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Literacy: An Introduction to the Ecology of Written Language, 2nd ed., by David Barton (WileyBlackwell, 2006)


The ability to read and write in at least one language. Adjective: literate. Compare with illiteracy and aliteracy.

See also:


From the Latin, "letter"


  • "Literacy is a human right, a tool of personal empowerment and a means for social and human development. Educational opportunities depend on literacy.

    "Literacy is at the heart of basic education for all, and essential for eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality and ensuring sustainable development, peace and democracy."
    ("Why Is Literacy Important?" UNESCO, 2010)

  • "The notion of basic literacy is used for the initial learning of reading and writing which adults who have never been to school need to go through. The term functional literacy is kept for the level of reading and writing which adults are thought to need in modern complex society. Use of the term underlines the idea that although people may have basic levels of literacy, they need a different level to operate in their day-to-day lives."
    (David Barton, Literacy: An Introduction to the Ecology of Written Language, 2nd ed. WileyBlackwell, 2006)

  • "To acquire literacy is more than to psychologically and mechanically dominate reading and writing techniques. It is to dominate those techniques in terms of consciousness; to understand what one reads and to write what one understands: it is to communicate graphically. Acquiring literacy does not involve memorizing sentences, words or syllables--lifeless objects unconnected to an existential universe--but rather an attitude of creation and re-creation, a self-transformation producing a stance of intervention in one's context."
    (Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness. Sheed & Ward, 1974)

  • "There is hardly an oral culture or a predominantly oral culture left in the world today that is not somehow aware of the vast complex of powers forever inaccessible without literacy."
    (Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. Methuen, 1982)

  • "We expect the contradictory and the impossible. . . . We expect to be inspired by mediocre appeals for 'excellence,' to be made literate by illiterate appeals for literacy."
    (Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, 1961)

  • Women and Literacy
    "In the history of women, there is probably no matter, apart from contraception, more important than literacy. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, access to power required knowledge of the world. This could not be gained without reading and writing, skills that were granted to men long before they were to women. Deprived of them, women were condemned to stay home with the livestock, or, if they were lucky, with the servants. (Alternatively, they may have been the servants.) Compared with men, they led mediocre lives. In thinking about wisdom, it helps to read about wisdom--about Solomon or Socrates or whomever. Likewise, goodness and happiness and love. To decide whether you have them, or want to make the sacrifices necessary to get them, it is useful to read about them. Without such introspection, women seemed stupid; therefore, they were considered unfit for education; therefore, they weren’t given an education; therefore they seemed stupid."
    (Joan Acocella, "Turning the Page." Review of The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack [Yale University Press, 2012]. The New Yorker, October 15, 2012)

  • Time for a New Definition of Literacy?
    "We need a radical redefinition of literacy, one that includes a recognition of the vital importance that orality plays in shaping literacy. We need a radical redefinition of what it means for society to have all the appearances of literacy and yet to abandon the book as its dominant metaphor. We must understand what happens when the computer replaces the book as the prime metaphor for visualizing the self. . . .

    "It is important to remember that those who celebrate the intensities and discontinuities of postmodern electronic culture in print write from an advanced literacy. That literacy provides them the profound power of choosing their ideational repertoire. No such choice--or power--is available to the illiterate young person subjected to an endless stream of electronic images."
    (Barry Sanders, A Is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word. Pantheon, 1994)

  • From the Website of California Literacy, Inc.
    "The literacy rate in the US has many educators in search of answers about this problem that has plagued our country for decades. Instead of decreasing, the numbers of literacy has steadily increased over the years. This raises a lot of questions about our education system, how it is ran, and why there is such a problem with illiterate people in our country."
    (quoted by The New Yorker, Nov. 22, 2010)
Pronunciation: LIT-er-eh-see
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