written symbols into spoken skills. It is the basis for the origins of worldwide known form of literacy. It is focusing upon specific skills which are considered vital and should be attained by all learners worldwide as the ultimate beneficiaries of conventional literacy.

Definition 4: “Literacy is a set of Technical Skills of Reading, Writing and Numeracy” (Unesco, 2000).
Critique 4: Defining literacy as Technical Skills of Reading, Writing and Numeracy is fascinating and special in that it has added the aspect of applied skills and mathematical competence. It entails that a literate person must have mathematical skills needed to cope with everyday life and at least a basic understanding of information presented mathematically such as tables and charts. It suggests a range of skills discussed in definition 3 with the exceptive emphasis on numeracy and technical skills which were not adequately addressed in the previous definitions.
It is also vital to note that, this is the traditional notion about literacy. It postulates that literacy is the ability to read, write and do numeracy or and do arithmetic. Today, however, it is questionable that the three skills constitute literacy due to the existence of other literacies.
It is important to note that although definition 4 has excluded other forms of literacy, it has included quiet a number of skills such as applied literacy skills and mathematical competence. By extension, the definition clearly suggests that all kinds of activities that occur in a literacy classroom have some practical application and mathematical skills embedded in them.
Definition 5: “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 in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society”, (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – UNESCO).
Critique 5: This definition is abstract, tedious and intangible. It has just listed terms without explaining them in a valid way that people can easily follow and understand.

Definition 6: Literacy refers to the awareness skills, competence, abilities, access to information and the knowledge possessed in a particular field.
Critique 6: This definition is too slippery, elusive, ethereal and intangible. It is just mentioning terms without putting them into context for discussion by the general populace. It is not focused and generally delusional and not easy to understand.

This definition is psychologically trying to divert the contextual thinking of critiques by highlighting things in general. It is important as it is opening doors to literacy perception in the modern world.

Definition 7: Literacy is the ability to use printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.

Critique 7: The definition is close to functional literacy as it focuses on applied literacy as opposed to aliteracy. It is vital as it is context specific but does not adequately address the scope and depth of literacy as perceived in today’s world.

Definition 8: Literacy is the scientific study of skill acquisition and its processes, appliance and assessment of the state of competent knowledge and information possessed as approved by the community in a specified area.
Critique 8 : This definition is invincible, enticing, hilarious, luxurious and omnipotent for literacy discussions. It is broad enough to probably exhaust different forms of literacies. Studying skill acquisition and its processes on one hand is really something hard to imagine. On the other, assessing the state of competent knowledge and information possessed as approved by the community in a specific area is generally charming. Can these issues really be proven in real situations? If so how?

What is more peculiar in definition eight is the presence of scientific study of skill acquisition and its processes. The definition is suggesting that the art of skill acquisition and its processes can be proven scientifically by a community specialized in it. It is done by assessing the state of competent knowledge and information possessed that defines, let us say that profession. It is also worth to note that this definition is a clear attempt to widen the focus of literacy as perceived in the world today.
It is crucial to observe that definitions mostly provide a guide to word usage and not necessary what the word(s) mean. This is common knowledge especially amongst linguists that words mean nothing on their own but in context. Definitions therefore, help in establishing the contexts to use them, though, not always. Some people do not like definitions because they are not in most cases a true representation of what they define. The same can be said about literacy definitions. They may be meaningful in one context and wrong in another.

This by extension entails that defining terms can be very problematic at times because words may change meanings depending on the context, century and the generation as the case of literacy today. In the 12th to 17th century, literacy had to do with reading and writing only with its related terms: illiteracy, literate and illiterate. Today we talk of multi-literacies; computer literacy, legal literacy, health literacy, cultural literacy, environmental literacy, media just to mention a few.

1.3 Reflections on diversity of Literacy
There are several views of scholars in various fields of what literacy is as used in everyday life. Some of these are as follows;
“A person who can read his or her environment but cannot read a word should not be deemed ignorant and illiterate. To me an illiterate person is he /she who, even with more than enough schooling cannot read his/her environment, identify the wealth it has and protect that wealth, multiply it and enhance his/her own quality of life. Hence, real illiteracy is about failure or incompetence in reading the wealth of one’s environment”, (Tambulukani and Banda, 2010 quoting longest serving permanent Secretary in Ministry of Education).
This quotation is looking at literacy from a broader point of view to include people’s ways of life, environmental management and generally how people survival in their environments.

“You do not need to have books in order to have literature and to have literacy. The term literacy includes survival knowledge or functional literacy. Stories, proverbs, sayings of the wise, riddles, beliefs, poems, fairy tails, myths, taboos, legends were books and not only books but theatre. My family, my home, and nature around my home were my libraries. My literary events took place in our cowshed as we were milking cows” (Vuolab, 2000).
This quotation is also perceiving literacy from a broader point of view as it touches people’s ways of life and their related social and cultural activities.

These reflections are similar to the ones obtained in a similar study recently where some respondents were saying;
“I do not need reading books to find food, raise a family, make friends or survive in my community. Our fathers lived thousands of years before us and all was well: wealthy, known leader and respected. Two of my sons and one daughter are excellent literate people compared to me but they cannot compare what they are doing to what I have. The attention and wealthy I have accumulated. All these have nothing to do with literacy alone but personality and wellbeing”.
These views suggest that it is impossible for a rational being to exclusively fit into any society without the existence of literacy. Literacy and existence to a large extent are inseparable because all forms of nature employ literacy skills to survive: humans, birds, fish, animals and all living nature. Literacy is an end to itself.

1.4 The Concept of Literacy
The concept of literacy has undergone different phases in terms of usage and meaning. From a mere identification of Latin letters to broader ways used by the people to survival, the operations they carry out and the different fields that affect their lives.

The nature of literacy is complex to establish as it touches on every aspect of human endeavor. It is part of our living as all humans make sense of their own lives, they talk about what they do, they explain and justify their actions, their feelings, their intentions and thoughts (Barton, 2007). Literacy is at the center of our everyday life.
Literacy is a basic instrument for change and development in the society. It is a beacon of hope reflecting the life cycle of a single human being in their own world. It raises critical awareness of the citizens so that they become subjects, rather than objects, of the world. This is empirically done by teaching citizens to think democratically and to continually question and critique everything they interact with in their daily lives. With literacy in its full swing, there is no room for tolerating nonsense from any sector of the society. There are no classified subjects or stories that literate people would not talk about.
Literate men and women have created this world by naming it, using words, images, objects and abstract entities. The world is a social construct in the eyes of the literates. The process of constructing it which involves the whole conscious self, feelings, emotions, memory, affects, an epistemologically curious mind, focused on the object, equally involves other thinking subjects capable of knowing and driving curious minds.
Literacy is naturally political and its processes are virtually crucial in making real democracy. There is no democracy if people are blocked or stopped from airing their views against anything and anyone. Ideal democracy is not made or attained by spiritual words or political forces but with people’s reflection and practice. It advocates for people’s practical democracy praising the goodness of all humans but discarding the devil in them. Literacy discard ideas of politicians, parents, business and the community leaders who use the educational system like schools to impose their values and beliefs at the expense of the majority.
The concept of literacy is very complex today as it impinges on every aspect of human life.
1.5 Misconceptions about Literacy
There are currently several misconceptions about literacy. The world, international and national literacy statistics are very misleading, false and unreliable mainly propagated by oppressors for their hidden agendas and ideologies. The criterion used to measure literacy levels is often very rough, biased and selfish. The research coverage of the data used to compile such false figures is often incomplete and non-representative. The majorities are measuring literacy levels in the eyes of donor lenses and developed countries using international languages. Those who are literate in other languages are deemed illiterate, poor and inferior. This is noted by a number of scholars including Arnove and Graff who observe that;
Global figures on literacy levels are noted as both unreliable and hard to interpret. Literacy statistics for Africa “do not include persons who are literate in other languages other than the official languages” which are French, English, Spanish and Portuguese, to be more specific (Arnove and Graff.1992: 285).
This suggests that failure by such mediocre researchers and media institutions to acknowledge the variation of literacy perceptions from country to country is not only a danger to the world but also to researchers themselves. They are typical examples of the illiterate literates.
1.6 The Evolution in the use of Literacy
The word literacy was used in the 12th century and probably the time before that in a series of letters from church to kingdoms in Europe for purposes of communication. Kings and royal families were urged to become literate for easy communication especially when there was confidential information sent through letters delivered by illiterate massagers. Therefore, it was restricted to a small number of elites. Although some ruling class was illiterate, literacy was one of the distinguishing marks, (Bowman and Woolf, 1994).

Graff (1991) notes that in the twelfth century, the ability to recite, in Latin, a particular passage from the Bible entitled a common law defendant to a benefit of clergy. Later a literate person was used as an admission criteria for those who wanted to be trained in clergy works for religious training institutions. During this time, many literacy related terms such as illiterate and literate developed. Some dictionaries in the early days did not even acknowledge or associate the use of literate to early letters from the church to kings. Barton (2007:19) note that;
Tracing the historical changes on how dictionaries deal with such words is generally instructive. With literacy, there are actually four words to consider: literate, illiterate, literacy and illiteracy and these can both be nouns as in ‘an illiterate’ and adjectives as in literate behaviour. Going back to Samuel Johnson’s first dictionary of English in 1755, only one term ‘illiterate’ is found. I have examined 20 dictionaries published in the 19th century and early in the 20th century. Barclay’s dictionary of 1820 also only has illiterate. Illiteracy is found in Walker’s critical pronouncing dictionary of 1839 with the caveat that it is uncommon word. Literate, but only in the sense of educate or learnt appears too.
According to Barton (2007), the word literacy finally appeared in the dictionary of 1924 with an addition of meaning ‘being able to read and write”. This meaning according to Barton gradually grows in importance so that in contemporary dictionaries, such as the COBUID English language dictionary or the concise oxford, it is the first meaning with educated as a subsidiary meaning.

In the late1930s, the word literacy started expanding in usage and meaning. The oxford English dictionary has a quotation from 1943 referring to economic literacy. This suggests that for the quotation to appear in 1943 in a written document, it means it must have started being used years before that year.

Arnove, R.F. and Graff, H., J. (1992). “National literacy campaigns in historical and comparative perspective: legacies, lessons, and issues.” In: R.F
Barton, D. (2007). Literacy: An introduction to the ecology of the written Language. 2nd Ed. USA. Blackwell Publishing.
Vuolab, K. (2000). Such a Treasure of Knowledge for Human Survival. In: Phillipson, Robert (2000). Rights To Languages .Equity, Power, and Education. London: Lawrence Erilbaum Associates, Publishers.

About Sitwe

Sitwe Benson Mkandwire is a researcher, teacher and writer. He is currently based at the University of Zambia, School of Education, Department of Language and Social Sciences Education.
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