The term literacy is one that has concerned the European Union and has been the topic of much debate. To begin with, literacy has the simple meaning of the ability to read and write. Reading and writing are considered to be foundation skills as not only do they give us the ability for further research but also help us understand and engage with the world around us. Indeed, according to the EPALE (Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe) literacy is highly contextual. What we are required to do with our literacy is always contextualized; situated within a particular socio-cultural setting. Indeed, it has become common to refer to literacies, rather than literacy, to emphasise the point that literacy is a social practice and so there is not one form of literacy that everyone needs. Instead, we all need and use different literacies depending on our social or professional group (e.g. nurses, teenagers, academics); the kinds of activities we engage in (e.g. shopping, dealing with bureaucracy, studying etc. ); and the different social and institutional contexts in which we act (school, work, home etc.)
More specifically, according to Council Recommendations on key competences of 2018, Literacy is “the ability to identify, understand, express, create, and interpret concepts, feelings, facts and opinions in both oral and written forms, using visual, sound/audio and digital materials across disciplines and contexts. It implies the ability to communicate and connect effectively with others, in an appropriate and creative way”.
In many cases literacy is given a broader definition, often including speaking (as in the English Adult Literacy Core Curriculum), but it sometimes also refers to soft skills such as team working and learning to learn. There is also the expression ‘basic skills’, which is often used instead of literacy. However, “basic skills” is an umbrella term, including numeracy and digital skills as well as reading and writing.
Furthermore, the term literacy is also used in other ways. Indeed, it is common for literacy to be preceded by a term referring to a specialized field. In this context, we have computer literacy, financial literacy, quantitative literacy, emotional literacy, and many others. While for each of these specialised areas the use of information often transmitted by specialized text is of significant importance, the meaning of literacy here is not reading and writing, but competency; being able to engage competently in that area.
Moreover, when considering what literacy is a distinction has to be made between illiteracy which is not being able to read and write at all and functional illiteracy, meaning being able to read and write, but not well enough to meet the demands of everyday life. An individual can only be considered to be functionally illiterate in the case that they cannot meet the demands placed on them in their own particular social and professional context. Nevertheless, demands vary and are constantly changing, therefore just because someone was once functionally literate does not mean that they will be able to adapt to different demands and remain functionally literate.
Finally, caution is needed when using the term ‘illiterate’. There are very few adults in Europe who are illiterate, particularly in younger generations, largely due to the introduction of universal schooling. Every country has large numbers of people who are unable to meet the demands on them in terms of reading and writing, or who are limited in their life choices because of their poor literacy skills. However, they can still read and write and are therefore not illiterate, but functionally illiterate.
Author: Christos Phedonos, Charakis Research & Consulting.