An Analysis of the Traditional and Modern Definitions of the Term Literacy

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Whenever most people hear the term literacy, they immediately think of the ability to read and write. Current dictionary definitions of the term are focused on an individual’s ability to comprehend and communicate through written form. However, a closer examination of literacy reveals that the traditional definition may not be satisfactory. For example, a person may be able to read and write in their native language, but then face difficulties when trying to communicate in a foreign area. Stephen Hawking, one of the most influential thinkers of the modern world, is disabled and cannot write with his own hands. Stephen Hawking is a far cry from illiterate. A better definition of literacy is one that accounts for cultural and individual differences in communication. Literacy can best be defined as the ability to use popular words or symbols in order to effectively communicate with people in a culture.

The traditional definition of literacy is unsatisfactory because words and symbols are not the same in all places of the world. Cultures vary in what words they use to define things (Otto, 2013). The traditional definition of literacy would be more fitting if cultures merely varied in what specific words they use to describe things. However, cultures also vary in how many words are used to describe a specific object (Otto, 2013). For example, there are many different ways to say camel in Arabic (Otto, 2013). English speakers rely on using adjectives in order to describe different breeds of horse or camel (Otto, 2013). As such, the amount of words used to describe a certain breed of camel varies by location. A person could be fluent in English and then be declared illiterate when they try using an English word in order to communicate with people in a different country. Similarly, linguistic differences also arise within a single language. The English language is spoken slightly differently in some parts of Britain than it is in America. If people define literacy merely as a person’s ability to read and write, then an individual’s level of literacy would depend on their geographic location and also what stage of evolution a particular language is in. Such a definition is unsatisfactory because it involves too many changing and variable elements.

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The purpose of creating a definition for something is so that it can be used repeatedly and provide the same or a similar meaning. Defining literacy as the ability to read and write creates a situation in which the word’s meaning varies by location, time period, and culture. Individuals fluent in street slang provide an interesting counter example to the traditional definition of literacy. About 14 percent of Americans are unable to read or write (Crum, 2013). However, just because someone cannot read or write in English does not mean that they cannot communicate. Street slang is language that evolved outside of classrooms. While educated individuals use textbooks, literary works, and academic journals as their shared form of communication, the same is not true of individuals that grew up in different environments. For people growing up outside of school and classrooms, their experience in the streets is what taught them how to communicate with other people. Such individuals sometimes live in crowded urban areas with other individuals who cannot read or write. Slang terms arise as a result of frequent interactions between those individuals.

Many different people in a particular area may use similar terms (even if the terms were never written down or recorded in a book) to communicate with each other. An educated scholar may scoff at the terms and label the individuals illiterate. However, the slang-speaking people could just as easily say that the scholar is illiterate and stupid for not understanding words that other members of the community frequently use and understand. This example shows how insufficient the traditional definition of literacy is. Humans are not the only species that can read and create symbols. Several different primate species are capable of recognizing and even creating symbols in order to communicate (Waugh, 2012). These animals can be shown a set of symbols, and can interpret things in their environment that correspond to the symbols (Waugh, 2012). Although the symbols used are definitely not nearly as complex as human words and languages, they still challenge the traditional definition of literacy. If language consists of symbols and words, and other primate species can read and write those symbols, then scholars must concede that some apes are literate. However, many humans are under the impression that literacy refers to something different. Literacy is typically only associated with intelligent humans that are fluent in a particular language. If other primates were declared to be literate when they can recognize symbols, then it would not make any sense for researchers or scholars to ever classify any humans as illiterate (unless they are unresponsive or paralyzed).

The fact that societies do classify some people in their midst as being illiterate indicates that they are trying to define an ability other than the basic skills of reading and writing. If literacy is narrowly defined as the ability to read and write, then many intelligent people would be excluded. Are blind people illiterate? Even if blind people cannot directly read or write with their eyes, they still accomplish the same tasks through other means. For example, technology has made it possible for blind people to “read” things by having a computer read it for them (Aviv, 2010). Braille is another option (Aviv, 2010). Even if blind people cannot use their eyes, they can still read and communicate with others through different mediums. Stephen Hawking serves as a good example. Although he is disabled and cannot physically write, he is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of the modern world. He uses a sophisticated computer system in order to communicate his ideas. Although his method of communication is not traditional, it is still effective.

People can understand the words and sentences that are read out by Hawking’s digital computer system. As such, it would not make sense to call someone like Hawking illiterate on the basis that he cannot physically write. In the same way, it would not make sense to call a blind person illiterate merely because they cannot read with their eyes. A more fitting definition of literacy refers to something slightly different. The real meaning of literacy is more about an individual’s ability to effectively understand and communicate with other people in a particular culture. While it may not initially seem obvious, each part of that definition is important. The word effectively indicates that a literate person says or writes something that can be interpreted by other people. Obviously, any species of animal can scribble symbols in the sand or make indiscernible vocal sounds. What makes their symbols, words, or sounds meaningful is how they are interpreted by others. People that live in the same area develop ways of understanding each other over time.

Literacy is a two way street. A person must be able to receive and send messages. In addition, culture plays a large role in communication. Subtle things like body language can sometimes drastically change the meaning of a communication. Although body language is not necessarily directly related to literacy, it does bear some similarity. Language likely began as a series of gestures and basic sounds that eventually developed into the complex languages that exist in the world today. A literate individual is a person who is capable of both receiving and sending messages to other people (even with the assistance of technology) in a given society. While past definitions have focused on reading and writing ability, a more complete definition includes speech and body language. An illiterate person is someone who is incapable of understanding and responding to communications from other people in society.

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An Analysis of the Traditional and Modern Definitions of the Term Literacy. (2022, May 07). Retrieved from

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