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what is literacy in writing

Literacy is More than Just Reading and Writing

NCTE 03.23.20 Diversity

From the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship

This post was written by NCTE member Amber Peterson, a member of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.

“History is written by the victors.” —Unknown

As committee members, we regularly wrestle with pinning down a comprehensive definition of literacy. The common definition, “the ability to read and write,” gets increasingly complex upon closer examination. What does mastery of reading and writing look like? How do we measure it? How do we weigh digital and technological proficiency? Where does numeracy come in? How do the values of our communities and cultural practices come into play? sWhen measuring literacy, which languages and dialects count and which do not?

Despite the complexity, literacy is the global metric we use to assess the health and competence of communities. High literacy rates have been found to correlate to everything from better access to economic opportunity, to better nutrition, to environmental sustainability.

In fact, bolstering global literacy underpins all of UNESCO’s 2030 Sustainability Goals, acknowledging the fact that ideals like gender equality, sustainable infrastructure, and eradicating poverty and hunger are not possible without literate populations. Correspondingly, UNESCO’s hefty definition of literacy is “a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world.” (UNESCO)

This focus on literacy as a tool for meaningful engagement with society makes sense. As our population expands and technology breaks down ever more barriers between us, the ability to communicate and interact with those around us becomes even more important. In our consideration of literacy, however, it is impossible to ignore the myriad ways that imperialist and colonialist systems shape gender and regional disparities in access.

Many historians propose that written language emerged at least in part as a tool for maintaining power. One’s class status dictated one’s access to literacy education, and often those without power were prohibited from learning to read and write at all. Colonialism, imperialism, and the sprawl of anglo-european, male-centered ideology from the 15th Century onward have created global power structures that still dominate today.

When considered from that perspective, it is no surprise that women make up two thirds of the world’s illiterate population, and that sub-Saharan Africa, the region arguably hit hardest by many of those inequitable power structures, has some of the lowest literacy levels in the world.

While our focus must and should be on providing everyone everywhere with the tools to “identify, understand, interpret, create, and communicate in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich, and fast changing world,” those persistent inequitable power structures dictate that progress will always be lopsided and slow.

As we slog onward, perhaps we also need to examine and consider more closely the world and experience of the “illiterate” as well. Only relatively recently has literacy been expected or even possible for the vast majority of society. For centuries, people have lived, laughed, traded, communicated, and survived without being able to read and write. Even today, though illiteracy can be a literal death sentence (studies have shown that female literacy rates can actually be a predictor of child mortality rates (Saurabh et al)), it is most certainly a metaphorical one wherein the experiences had and contributions made by those so afflicted are devalued both by design and by conceit.

We doom entire cultures and erase the experiences of entire populations by embracing the superiority of those who are literate, but illiteracy doesn’t mean ignorance. We can and should learn from everyone and we must provide other avenues to global citizenship for those who can’t read and write.

So what does this mean for our definition of literacy? At its simplest, literacy is the way that we interact with the world around us, how we shape it and are shaped by it. It is how we communicate with others via reading and writing, but also by speaking, listening, and creating. It is how we articulate our experience in the world and declare, “We Are Here!”

In my work as the director of program innovation for LitWorld, I get to interact with young people all over the world and examine the idea of literacy from many different angles. Resources for literacy education differ dramatically from one place to another, as do metric taking procedures and general best practices.

What does not change is the inherent drive for people to express themselves, to learn, and to grow. I see the enthusiasm with which young people jump at the chance to share stories of themselves and of the world, to be listened to and to absorb. I also see firsthand the devastating effect of being told that your story, your community, and your culture do not matter. I have witnessed the loss of confidence, the dwindling self-esteem, and the cycle of hopelessness that comes with the silencing of voices.

It is our charge as educators and as global citizens to embrace literacy in ALL of its forms.

5 Suggestions for Embracing Literacy for Global Citizenship in the Classroom

  • Focus on students’ own stories . Find ways to center their experiences and lean in to opportunities to share them both informally and formally.
  • Embrace ALL of the languages your students speak. Being multilingual is an asset, not a deficit! Many of our students are multilingual in ways we never acknowledge. Mastery of formal and standardized language structures is an important tool that every student deserves access to, but life often happens outside of and around those structures. Those everyday interactions are important, valuable, and valid as well.
  • Provide regular access to diverse stories, images, experiences, and perspectives. The world is enormous and that diversity is beautiful. Help your students to see it as such. Providing access to underrepresented narratives and accounts helps to decolonize your classroom and normalize embracing the unfamiliar.
  • Place value on reading, writing, speaking, listening, and creating in your students’ work. Ensure that reading and writing are not the only ways in which students are acknowledged and celebrated for taking in ideas, expressing their thoughts, or demonstrating understanding. Encouraging multiple modes of expression not only provides more opportunities for students to explore and display their own intelligence, it also primes them to seek information, inspiration, and knowledge from diverse sources.
  • Read aloud together, and often . Reading aloud is effective across grade levels, despite the fact that this critical practice usually stops in elementary school. Reading aloud can provide access to content that students might not be able to access on their own. It is also a way of creating community and building a shared experience as a whole class.

The Standing Committee on Global Citizenship works to identify and address issues of broad concern to NCTE members interested in promoting global citizenship and connections across global contexts within the Council and within members’ teaching contexts.

Literacy. (2018, March 19). Retrieved March 2, 2020, from

Saurabh, S., Sarkar, S., & Pandey, D. K. (2013). Female Literacy Rate is a Better Predictor of Birth Rate and Infant Mortality Rate in India. Retrieved March 2, 2020, from

The Sustainable Development Agenda—United Nations Sustainable Development. (n.d.). Retrieved March 2, 2020, from

what is literacy in writing

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Literacy Definition

Literacy refers to, or functions as,

  • the ability to  read  and  write  in home, school, workplace, and public settings
  • an amalgam of competencies, skills, knowledge, and dispositions related to acts of interpretation , communication , or competency
  • a commodity
  • empowers people to develop their personal, social, and economic power
  • empowers literate cultures to develop new ideas and methods, including science, social science, humanities, engineering, and arts
  • a measure of educational attainment and audience awareness .

Related Concepts: Academic Writing Prose Style ; Critical Literacy ; Information Literacy ; Intellectual Openness ; Professional Writing Prose Style ; Rhetoric & Apparatus Theory ; Semiotics: Sign, Signifier, Signified ; Writing Process

What is Literacy? – Guide to Literacy in 2023

what is literacy in writing

Definitions of literacy are constantly changing as cultures and technologies evolve–and as our understanding of reading and writing becomes more nuanced. Throughout much of human history, literacy referred simply to a person’s ability to read and write alphabetical texts . Around 3400 BC in Sumer (in modern day Iraq) you were literate if you could write in Sumerian on a clay tablet to record agricultural matters and business contracts. In the Middle Ages you were considered literate if you could sign your name with an X to symbolize “In Christ’s name, it’s true/I assert.” Later on, you were considered literate if you could read a bus schedule or a daily newspaper.

In more recent times, literacy has come to refer to

  • any act of symbolic thinking (e.g., visual language , nonverbal language, or musical language) to communicate
  • any competency. For instance, someone with sports knowledge could be said to have sports literacy. Or someone with knowledge of medical discourse might be described as scientifically literate.

In some  discourse communities  in 2023, you wouldn’t be considered  literate  if you couldn’t write computer code, create  data visualizations , publish a podcast, or design an iPhone app. In  workplace writing , as  communication  has become more  visual  and interactive, basic literacy may be defined as  knowledge  of the  principles of design  or  universal design  or even  page design and scannability . In settings such as college-level courses, basic literacy may refer to the ability to manipulate photos, subscribe to and publish podcasts, data walk content across digital platforms, and publish content online via various digital tools, such as WordPress, Wiki, Instagram, or Tik Tok. As an example of  audience awareness  and changing literacy standards, consider, e.g., the following billboard that was posted by Electronic Arts to advertise job vacancies for programmers. In computer code, it reads “Now Hiring!” (Prensky 2008).

Thanks to advances in human knowledge , new writing spaces (e.g., clay or stone tablets, papyrus, paper, email, text messages, social media) are constantly evolving–and challenging existing assumptions about the best ways to read and write. These writing spaces along with new writing tools (e.g., fingers, quills, pencils, pens, keyboards, stylus, mouse, ChatGPT) have affordances and constraints that profoundly influence whether they replace existing technologies or whether they create new means of creative expression. When writing spaces and writing tools — the apparatus of writing — make a composing process easier, those tools are likely to be widely adopted. Note, for instance, how the internet’s affordance of permitting a single individual to communicate to a massive global audience has transformed authorship, copyright , politics, economics, culture, and intellectual property standards .

New writing spaces and writing tool s are constantly redefining

  • their research methodologies along with the epistemological assumptions about what constitutes a valid knowledge claim
  • the medium of expression (e.g., alphabetical language; visual language ; nonverbal language)
  • their composing process (aka creative process) .

what is literacy in writing

1. Literacy Refers to the Ability To Read and Write

Traditionally, the term literacy refers to humanity’s unique capability to read and write –and to engage in acts of symbolic thought. Between 16 and 24 months children are capable of associating words and symbols with concrete objects . For instance, when reading a children’s book, children may point to a familiar object such as a picture of a dog and say “dog” (“Symbolic Thought” 2012).

As humanity has developed new tools for expression (e.g., the print press, the internet, social media, AI – Artificial Intelligence), we have also developed more nuanced ways of defining literacy–new ways of conceptualizing reading and writing

Semiotics , an interdisciplinary academic field that investigates how people convey meaning to one another, conceptualizes reading to be an act of signification . In this model, meaning is composed of (1)  a signifier –i.e., a word or symbol or something that conveys meaning to others — and (2) a signified –i.e., the underlying meaning associated with a sign . In other words, meaning is — a sign -which is any word , symbol , visualization or thing that can be interpreted to mean something.

Resultado de imagen para saussure

In this definition of literacy, meaning-making is a social process: To communicate , writers and readers use signs that are socially shared among members of a discourse community . For communication to be successful, thus, the reader and the writer must share an understanding of what the Semiotics: Sign, Signifier, Signified means. In other words, writers and readers constitute a discourse community , a shared interpretative network . People are inculcated into the discourse practices of a community by reading, by communicating wit h others in the discourse community and through schooling–enculturation: Informally, they read the works of other community members, the archive , and learn over time who quotes whom–what the canon is.

During school, students are introduced to the expectations of discourse communities , particularly as they learn about the discourse practices of the academic and workplace writers . For instance, in the U.S. students learn the conventions of Standard Written English , including formal instruction in grammar , mechanics , and style –especially The Elements of Style . In higher education coursework, students enrolled in first-year writing courses across colleges and universities are trained to adopt an academic writing prose style . They are introduced to academic genres (e.g., an annotated bibliography or an argument ), information literacy perspectives & practices , and citation practices . From reading, talks with others in a discourse community , and from their own experiences receiving critiques from others, they learn to share expectations about common patterns for genre , diction , grammar , mechanics , sentence structure , media –and more. In turn, students enrolled in workplace writing courses are introduced to the shared expectations of a professional writing prose style for business contexts. Broadly speaking, all of these discourse conventions constitute signs than can be interpreted by members of a discourse community .

2. Literacy Refers to a Synthesis of Cognitive, Interpersonal, and Intrapersonal Competencies

Literacy, as defined by the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) community is an amalgam of many competencies, skills, knowledge, and dispositions. In  Education for Life  and Work  (2012), The National Research Council theorizes that all of the competencies involved in acts of communication coalesce under three foundational knowledge domains:

  • Cognitive Competencies
  • Intrapersonal Competencies
  • Interpersonal Competencies

Notice in their depiction of these knowledge domains below that the National Research Council places communication , reasoning, and problem solving at the center of their conceptual illustration. In other words, the STEM community defines literacy as literacy a complex, symbolic process that is dependent on numerous interdependent competencies.

what is literacy in writing

3. Literacy Refers to a Commodity

Literacy functions as a commodity : the ability to read and write , to engage in symbolic thinking, may be exchanged for money, goods, services, opportunities, and jobs. Mastery of specialized literacies — such as digital literacy, visual literacy , design literacy , financial literacy, health literacy — can be particularly profitable.

Moreover, ideas, concepts, inventions, original stories are all forms of intellectual property that are protected by copyright . Information has value .

Each year, NACE (The National Association of Colleges and Employers) surveys employers regarding their hiring plans and desires. Year after year, communication and critical thinking are the most highly sought after competencies. In 2022, for instance, 98.5% of the employers surveyed believed communication competencies were needed for career readiness, yet employers believed only 54.3% of college graduates were suitably prepared to communicate well in the workplace.

what is literacy in writing

4. Literacy Refers to a Technology, a Toolset

In Writing Studies (and the broader education community) literacy is perceived to

  • empower people to develop their personal, social, and economic power
  • empower literate cultures to develop new ideas and research methods, including science, social science, humanities, engineering, and arts–and more.

Literacy Empowers People to Develop their Personal, Social, and Economic Power

Personal power.

Literacy provides agency. Strong communication skills will enable you to fight for changes you deem important and help you develop your goals and personal mission. Writing (and communication in general) enables you to articulate the need for change and action. Informing, persuading, and entertaining other people about your thoughts and insights enables you to provoke changes you deem important.

Literacy facilitates your personal development in meaningful ways. Engaging in writing about your goals can help you determine 

  • develop your cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies
  • develop awareness of others–different cultures, historical periods–and more
  • affirm a growth mindset , take authority and ownership of your life
  • think independently and be an agent for change
  • make the world a better place.

When you write something down on a page, you are no longer as slave to memory. Literacy empowers reflection, self regulation , and metacognition . By transforming your thoughts into text , you create an opportunity to return to that thought and reflect on it. This affordance of writing to help you record a thought for later reflection frees you from the tyranny of a moment-by-moment existence.

Writing from our hearts, sharing our experiences, can be important to our personal happiness. You can keep a journal to reflect on your writing processes , obstacles, and ambitions. When you read the work of other people who have different values, experiences, religions, and world views, your own knowledge and perspective may evolve. While conducting research for writing, you are likely to come across ideas, places, and concepts that you otherwise might not consider. While collaborating on documents, you may obtain insights from your co-authors regarding your strengths and weakness as a researcher, writer, and collaborator.

Social Power – Cultural Power

From a personal-social perspective, writing enables individuals to forge connections with family and friends as well as people we may not otherwise meet in face-to-face situations. Via handwritten notes to posts on social media, writing affords the possibility of connecting with friends and sharing insights and aspirations. Our writing can create rich social networks that give us a sense of meaning and connectedness.

From a nation-state perspective, literacy is an important measure of a country’s competitiveness, and a signal of the health of its people and the quality of its educational systems. Not surprisingly, nations are eager to measure literacy within their borders and across nation states.

  • PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is a worldwide assessment of the mathematical, science, and reading competencies of 15 year olds conducted by the  Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development  (OECD). In 2018, the last time PISA was conducted, the United States ranked 13th out of 79 countries and regions. The top 10 countries were China (B-S-J-Z), Singapore, Macao (China), Estonia, Canada, Finland, Ireland, Korea, Sweden, and New Zealand).
  • In the U.S., the Department of Education (IES) conducts “The Nation’s Report Card” (aka “The NAEP Report Card”) to investigate literacy rates at the 4th, 8th, and 12th grade level. In 2019, grade 12 students’ average reading skills fell two points–with males showing higher declines than females:

what is literacy in writing

According to a subsequent NAEP report card, the decline in U.S. students’ literacy skills in 2019 accelerated in 2022: Remarkably, only thirty-three percent of fourth grade students scored at or above the NAEP proficiency level. Across the board literacy rates fell at the 4th and 8th level (12 grade assessments have yet to be reported): “the average reading score at both fourth and eighth grade decreased by 3 points compared to 2019. At fourth grade, the average reading score was lower than all previous assessment years going back to 2005 and was not significantly different in comparison to 1992.” This is especially problematic because children who cannot read in the 4th grade are 15 times more likely to drop out of school (NAEP Report Card: Reading 2019). At the adult level, there is further evidence of declining literacy competencies in the U.S.: “ According to a 2021 Pew Research survey , roughly a quarter of American adults—including 38 percent of Hispanic adults, 25 percent of Black adults and 20 percent of white adults—say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print or in electronic or audio form. This is even true of 11 percent of adults with a bachelor’s or other advanced degree. These  figures  are nearly triple those reported in 1978″ (Mintz 2022).

From a social perspective, declines in literacy weaken the social fabric of a culture, creating fragmentation and discord. Without a shared archive , canon , people lack shared religious, political, and historical allusions.

Economic Power

Literacy is strongly correlated with economic power: “In an information  economy ,  reading  and writing serve as input, output, and conduit for producing profit and winning  economic  advantage (Deborah Brandt, D. 2001) .

Literacy empower literate cultures to develop new ideas and methods–and more.

In Writing Studies and Media Studies, literacy is perceived to be a technology that transforms consciousness and cultures. For instance, in Orality and literacy : the technologizing of the word , Walter Ong theorizes that literacy empowers cultures to break away from the discourse patterns of orality. Ong argues literacy creates the possibility of sustained inquiry and science; it offers a method for interpreting texts ( hermeneutics ), creates the need for schooling, and places the spotlight on knowledge as opposed to pathos , which underscores oral discourse. He argues oral cultures tend to repeat the same things over and over again–that the focus is on memory and repetition as opposed to making new knowledge or testing knowledge claims :

Following Ong’s analysis of ways literacy transforms human consciousness and following the emergence of the internet and new media, Gregory Ulmer has theorized that we have entered an Age of Electracy. For Ulmer, electracy functions as a form of entertainment that is experienced subjectively. (See Rhetoric & Apparatus Theory for more on this.)

5. Literacy Refers to a Measure of Educational Attainment and Audience Awareness.

Ultimately, as you have no doubt surmised from the above discussion, literacy functions as a signal of how educated someone is with regards to a discourse community’s conventions and expectations . If you cannot adjust the register of your communications and use the diction, syntax, genres, and media your audiences expects, then you’ll be judged as uneducated or unprofessional.

Types of Literacy

Because the term literacy has been broadened to reference competency in any topic , there are literally hundreds of different types of literacies. Below are a few of the main ones, the ones that matter in academic and workplace contexts .

Functional Literacy

At the international level, as discussed above, world governments focus on functional definitions of literacy–i.e., how well citizens can understand words and sentences and how well they can interpret, make inferences from, and act on what they read across multiple texts. For instance, can citizens understand a newspaper? Can they understand an airplane or bus schedule? Can they read the job announcement and submit a job application?

Critical Literacy

In educational contexts, critical literacy , rather than functional literacy , is the goal. Critical literacy is concerned with rhetorical analysis of power relationships. Critical literacy engages students in metacognition and self reflection about the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose of knowledge claims .

Digital Literacy

Digital literacy concerns how individuals navigate and employ digital tools to consume and produce information.

New communication technologies (e.g., the pen, pencil, printing press, internet) alter how people think and conduct themselves–how they collaborate, design , edit , invent , organize , research , and revise documents. As communication technologies evolve, digital literacies create new genres and new media .

Information Literacy   refers to the  competencies  associated with  locating ,  evaluating ,  using , and archiving   information . In order to thrive, much less survive in  a global information economy  — an economy where  information  functions as a capital good such as money or social influence — you need to be strategic about how you  consume  and use  information .

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Quantitative Literacy

Quantitative Literacy refers to the ability to understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute numerical information.

Visual Literacy

“Visual literacy is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture. .In an interdisciplinary, higher education environment, a visually literate individual is able to Determine the nature and extent of the visual materials needed Find and access needed images and visual media effectively and efficiently Interpret and analyze the meaning of images and visual media Critically evaluate images and their sources Use images and visual media effectively Design and create meaningful images and visual media Understand many of the ethical, legal, social, and economic issues surrounding the creation and use of images and visual media, and access and use visual materials ethically.” ACRL (Association of College & Research Libraries
  • ( ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education ).

Recommended Resources

Ong. (1988). Orality and literacy : the technologizing of the word. Routledge.

What is Literacy? Literacy — What it means to be literate or to engage in literacy practices — is never a question that can be answered definitively. Why? Because what it means to be literate is constantly changing, evolving. Years ago, if you could correctly interpret a bus map and get to work, you’d be considered literate . In today’s world, you’re not literate — by some community standards — — if you cannot read and write computer code.

Why Does Literacy Matter? Literacy–broadly conceived of as reading and writing–is empowering, both professionally and personally. Engaging in literacy practices further develops your cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal competencies . Literacy provides a culture, a community , with the capacity to design an archive ; to engage in dialog, textual hermeneutics , and research ; and to track citations and contributions to human knowledge .

Works Cited

“ACRL Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education”, American Library Association, October 27, 2011. (Accessed February 11, 2023). Document ID: 4d02961f-23ff-b874-7d6d-9f8d0b87e7c2

Brandt, D. (Ed.). (2001). Literacy, Opportunity, and Economic Change. In Literacy in American Lives (pp. 25–46). Cambridge University Press.

National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) . (n.d.). Retrieved February 8, 2023, from,develop%20one’s%20knowledge%20and%20potential.

National Research Council. (2012).  Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century . J.W. Pellegrino and M.L. Hilton (Eds.), Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills, Center for Education, Board on Testing and Assessment, Division of Behavioral Sciences

NAEP Reading: Reading Highlights 2022 . (2022, November). NAEP Report Card: 2022 NAEP Reading Assessment.

UNESCO. (2006)  Education for All: A Global Monitoring Report . Chapter 6: “Understandings of Literacy.” p. 147-159,

White, S., and McCloskey, M. (2003).  Framework for the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy  (NCES 2005-531). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

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what is literacy in writing

What you need to know about literacy

What is the global situation in relation to literacy.

Great progress has been made in literacy with most recent data (UNESCO Institute for Statistics) showing that more than 86 per cent of the world’s population know how to read and write compared to 68 per cent in 1979. Despite this, worldwide at least 763 million adults still cannot read and write, two thirds of them women, and 250 million children are failing to acquire basic literacy skills. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the worst disruption to education in a century, 617 million children and teenagers had not reached minimum reading levels.   

How does UNESCO define literacy?

Acquiring literacy is not a one-off act. Beyond its conventional concept as a set of reading, writing and counting skills, literacy is now understood as a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world. Literacy is a continuum of learning and proficiency in reading, writing and using numbers throughout life and is part of a larger set of skills, which include digital skills, media literacy, education for sustainable development and global citizenship as well as job-specific skills. Literacy skills themselves are expanding and evolving as people engage more and more with information and learning through digital technology.  

What are the effects of literacy?

Literacy empowers and liberates people. Beyond its importance as part of the right to education, literacy improves lives by expanding capabilities which in turn reduces poverty, increases participation in the labour market and has positive effects on health and sustainable development. Women empowered by literacy have a positive ripple effect on all aspects of development. They have greater life choices for themselves and an immediate impact on the health and education of their families, and in particular, the education of girl children.  

How does UNESCO work to promote literacy?

UNESCO works through its global network, field offices and institutes and with its Member States and partners to advance literacy in the framework of lifelong learning, and address the literacy target 4.6 in SDG4 and the Education 2030 Framework for Action . Its Strategy for Youth and Adult Literacy (2020-2025) pays special attention to the member countries of the Global Alliance for Literacy which targets 20 countries with an adult literacy rate below 50 per cent and the E9 countries, of which 17 are in Africa. The focus is on promoting literacy in formal and non-formal settings with four priority areas: strengthening national strategies and policy development on literacy; addressing the needs of disadvantaged groups, particularly women and girls; using digital technologies to expand and improve learning outcomes; and monitoring progress and assessing literacy skills. UNESCO also promotes adult learning and education through its Institute for Lifelong Learning , including the implementation of the 2015 Recommendation on Adult Learning and Education and its monitoring through the Global Report on Adult Learning and Education. 

What is digital literacy and why is it important?

UNESCO defines digital literacy as the ability to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate and create information safely and appropriately through digital technologies for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship. It includes skills such as computer literacy, ICT literacy, information literacy and media literacy which aim to empower people, and in particular youth, to adopt a critical mindset when engaging with information and digital technologies, and to build their resilience in the face of disinformation, hate speech and violent extremism.

How is UNESCO helping advance girls' and women's literacy?

UNESCO’s Global Partnership for Women and Girls Education, launched in 2011, emphasizes quality education for girls and women at the secondary level and in the area of literacy; its Literacy Initiative for Empowerment (LIFE) project (2005–15) targeted women; and UNESCO’s international literacy prizes regularly highlight the life-changing power of meeting women’s and girls’ needs for literacy in specific contexts. Literacy acquisition often brings with it positive change in relation to harmful traditional practices, forms of marginalization and deprivation. Girls’ and women’s literacy seen as lifelong learning is integral to achieving the aims of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  

How has youth and adult literacy been impacted in times of COVID-19?

Since the start of the pandemic, several surveys have been conducted but very little is still known about the effect on youth and adult literacy of massive disruptions to learning, growing inequalities and projected increases in school dropouts. To fill this gap UNESCO will conduct a global survey “Learning from the COVID-19 crisis to write the future: National policies and programmes for youth and adult literacy” collecting information from countries worldwide regarding the situation and policy and programme responses. Its results will help UNESCO, countries and other partners respond better to the recovery phase and advance progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education and its target 4.6 on youth and adult literacy. In addition, for International Literacy Day 2020, UNESCO prepared a background paper on the impact of the crisis on youth and adult literacy.

What is the purpose of the Literacy Prize and Literacy Day?

Every year since 1967, UNESCO celebrates International Literacy Day and rewards outstanding and innovative programmes that promote literacy through the International Literacy Prizes. Every year on 8 September UNESCO comes together for the annual celebration with Field Offices, institutes, NGOs, teachers, learners and partners to remind the world of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights. The event emphasizes the power of literacy and creates awareness to advance the global agenda towards a more literate and sustainable society. 

The International Literacy Prizes reward excellence and innovation in the field of literacy and, so far, over 506 projects and programmes undertaken by governments, non-governmental organizations and individuals around the world have been recognized. Following an annual call for submissions, an International Jury of experts appointed by UNESCO's Director-General recommends potential prizewinning programmes. Candidates are submitted by Member States or by international non-governmental organizations in official partnership with UNESCO.

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Key Literacy Component: Writing

On this page:, what do good writers do, what challenges do adolescent readers face with morphology, how can instruction help adolescent students with morphology, what do we still need to know, more key literacy components.

Writing is the ability to compose text effectively for various purposes and audiences [1]. Writing is a tool for communication and learning that allows us to document, collect, and widely circulate detailed information [2]. Writing also provides a means of expressing oneself and persuading others. Writing, however, is not just a method of communication and expression. Several researchers have found that, much like reading, improving one’s writing skills improves one’s capacity to learn [3], and learning to write well requires instruction.

In addition, many of the skills that are involved in writing, such as grammar and spelling, reinforce and are reinforced by reading skills [4]. Therefore, teachers who can contribute to improving the writing of struggling adolescent readers should positively affect these students’ literacy levels.

As the demands of content instruction increase, so do literacy demands in both reading and writing. Students are expected to read and write across various genres and disciplines [5]. Skilled writers employ different types of strategies to help navigate the writing process. Skilled writers learn to be self-directed and goal-oriented. Good writers employ self-regulation strategies that help them to plan, organize, and revise their own work independently [6]. Self-regulation strategies include goal setting, self-instruction, and self-monitoring. Good writers are aware of and able to compose various text genres [7], such as narrative, persuasive, and descriptive essays.

Students who do not write well are at a disadvantage because they lack an effective communication and learning tool. Furthermore, the inability to write well greatly limits adolescents’ opportunities for education and future employment [8]. Finally, teachers use writing to assess the content knowledge of students, so those students who do not write well often suffer academically [9].

Several instructional strategies have been found to be effective in improving the writing of struggling adolescent readers. These strategies include using direct, explicit, and systematic instruction; teaching students the importance of pre-writing; providing a supportive instructional environment; using rubrics to assess writing; and addressing the diverse needs of individual students.

Use direct, explicit, and systematic instruction to teach writing

Direct, explicit, and systematic instruction is the most widely suggested instructional practice for improving writing skills. Directly teaching adolescent writers strategies and skills that enhance writing development allows educators to build upon students’ prior knowledge and introduce new information contextually [10]. Examples of strategies and skills that can be taught across content areas include the steps of the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, and editing) and skills relevant to editing and revision. To use direct, explicit, and systematic instruction in writing:

  • Explain the writing skill or strategy and model how to apply it in writing in a manner that is similar to what students will be asked to do,
  • Guide students in using the skills and strategies in their writing assignments and provide corrective feedback,
  • Provide time and opportunities for independent practice with the writing skills and strategies, and
  • Repeat these instructional steps until students are able to use them independently in their writing.

Teach students the importance of pre-writing

Students need to learn the steps of the writing process (planning, drafting, revising, and editing) [11]. Too often students do not take the time to plan before they write nor do they revise and edit after they write. Research has indicated that pre-writing or planning, in particular, provides students with time to figure out what they know about their topic and organize their thoughts [12]. Regardless of the content area, pre-writing or planning is helpful.

In a typical ninth grade social studies class, students might be expected to write an essay or a research report on the industrialization of America. Pre-writing allows students to think through what they know about American industrialization and what they might need to research regarding this topic. In addition, the organization of the essay or report can be planned during this pre-writing stage.

The most common types of pre-writing strategies taught are:

  • Brainstorming and making lists,
  • Developing outlines, and
  • Using graphic organizers [13].

These planning activities can help students shape their loosely organized thoughts and ideas into a useful framework [14]. With brainstorming, teachers should encourage students to speak and think freely. It is only later that the most relevant information to the topic is extracted from the list created from the brainstorming activity.

Outlines have the potential to become too elaborate for struggling adolescent readers, so teachers should encourage students to prepare less detailed outlines to help frame their thoughts [15]. These outlines could be only three layers with main topics, subtopics, and supporting details Graphic organizers, such as spider maps, series-of-events chains, and compare-and-contrast matrices, are useful in helping students to visualize connections between the information to be included in an essay or report [16].

Provide a supportive instructional environment for students

Writing skills are best developed with practice in a supportive instructional environment [17]. Providing students with substantial support at each step of the writing process is important to their success with writing [18]. Suggestions for providing a supportive environment for writing include:

  • Make writing a regular part of the activities in every class, across content areas;
  • Give students opportunities to engage in extended writing;
  • Ask leading questions that prompt students to plan next steps in the writing process. For example, you might ask a student who has decided to write about cars but has not decided what type of writing to produce, “So would you like to create your own story about cars or persuade someone that one kind of car is better than another?”;
  • Model a love for writing by sharing your work with students;
  • Convey the ways in which writing will be useful to them in their lives outside of school;
  • Connect writing to reading and other academic subjects; and
  • Display the students’ writings in prominent places.

Using rubrics to assess writing

Although this section describes writing instructional strategies that may be useful to teachers as they teach within their content area, it is important to address how the writing will be assessed. Assessment tools such as rubrics are available, and teachers should make students aware of these tools during instruction so that the students will understand the standards and expectations of good writing before they begin the writing process.

In addition, students can use the rubrics to evaluate their own writing and the writing of their peers. Thus, the rubric becomes an assessment tool for the educator while also promoting self-evaluation, student autonomy, and student collaboration [19]. Rubrics are important in assessing writing because they do not simply attribute a grade or score to the writing assignment but detail a clearer understanding of strong and weak areas. This insight provides students the information needed to improve their writing [20].

Address the needs of diverse learners

A “one-size-fits-all” writing program does not address the diverse needs that are encountered by most teachers in their classrooms. The needs of struggling adolescent writers vary depending upon their prior knowledge, skills, motivation, and level of self-regulation. Periodically allowing students to write about a topic of their choice is an important means of promoting individual diversity and tapping into the personal interests of students.

Teachers should strive to motivate struggling adolescents to write by exploring topics of interest to them [21]. Teachers need to stress the importance, particularly in high school instruction, of the significance and usefulness of writing beyond the classroom and emphasize the value of writing in success in college or in the workplace.

Although a review of existing literature provides insight into how to teach writing to adolescents, research is needed to understand how best to identify, prevent, and remediate writing difficulties. Research is needed to explore the role of the key literacy components (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension) in the development of adolescents’ writing ability. Finally, additional research is needed to investigate how adolescents’ beliefs about their writing ability impact the development of their reading ability [22]. This type of research is important to promote a better understanding of the relationship between reading and writing development in adolescents and to design more effective instructional approaches to support overall literacy development in adolescents.

  • Key Literacy Component: Morphology
  • Key Literacy Component: Decoding
  • Key Literacy Component: Fluency
  • Key Literacy Component: Vocabulary
  • Key Literacy Component: Text Comprehension

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Alvermann, D.E. and A.J. Eakle, Comprehension instruction: Adolescents and their multiple literacies, in Rethinking reading comprehension, A.P. Sweet and C.E. Snow, Editors. 2003, The Guilford Press: New York. p. 12-29.

Asimov, I., The fun they had, in Earth is room enough. 1957, Grafton: Los Angeles.

Deshler, D.D. and J.B. Schumaker, An instructional model for teaching students how to learn, in Alternative educational delivery systems: Enhancing instructional options for all students, J.L. Graden, J.E. Ains, and M.J. Curtis, Editors. 1988, National Association of School Psychologists: Washington, D.C.

Ehren, B., K. Lenz, and D. Deshler, Enhancing literacy proficiency with adolescents and young adult, in Handbook of language and literacy, C. Stone, et al., Editors. 2004, Guilford Press: New York.

Graves, M., Theories and constructs that have made a significant difference in adolescent literacy-But have the potential to produce still more positive benefits, in Adolescent literacy research and practice, T. Jetton and J. Dole, Editors. 2004, The Guilford Press: New York. p. 433-452.

Jetton, T. and P.A. Alexander, Domains, teaching, and literacy, in Adolescent literacy research and practice, T.L. Jetton and J.A. Dole, Editors. 2004, The Guilford Press: New York. p. 15-39.

Kamil, M., Adolescents and literacy: Reading for the 21st century. 2003, Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

Meyer, M.S. and R.H. Felton, Repeated reading to enhance fluency: Old approaches and new directions. Annals of Dyslexia, 1999. 49: p. 283-306.

Moje, E.B. and K. Hinchman, Culturally responsive practices for youth literacy learning, in Adolescent literacy research and practice, T.L. Jetton and J.A. Dole, Editors. 2004: New York. p. 321-350.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. 2004, Government Printing Office: Washington, DC.

Nokes, J.D. and J.A. Dole, Helping adolescent readers through explicit strategy instruction, in Adolescent literacy research and practice, T.L. Jetton and J.A. Dole, Editors. 2004, The Guilford Press: New York. p. 162-182.

Palincsar, A.S. and A. Brown, Reciprocal teaching of comprehension: Fostering and comprehension monitoring activities. Cognition and Instruction, 1984. 1(2): p. 117-175.

Palincsar, A.S. and A.L. Brown, Reciprocal teaching: Activities to promote read(ing) with your mind., in Reading, thinking and concept development: Strategies for the classroom, Cooper, T.L.H.E.J., Editor. 1985, The College Board: New York.

Palincsar, A.S. and L.J. Klenk, Dialogues promoting reading comprehension, in Teaching advanced skills to at-risk students, C.C. B. Means, and M. S. Knapp, Editor. 1991, Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

Palincsar, A.S., Reciprocal teaching, in Teaching reading as thinking. 1986, North Central Regional Educational Laboratory: Oak Brook, IL.

Partnership for Reading, Put reading first: The research building blocks of reading instruction (2nd ed). 2003, Retrieved May 1, 2005, from

RAND, Reading for understanding: Toward an R&D program in reading comprehension. 2002, RAND: Santa Monica, CA.

Santa, C.M., Project CRISS: Reading, writing, and learning in the content subjects, in Bridging the literacy achievement gap, grades 4-12, D.S. Strickland and D.E. Alvermann, Editors. 2004, Teachers College Press: New York. p. 183-199.

Snow, C. and G. Biancarosa, Adolescent literacy and the achievement gap: What do we know and where do we go from here? 2003, Carnegie Corporation of New York: New York.

Stahl, S.A. and C. Shanahan, Learning to think like a historian: Disciplinary knowledge through critical analysis of multiple documents, in Adolescent literacy research and practice, T.L. Jetton and J.A. Dole, Editors. 2004, The Guilford Press: New York. p. 94115.

Underwood, T. and P.D. Pearson, Teaching struggling adolescent readers to comprehend what they read, in Adolescent literacy research and practice, T.L. Jetton and J.A. Dole, Editors. 2004, The Guilford Press: New York. p. 135-161.

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To improve literacy, focus on writing

what is literacy in writing

Bita Nazarian

what is literacy in writing

Jaime Balboa

what is literacy in writing

Laura Brief

October 20, 2021.

what is literacy in writing

Do you count on EdSource? If so, please make your donation today .

We have all been reading the news about disappointing literacy rates in California, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic and online learning. Last month, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond announced a plan to improve literacy rates aimed at having all third graders in the state at reading level by 2026.

While this issue has made the news, it isn’t new. In fact, low literacy rates have been persistent and prevalent for decades, especially for students from low-income communities and students of color. Policymakers often exclusively focus on reading when addressing literacy gaps. However, research shows that writing skills help students become better readers and ultimately understand all subjects better.

On a national policy level, the critical importance of writing was underscored with the adoption of Common Core standards in 2010, which emphasize how writing must be taught and addressed across every subject area. Despite the focus on writing in the state standards, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress ( NAEP ) in 2011 found that nationwide, only 27% of high school seniors and 10% of Black and Hispanic students are proficient in writing. In 2016, a national survey found that half of teachers felt that they did not have sufficient professional development to successfully implement the current writing standards. We know a focus on effective writing instruction is essential to any effort to improve literacy rates.

Whereas reading is knowledge, writing is agency, power and influence.

Writing not only helps students master new material, but it also serves as a tool for self-expression, reflection and community building. Writing can create new worlds and bring imagination to life. In a society that has historically devalued the voices of young people of color, writing empowers them to tell their own stories, succeed in school and career, engage in our national dialogue and become leaders in a global information economy. Writing skills are essential to building a just, equitable and democratic society where every voice matters.

In our research report, The Truth About Writing in America , we interviewed 19 experts in literacy education, including leading researchers, educators and writers, on the current state of writing education — its benefits as well as challenges. While the field has moved forward in some ways, many of the challenges remain. And while the data is daunting, we know that our students are capable of achieving so much more with the right support.

Let’s bring writing instruction front and center. From our conversations with the expert panel, we put forward four recommendations that policymakers and practitioners can follow to strengthen writing education:

  • Redefine the classroom: Encourage and support students to continue writing anywhere, anytime, and on anything, and with any platform.
  • Reunite reading and writing: Make the relationship between reading and writing explicit through discussion, examples and publishing student work. And start early.
  • Identify teachers as writers: Establish communities of practice for teachers to learn, share and grow as writers.
  • Level the playing field. Invest in responsive writing programming that meets the needs of students from low-income communities, students of color and English Learners.

As Hattie Bellino, a former 826 Valencia student, says, “My voice is important because my perspective and experiences have the power to shift my reality and my community’s reality towards equity.”

It is time to improve literacy WRITE NOW.

Bita Nazarian and Jaime Balboa are the executive directors of 826 Valencia and 826LA , nonprofit organizations dedicated to supporting under-resourced students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Laura Brief is the CEO of 826 National .

The opinions in this commentary are those of the authors. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our  guidelines  and  contact us .

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Lori Gregg-Hammer 2 years ago 2 years ago

As a 20-year veteran teacher now doing a year of service with 826 Valencia through AmeriCorps, I cannot agree with this article more. I always struggled to teach writing to my students because I just didn't feel equipped to do the task. I love writing but I never really received strategic training on how to teach students how to write. "Identify teachers as writers: Establish communities of practice for teachers to learn, share and grow … Read More

As a 20-year veteran teacher now doing a year of service with 826 Valencia through AmeriCorps, I cannot agree with this article more. I always struggled to teach writing to my students because I just didn’t feel equipped to do the task. I love writing but I never really received strategic training on how to teach students how to write.

“Identify teachers as writers: Establish communities of practice for teachers to learn, share and grow as writers.”

This recommendation especially resonated with me as a writer, a teacher, a woman of color, and as one who hopes to help other people (young and old) own their identity as writers so they can amplify their own voices.

John Seethoff 2 years ago 2 years ago

Ralph mckay 2 years ago 2 years ago.

Congratulations on an excellent commentary. I loved this sentence: “Whereas reading is knowledge, writing is agency, power, and influence.”

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Basics: Writing

Writing is a complex process that requires a wide range of skills — a strong vocabulary; an understanding of genre, text structure, and voice; basic mechanical skills (grammar and punctuation); organizational skills; and higher order thinking.

On this page:

More on writing, featured video.

A child’s writing development parallels the child’s development as a reader. Part of early print awareness is the realization that writing can be created with everyday tools such as pens, pencils, crayons, and markers. Children begin to imitate the writing that they see in the environment. What often starts as scribbling ends up being important clues to a child’s understanding that print carries meaning.

As with reading skills, writing grows through explicit instruction . Writing is a skill with rules and structures. Across multiple grade levels, good writers are created through systematic, explicit instruction, combined with many opportunities to write and receive feedback.

Writing may be the most complex process that we expect our students to learn.

To write well, students need to develop a broad set of skills

Basic writing skill.

These include spelling, capitalization, punctuation, handwriting/keyboarding, and sentence structure (e.g., elimination of run-ons and sentence fragments). Basic writing skills are sometimes termed “mechanics” of writing.

Text generation

Text generation involves translating one’s thoughts into language, what might be thought of as the “content” of writing. Text generation includes word choice ( vocabulary ), elaboration of detail, and clarity of expression.

Writing processes

Especially beyond the earliest grades, good writing involves planning, revising , and editing one’s work. These processes are extremely important to success in writing, and increasingly so as students advance into the middle and secondary grades.

Writing knowledge

Writing knowledge includes an understanding of discourse and genre — for example, understanding that a narrative is organized differently than an informational text . Another example of writing knowledge includes writing for an audience, that is, the writer’s understanding of the need to convey meaning clearly and appropriately to the people who will be reading a particular piece of writing.

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Teaching Writing

what is literacy in writing

Narrator : At Springhill Lake Elementary in Greenbelt, Maryland, a class of third graders is living in a real fantasy world.

Aracely : There’s a big castle and you can hear birds singing and you can only drive limos.

Narrator : In actuality these students are getting a very grounded education in writing thanks to their teacher Ms. Sterkin.

Sterkin : It was little scary at first to teach writing because of all the different layers that go into writing. There’s mechanics, and ideas, and purpose, and audience, and genre, and then on top of that, you want them to be able to express themselves in a really interesting way for their readers. But every single year, I learn something new to help them to just keep layering their skill level in writing.

Narrator : Ms. Sterkin set a solid base for this scaffolding by creating a classroom environment where writing is fully integrated into the day.

Graham : When you take a look at elementary schools and the state of writing instruction, there’s two things that stand out. One, there’s very little writing going on by kids. Second, there’s very little instruction writing going on.

Sterkin : Okay, you can begin.

Narrator : Ms. Sterkin is determined to make sure her class is an exception. For example, to keep her students writing every day, Ms. Sterkin had each of them create a writers notebook. In it, they can brainstorm and draft ideas, which they can then share with the class.

Student : The house is red and white. Outside is quiet and peaceful.

Sterkin : The first week of school, we start with their own writer’s notebooks. We talk about the kind of space they need as a writer. We talk about the tools. And we also give them a lot of time to share, so that they’re comfortable sharing their writing and when it’s time for them to go through the revision process, they know that they’re able to share in a way that isn’t really scary for them.

Sterkin : Yes. What are some things you like about Mohammed’s details? What’d you like, Daira?

Daira : That it smells like strawberry and flowers.

Sterkin : Yeah. Wasn’t that a really good detail. It really helped us visualize with our five senses what it’s like there. Nina, what did you like about Mohammed’s?

Nina : I like about Mohammed’s that he kinda added a little bit part of poetry.

Narrator : And it’s not just the students who take part.

Christian : Ms. Sterkin, would you like to share?

Sterkin : Yes, Christian, I’d love to, thanks.

Narrator : Writing teachers need to see themselves as writers too.

Rogers : Teachers of writing must write. You have to be confronting both the satisfactions and the challenges of the writers task and then modeling that for your students. Being willing to show them a piece of writing that you have to fix and revise. You can’t just be one who assigns and grades.

Sterkin : Shimmering purple trails, led me to the journey to his kingdom. I might have to re-read that and make it sound a little better. With each step I took, purple sparkles swiftly scooted from beneath my feet. Swiftly scooted. That’s right. And what is it when I add two words together with the same beginning sound?

Student : Alliteration!

Sterkin : Alliteration. Good job.

Narrator : Besides creating regular writing opportunities for students, this workshopping provides a chance for them to give and receive feedback effectively .

Sterkin : I think the students cheer for each other because we would cheer for them when they share their own writing. And when we start in the beginning of the year, we would specifically find examples in the students writing that they should be proud of. And then we would invite the other students and specifically ask them, “what are some things you noticed in this person’s writing that you really think they did a great job on” and ” what are some of the things that maybe you can suggest that would make it more interesting as a reader”?

Narrator : After Ms. Sterkin’s class, these particular entries also acted as a pre-writing exercise for their unit on fairytales.

Sterkin : Okay, let’s talk about what we’re going to do today. Today we’re going to start writing our fairytales. And before we write our fairytale, we’re going to talk a little bit about what some really good writers do. We had some awesome examples of good writers in the last couple of days.

Narrator : Ms. Sterkin is referring to her use of mentor texts, which are pieces of writing whose idea, structure, or written craft can be used to inspire students own writing.

Sterkin : And we’re also going to read a story today called Crickwing . And it’s not a fairytale, but the author did something really special in that book that made the story sound exciting when we read it. And it helped us visualize what the characters in the story were doing. So we’re going to see what special trick that author used and we’re going to see if we can use it today in our fairytale writing too.

Hansen : The ideal way to look at the notion of mentor texts is that children, as readers, are noticing what they can use as writers., and finding mentor text that work for them.

Rogers : So it’s not just saying here’s a model text, everyone be Shakespeare. Here’s the perfect text — imitate it.

Student : Vivid.

Sterkin : Vivid verbs. When something is vivid, it’s really easy for us to see. So when we have a vivid verb, it’s easy for us to visualize it in our head. And in this story, Janell Cannon used a lot of vivid verbs. Tons of vivid verbs. I don’t think she used a whole lot of plain verbs. All of them are so easy for us to visualize in our head when we read her story. So, as we read, if you hear a vivid verb, I’d like you to hold up “V.” What is “V” for?

Students : Vivid verbs.

Sterkin : “Far below the great forest canopy lies a shadowy world that many insects call home. Among the damp clutter of fallen leaves and branches, leaf-cutting ants toil all day while large cockroaches await their evening search for food.” What did you hear? Nico, what did you hear?

Nico : Toil.

Sterkin : Toil. So if they’re toiling, what are they doing?

Students : Working hard.

Sterkin : Working really hard. Yes. We toil all day. “Pow! Swoosh! A sharp-eyed monkey clobbered Crickwing and swiped his sculpture.” What did we hear?

Students : Swiped.

Sterkin : Swiped. So if he swiped his sculpture, that means he did what?

Students : Took it.

Sterkin : He took it, but it didn’t just say he took it. How did he do that?

Sterkin : What does it look like if you swiped it? I see you’re all moving with your arms very quickly. When you swipe something… She swiped it from me! Go ahead. Swipe it. She swiped the word swipe. Do it again so everybody can see. Swipe it. She did it fast. So we know that monkey was moving how?

Students : Fast.

Sterkin : Why do you think Jannell Cannon decided to use these special vivid verbs instead of plain old verbs?

Student : I think when she used vivid verbs, so her story, so it like, makes the story more interesting.

Sterkin : It sure does. Wasn’t the story more interesting when we can visualize the special way the character moved or felt.

Students : Yes.

Sterkin : Yeah. And now, at this point, we’re such good writers that we want our readers to be interested in the story just like you are interested in listening to Janell Cannon’s story. So we’re going to try to put some vivid verbs in our fairytales that we write today.

Narrator : Ms. Sterkin follows up the whole class work with more explicit instruction, in small groups. This gives Ms. Sterkin a chance to assess the students’ understanding of vivid verbs, while the students get a chance to practice with the text in a more intimate setting.

Sterkin : “I can’t do this, Eartha blurted as last.” If you blurt something out, what does it sound like?

Student : I can’t do this anymore! That’s exactly why I visualized that.

Sterkin : Perfect. If I say, in the classroom, Tylere blurted out the answer, what does it mean?

Student : Shout.

Student : Two!

Sterkin : What do you think?

Student : He just screams it out.

Sterkin : He just screams it out. So if Eartha blurted out “I can’t do this anymore,” what does she do?

Students : I can’t do this anymore!

Student : Like…just talk, talk.

Sterkin : Do you want me to keep talking? Are you the director now? Okay. So we’re talking about the word…

Student : Stop!

Sterkin : Ah! So, she blurts it, like and interruption.

Student : Yeah.

Sterkin : Good thinking. So, if she had just used the word “said” in the story, we would no visualize that she interrupted, but since she used that word “blurted”…That was a perfect reenactment of the word “blurted.” She interrupted us. I’d like you to read the rest of it by yourself. And I’d like you to find your vivid verbs just like we did together, and circle them, or you could put “VV’s” on them. And then I’d like you to find one that you think is a really beautiful example of how that vivid verb helped you make an inference about the character.

Narrator : Ms. Sterkin is giving the students multiple chances to work with this new material and varying her lessons between whole class, small groups, and individual instruction.

Sterkin : Did you find the one that you really feel like was a good example of a vivid verb?

Student : Quavered.

Sterkin : Quavered. You like that? So why do you like that one?

Student : Because, it’s like “shuttered.” And then this one is almost like this one.

Sterkin : So, what does it help you infer about that character?

Student : Maybe this one was nervous, maybe he’s nervous.

Sterkin : Mmm hmm. Yeah. Did they have something to be nervous about? Student: Yeah.

Sterkin: Yeah, they do. So it’s a great way to help us visualize how the characters are feeling without just saying they felt nervous. It doesn’t even say the word nervous in there does it? But because she used special words, we can make these inferences by ourself, as a reader.

Narrator : For Ms. Sterkin, success with writing means creating a respectful community of writers.

Sterkin : I make sure I take the time to listen to listen to their concerns and make sure that, they feel like when I’m talking to them about their work that I’m not really criticizing what they’re doing, but that I’m there to help them. That we’re here to help each other. I learn from their ideas. I can take what they’re doing and share it with the rest of the class because they might have an idea that’s better than mine. And to do that frequently, so they know that this is just not, like, a one woman show in my classroom. We’re all learning together and helping each other.

Student : It doesn’t have “they lived happily ever after.”

Sterkin : Classic fairytale line, right? Yep. Let’s see.

Narrator: Today, writing doesn’t have to mean putting pen to paper

Narrator: It can mean putting finger to screen .

Student: “T” for text.

Sterkin: Springhill Lake was lucky enough to receive a grant for iPads. We’ve been using the iPads a lot to organize their thoughts and even different applications, or apps, in the content areas that just get them excited to learn. So the use of the iPads has not only been helpful for the students to acquire knowledge, but just as a general tool for engagement.

Narrator: Technology is an integrated part of the modern classroom.

Narrator: And one of Ms. Sterkin’s goals is to show her students how they can effect social change through their writing. Technology can help them craft and share their ideas.

Sterkin: and I’d like to share with you some really cool ideas I found in this book. “If you want one year of prosperity, plant corn. If you want ten years of prosperity, plant trees. If you want one hundred years of prosperity, educate people.” What do you think that might mean? What do you think, Jasmine.

Jasmine: Educate people. That means make people that they have to save the earth and not pollute it.

Sterkin: If I plant one little tree, that’s great, right? What if I share that information with everybody in this classroom. And then what if Jasmine and Mohammed and Lavontay and Symiah and Dennilson and everybody else in this classroom — what if you all told people to plant trees. Then what would happen?

Students: More.

Sterkin: More trees. And say that again.

Lavontay: And then they tell people. And the other people tell people and it goes on and on.

Student: And then there would be more trees. And even when they cut it down we can plant more and more.

Sterkin: Exactly. There’ll be more and more and more. So if we keep teaching people these important ideas, then everybody will learn what we really need to do to help our earth, won’t they?

Narrator: Ms. Sterkin’s students learned about natural resources in science. Now she’s asking them to incorporate what they learned into their fairy tale drafts.

Sterkin: Once the students are immersed in content, they have a lot more to say and they have a knowledge base to write. We’re always encouraging the students to integrate the content and knowledge that they’ve gained in the classroom in to their own writing.

Sterkin: All righty. We’re going to show you how to make a popplet, which is a cool way to organize some of your ideas. And then you’re going to make a popplet…

Student: Like a web.

Sterkin: Yes, like a web. That will help you with your fairy tale writing and help you teach your readers…

Student: (cough)

Sterkin: It’s okay. (laugh) About the environment.

Narrator: For writers, understanding the purpose and audience of a piece is essential.

Harris: If you don’t have a clear understanding of why you’re writing and what your goals are and how those goals involve the reader — do you want to effect their emotions? Do you want them to learn? — if you don’t have a clear concept, you can’t set the goals that will guide you through the writing process and the writing tasks in front of you.

Sterkin: Okay. I want you to think back to your fairy tale. On your iPad, I’d like you to do a double-tap two times and you should have your first popple come up.

Student: Push “t”.

Sterkin: Say it again.

Student: Push “t”!

Sterkin: Push “t” for text. In the middle of your popple, I’d like you to type your natural resource. So if your natural resource was water, type in water. If it was trees — your welcome — type in trees. Ms. Schnupp and I made an example of what yours will look like. And you notice that we have some special colors here. You’re going to put some special colors on your popples too. We have a natural resource and ours is oil. We have two blue boxes, because in those blue boxes you’re going to write a cool fact about that natural resource. So a cool fact that I know about oil is that oil is used to make plastic. So I would type in my box, for cool fact, that oil is used to make plastic. I also have two red boxes. What word do you notice in the red box?

Students: Problem.

Sterkin: Problem. We also know this word from when we write a story. Our story has a problem. This is your chance to brainstorm some really good problems in your story. Maybe in my story, somebody, maybe the villain, spilled oil in the oceans. That would a problem. So I’m going to jot that down in my problem box, “spill oil in the ocean.” Think about the cause and effect of what would happen if we harmed those natural resources. In the green box, what special word do you see here.

Students: Setting.

Sterkin: Setting. And in this box we really what to know, where is this natural resource in your setting. I know that Christian’s setting is on a pirate ship in the Atlantic Ocean and his natural resource is air. Am I right?

Christian: Yeah.

Sterkin: Okay.

Sterkin: When we’re planning the lessons we don’t focus the lesson solely around using the iPad. We want to use that as a tool to enhance the students’ learning.

Sterkin: So when you’re done you’re going to have a popple that’s actually not only going to have some cool science ideas on it about your natural resources, but it’s also going to help you with your story writing. Because we’ll have some problems we can look at to include your natural resource in the story. And you might also have some really cool facts that you can include in your story as well.

Rogers: One way to think about the goals of writing for young children is to think about it in terms of both the cognitive and the social. There’s the familiarity with language and structure and parts of speech, but there’s also a social dimension of writing that we really need to emphasize. Because why do children engage with writing? They engage with writing because it gives them positive interactions with adults and with peers.

Sterkin: So what else do you think is another problem that we would have with our water natural resource?

Student: Um. It gets polluted.

Sterkin: Okay. So how could water get polluted?

Student: By throwing trash in the water?

Student: Okay, so who might throw trash in the water to pollute water?

Student: People.

Sterkin: Okay. So people throw trash in to the water and it pollutes the water. What is the effect of that?

Student: An animal would die.

Sterkin: So animals could get harmed? Okay.

Student: Let me do that.

Sterkin: The growth that the students have made this year is just…it’s just so much to take in because they’re so proud of the work that they’ve done. We’ve tried new things that I’ve never done before and that they’ve never done before. And together we’re learning how all of these pieces take shape.

Shana : So boys and girls we have a new featured author. Her name is Erica Perl.

Narrator: Featuring an author on a class bulletin board is great.

Shana : Let’s share this book today called Dotty that she wrote.

Narrator: Enjoying one of her books together is even better.

Shana : Thirteen, she silently added. Whose nose did she want to count?

Students : Dotty’s

Shana : Dotty’s

Narrator: Meeting her in person…

Students: Erica!

Narrator: Amazing!

Students : Ooh!

Shana : Our featured author’s here!

Narrator: Author visits may seem like just fun and games but they can have a major impact on students.

Rogers : Students will sit in rapt attention listening, engaging, asking questions and if that author will talk to those students as fellow writers, it is so affirming.

Erica : I thought that we could read Dotty together and I could tell you a little bit about kinda how I wrote it. And I could hear about the kind of stuff you guys are writing. Maybe we could even do some writing together. What do you think?

Erica : Now, everyone here brought their imagination today right?

Erica : Good

Boy : I forgot mines at home.

Students : (laughing)

Erica : You left your imagination at home. That’s not good. You’re going to have to go get it right now.

Narrator: Reading aloud to students engages them with the written word and gets them excited about books.

Erica : So when Ida started school, she took her new lunchbox, and…

Students : Dotty.

Erica : I am a huge fan of reading aloud and I really believe that it should be the most fun part of a teacher or a parent’s day.

Erica : Ahhh!

Erica : Because if you’re enjoying it, the kids will enjoy it. So I think getting excited about the books that you’re sharing, getting silly with them, I think that all hugely important.

Erica : Say it all together. Ready?

Students : Wham!

Narrator: Writing can seem a daunting task to students. And while teachers can offer a lot of guidance, instruction, and practice, a published author has real-world weight behind her words.

Erica : Because they all start with an idea, right? And so, in the case of Dotty , when I was growing up I had all these friends. Right? Friends, just like you guys. Alright. But, I also had some friends who not everybody else could see. What do you think is a good thing about seeing something nobody else can see?

Girl : You have real friends, but some kids make fun of you, that you don’t have friends but you really do.

Erica : And your imaginary friends, would they ever make fun of you?

Eric  : No way.

Erica : When I go and talk to kids about writing. I always tell them that the thing about writing fiction, is that it has to have a truth in it. It has to have an emotional truth. And so, for me, in every book that I write, there’s an emotional truth that comes from my life and my experience. And so, with Dotty, the story of having an imaginary friend was a story that I could relate to when I look back on my own experience as a kid.

Erica : I would always worry that if people knew about Dotty they would say “Oh my goodness. Have you heard about Erica? Bah ha ha.” And they would laugh. So, I didn’t tell people, but I always wrote my ideas down, or I drew them. So, this is sort of a storyboard, of the story of Dotty. And as you can see, I drew these little sketches like here’s Ida here. She’s walking to school. And then, there’s Dotty who still looks sort of like a goat.

Narrator: Erica is showing the students that there are many ways to start writing and they don’t always involve using words.

Erica : So, I started drawing the class, and drawing my ideas out because sometimes that’s how I get my ideas flowing. And then, usually I write the words down in one of my journals. Do you guys do this? Raise your hand if you do this. Do you guys write stuff down just in writer’s notebooks? Because, my idea’s if you don’t write it down it kind of flutters away. But I don’t just write stories in it and I like it to get good and messy.

Narrator: The writer’s notebook is a great tool for encouraging daily writing from students. Keeping it free from grading, and the red ink of a correction pen, helps students see it as a pressure-free outlet for their ideas.

Erica : And then, sometimes I will get on the computer. Raise your hand if you ever get on the computer and do some writing there. Yep. And I start taking my ideas and putting them onto paper on the computer. And then I go through and change things, little things here and there. I revise it. Do you guys revise? Okay. Yes?

Students : Yes!

Erica : Yes! Good! Because if your revising, you’re writers. That’s a huge part of the writing process. You don’t just show up day one and write and you’re done.

Narrator: Revising can be one of the trickiest things for students to understand, but it’s also one of the most important steps in the writing process. Learning that a professional writer has to revise, often multiple times, is a terrific learning experience for young writers. Not even professional, adult authors are perfect!

Erica : ‘Cause I never get it just the way I want it the first time, and so I start kinda changing it around. So I go through it a million zillion times changing ideas. And you’ll see that some of these things ended up in Dotty and some of them didn’t. And I also read it out loud to kids.

Narrator: A key component to the revising process is peer editing. Once the students understand how to give constructive feedback, sharing their work with each other will result in stronger writing and more confident writers. And this is a message Erica is happy to underscore.

Erica : Sometimes I talk to my grown up writer friends and sometimes I talk to my kid writer friends, and we all talk about how the story can get better. Like a big collaboration. Do you guys do that? Do you share your work with each other?

Students: Yes.

Erica : Again another important part of the writing process, is sharing your work. So now we’re going to make a story together!

Students : Yay!

Erica : Yay! Okay.

Narrator: Group writing a story with students is a great way to have fun, while checking their understanding of story elements.

Erica : What does a story need to have? Yes!

Boy : Characters!

Erica : Characters! Characters! Okay. So, we gotta have some characters! Okay. What else?

Student : Words

Erica : Characters.

Boy : Setting!

Erica : And setting okay.

Erica : We’re going to put.

Student  : Plot

Erica : Plot. What does plot mean?

Students : Beginning, middle, and end.

Erica : Beginning, middle, and end. Everybody give me some beginning, middle, and end.

All : Beginning, middle, and end.

Erica : Yeah! Okay, plot.

Student : The theme.

Erica : Theme, okay What does theme mean?

Student : Um. What it’s all about.

Student : Oh, the message.

Erica : The message. What has to happen in the middle? Something that has to happen in

the middle of the story. To make it dramatic. Or surprising!

Student : Drama!

Erica : Drama, would be good. Yeah.

Student : Problem.

Erica : Some sort of…thank you.! Say that again.

Student : Problem

Erica : Problem! We have to have a problem.

Student : And solution!

Erica : And solution!

Narrator: Erica is going to keep the class active by having each student represent an element of the story.

Erica : Okay. Okay, I’m going to need two people to be the characters.

Students : Me! Me!

Erica : Okay. You and you.

Student : A baby with giant diapers!

Erica : A baby with giant diapers. No, no, no, no.

Student 2 : Superman.

Erica : Superman. Okay we got Superman and?

Student 3 : a princess

Erica : And a princess! Superman and a princess. Excellent. Okay.

Erica: Setting. Where are you guys going to be?

Student 4 : I want to be the tree.

Erica : You’re a tree. Good. So, we’re sort of outdoors.

Student 5 : I want to be the boy.

Erica : A boy?

Student 4 : Maybe a guard.

Erica : A guard? Like a castle guard?

Student 5 : Like a castle

Erica : Castle guard and tree.

Erica : Who’s going to be our problem? You two are going to be our problem. Come up here problems. What are the problems? Two problems.

Student 2 : A giant monster is going to attack the city.

Erica : A giant monster is a pretty good problem. Do you guys want to be a giant monster?

Student 6 : Yeah.

Student 7 : Okay.

Erica : Okay. Good. We’ve got a giant monster and a castle in the woods. Let me just put giant monster behind you.

Erica : What’s our theme going to be?

Student 1 : If you’re mean to someone, then someone will be mean to you.

Student 2 : When you help other people, they might help you back.

Erica : Those kinda fit together. What do you guys think?

Erica : It’s sort of like two sides to the same coin.

Student narrator : Once upon a time in a land far, far, away. There was a queen in a castle and her mother. And then, there was this green, ugly, smelly, one-eyed monster.

Erica : Let’s pause for a second, so we can see that. We’ve got the princess and the queen. Right here.

Erica : Look at the monster. Where’s the monster? There’s the monster! Let’s see some monstering.

Student monster : Grrrrr!

Erica : Good good good. Okay. Okay. Now.

Student narrator : The guard’s Omar. He came in. He tried to stop the monster, but the monster was too big and too strong.

Erica : Okay. We’ve got conflict going on, clearly the monster is having a conflict with the guard. Let’s see where we are so far. Are we at the beginning, the middle, or the end of the story?

Narrator: Erica pauses the story, because while the students are enthusiastic and engaged, it’s important to make sure that they also understand the story elements they’re acting out.

Erica : We’ve got the beginning, right? We’ve got the middle. Problem. How are we going to end it? How are we going to resolve this? And let’s remember — what’s our theme? Who said our theme so beautifully? You, said our theme so beautifully. Say it again.

Student 1 : When you help somebody, when you’re nice to somebody, then someone will be nice back.

Erica : Will be nice back.

Student 4 : I think the monster has to be nice because Superman takes the thorn out.

Erica : Okay, Let’s see that part acted out.

Student narrator : The monster attacked.

Student monster: Grrrr…

Erica : Superman. Superman, go help. Where’s the thorn. Who’s being the thorn. There you go. Good. Very good thorn removing. Excellent.

Student narrator : Can we — when he starts fighting. He just thinks why is he fighting? And then he puts his foot up and he sees it.

Erica : Oh, that’s good. That’s very good. So you discover it. Okay. So you discover the thorn. Thorn, in position.

Erica : Okay. And you discover that there’s a thorn in his tentacle! So, superman pulls the thorn from the tentacle! Okay. And then the monster says?

Students : Ahhhh!

Erica : Thank you! Awesome! That was really good. And then the princess and queen say?

Student princess and student queen : Oh, you’re my hero.

Erica : And how does the story end?

Student : And everyone lives happily ever after!

Girl : Superman and the princess get married!

Students : Yeah!

Erica : How about. How about they all…

Student : Live happily ever after.

Erica : …have friends and eat imaginary ice cream cones together.

Students : Yeah.

Erica : Yeah! And then they dance. And now, can everybody give me a nice “the end” bow? Ready? One, Two, Three. The End.

Student : For now.

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Families reading at home is just one way a culture of reading is growing in Rwanda.

Why Does Literacy Matter?

Is anything more powerful than the ability to read and to write? Through written language, we convey beliefs, record knowledge, and explore our common humanity. Alphabets may be different around the world, but literacy—that core ability to make sense of the written word—is cherished across all cultures and traditions.

On this International Literacy Day (September 8), five EDC staff members reflect on why literacy matters. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more about literacy and International Literacy Day.

The greatest gift

Simon Richmond

"Creating the concept and system of reading is one of humankind’s greatest intellectual achievements. Reading and writing magnify our capacity to learn, which is the competitive advantage of our species and the very foundation of human civilization. When a child learns to read, she unlocks and accelerates an expanding process of re-forming her self-identity and of enacting her will within the world. What more can you give her? To read is to better understand, and to understand is the greatest gift of being human."

Unlocking the world’s secrets

Jackie Bourassa

"Sharing thoughts, ideas, and emotions is key to the human experience. Developing literacy skills facilitates effective communication. Over a lifetime, children hone their skills to read, write, speak, listen, think, and respond critically—skills that unlock the world’s secrets and provide unlimited possibilities. Literacy matters because of the endless doors it opens!"

Students in the Philippines reading a book

After students in the Philippines learn how to read, they begin to read to learn.

The right of literacy

Life-changing experiences.

Bill Potter

"Strong literacy skills serve as foundational building blocks for positive social development. I’ve seen this pattern repeated all over the world. Literate mothers are better able to support their families’ health, and literate children and adults develop empathy through the stories they read. Empathy leads to social awareness and fosters more supportive communities.

"Unfortunately, too many children around the world are still not afforded the life-changing experience of learning how to read and write. We owe them this right of literacy and must continue our efforts to make reading a part of their lives."

A true expression of humanity

Nancy Clark-Chiarelli

"Natalie Babbitt, the acclaimed children’s author, once remarked, ‘It’s amazing that those 26 little marks of the alphabet can arrange themselves on the pages of a book and accomplish all that.’

"It’s true; the alphabet is a wonder. But it is also just a tool. It takes a skilled teacher to help any learner decipher those little squiggles so that they are transformed into words and ideas, into stories and songs. What we do with that knowledge, that literacy, is a true expression of humanity."

A community of learning

Carrie Lewis

"Literacy matters because it brings students into a life-long community of learning that links people across borders. Literacy matters because it engage citizens in meaningful ways to participate in building a society and government of their choosing. Literacy matters because in a world with a widening gap between connected and unconnected, reading and writing and its partner, critical thinking, allow young and old to engage on equal footing."

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Logo for Iowa State University Digital Press

Chapter 1. What is Literacy? Multiple Perspectives on Literacy

Constance Beecher

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” – Frederick Douglass

Download Tar Beach – Faith Ringgold Video Transcript [DOC]

Keywords: literacy, digital literacy, critical literacy, community-based literacies

Definitions of literacy from multiple perspectives

Literacy is the cornerstone of education by any definition. Literacy refers to the ability of people to read and write (UNESCO, 2017). Reading and writing in turn are about encoding and decoding information between written symbols and sound (Resnick, 1983; Tyner, 1998). More specifically, literacy is the ability to understand the relationship between sounds and written words such that one may read, say, and understand them (UNESCO, 2004; Vlieghe, 2015). About 67 percent of children nationwide, and more than 80 percent of those from families with low incomes, are not proficient readers by the end of third grade ( The Nation Assessment for Educational Progress; NAEP 2022 ).  Children who are not reading on grade level by third grade are 4 times more likely to drop out of school than their peers who are reading on grade level. A large body of research clearly demonstrates that Americans with fewer years of education have poorer health and shorter lives. In fact, since the 1990s, life expectancy has fallen for people without a high school education. Completing more years of education creates better access to health insurance, medical care, and the resources for living a healthier life (Saha, 2006). Americans with less education face higher rates of illness, higher rates of disability, and shorter life expectancies. In the U.S., 25-year-olds without a high school diploma can expect to die 9 years sooner than college graduates. For example, by 2011, the prevalence of diabetes had reached 15% for adults without a high -school education, compared with 7% for college graduates (Zimmerman et al., 2018).

Thus, literacy is a goal of utmost importance to society. But what does it mean to be literate, or to be able to read? What counts as literacy?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe two or more definitions of literacy and the differences between them.
  • Define digital and critical literacy.
  • Distinguish between digital literacy, critical literacy, and community-based literacies.
  • Explain multiple perspectives on literacy.

Here are some definitions to consider:

“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.” – United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

“The ability to understand, use, and respond appropriately to written texts.” – National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), citing the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)

“An individual’s ability to read, write, and speak in English, compute, and solve problems, at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual, and in society.” – Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), Section 203

“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.” – Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), as cited by the American Library Association’s Committee on Literacy

“Using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” – Kutner, Greenberg, Jin, Boyle, Hsu, & Dunleavy (2007). Literacy in Everyday Life: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NCES 2007-480)

Which one of these above definitions resonates with you? Why?

New literacy practices as meaning-making practices

In the 21 st century, literacy increasingly includes understanding the roles of digital media and technology in literacy. In 1996, the New London Group coined the term “multiliteracies” or “new literacies” to describe a modern view of literacy that reflected multiple communication forms and contexts of cultural and linguistic diversity within a globalized society. They defined multiliteracies as a combination of multiple ways of communicating and making meaning, including such modes as visual, audio, spatial, behavioral, and gestural (New London Group, 1996). Most of the text’s students come across today are digital (like this textbook!). Instead of books and magazines, students are reading blogs and text messages.

For a short video on the importance of digital literacy, watch The New Media Literacies .

The National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE, 2019) makes it clear that our definitions of literacy must continue to evolve and grow ( NCTE definition of digital literacy ).

“Literacy has always been a collection of communicative and sociocultural practices shared among communities. As society and technology change, so does literacy. The world demands that a literate person possess and intentionally apply a wide range of skills, competencies, and dispositions. These literacies are interconnected, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with histories, narratives, life possibilities, and social trajectories of all individuals and groups. Active, successful participants in a global society must be able to:

  • participate effectively and critically in a networked world.
  • explore and engage critically and thoughtfully across a wide variety of inclusive texts and tools/modalities.
  • consume, curate, and create actively across contexts.
  • advocate for equitable access to and accessibility of texts, tools, and information.
  • build and sustain intentional global and cross-cultural connections and relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought.
  • promote culturally sustaining communication and recognize the bias and privilege present in the interactions.
  • examine the rights, responsibilities, and ethical implications of the use and creation of information.
  • determine how and to what extent texts and tools amplify one’s own and others’ narratives as well as counterproductive narratives.
  • recognize and honor the multilingual literacy identities and culture experiences individuals bring to learning environments, and provide opportunities to promote, amplify, and encourage these variations of language (e.g., dialect, jargon, and register).”

In other words, literacy is not just the ability to read and write. It is also being able to effectively use digital technology to find and analyze information. Students who are digitally literate know how to do research, find reliable sources, and make judgments about what they read online and in print. Next, we will learn more about digital literacy.

  • Malleable : can be changed.
  • Culturally sustaining : the pedagogical preservation of the cultural and linguistic competence of young people pertaining to their communities of origin while simultaneously affording dominant-culture competence.
  • Bias : a tendency to believe that some people, ideas, etc., are better than others, usually resulting in unfair treatment.
  • Privilege : a right or benefit that is given to some people and not to others.
  • Unproductive narrative : negative commonly held beliefs such as “all students from low-income backgrounds will struggle in school.” (Narratives are phrases or ideas that are repeated over and over and become “shared narratives.” You can spot them in common expressions and stories that almost everyone knows and holds as ingrained values or beliefs.)

Literacy in the digital age

The Iowa Core recognizes that today, literacy includes technology. The goal for students who graduate from the public education system in Iowa is:

“Each Iowa student will be empowered with the technological knowledge and skills to learn effectively and live productively. This vision, developed by the Iowa Core 21st Century Skills Committee, reflects the fact that Iowans in the 21st century live in a global environment marked by a high use of technology, giving citizens and workers the ability to collaborate and make individual contributions as never before. Iowa’s students live in a media-suffused environment, marked by access to an abundance of information and rapidly changing technological tools useful for critical thinking and problem-solving processes. Therefore, technological literacy supports preparation of students as global citizens capable of self-directed learning in preparation for an ever-changing world” (Iowa Core Standards 21 st Century Skills, n.d.).

NOTE: The essential concepts and skills of technology literacy are taken from the International Society for Technology in Education’s National Educational Technology Standards for Students: Grades K-2 | Technology Literacy Standards

Literacy in any context is defined as the ability “ to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information in order to function in a knowledge society” (ICT Literacy Panel, 2002). “ When we teach only for facts (specifics)… rather than for how to go beyond facts, we teach students how to get out of date ” (Sternberg, 2008). This statement is particularly significant when applied to technology literacy. The Iowa essential concepts for technology literacy reflect broad, universal processes and skills.

Unlike the previous generations, learning in the digital age is marked using rapidly evolving technology, a deluge of information, and a highly networked global community (Dede, 2010). In such a dynamic environment, learners need skills beyond the basic cognitive ability to consume and process language. To understand the characteristics of the digital age, and what this means for how people learn in this new and changing landscape, one may turn to the evolving discussion of literacy or, as one might say now, of digital literacy. The history of literacy contextualizes digital literacy and illustrates changes in literacy over time. By looking at literacy as an evolving historical phenomenon, we can glean the fundamental characteristics of the digital age. These characteristics in turn illuminate the skills needed to take advantage of digital environments. The following discussion is an overview of digital literacy, its essential components, and why it is important for learning in the digital age.

Literacy is often considered a skill or competency. Children and adults alike can spend years developing the appropriate skills for encoding and decoding information. Over the course of thousands of years, literacy has become much more common and widespread, with a global literacy rate ranging from 81% to 90% depending on age and gender (UNESCO, 2016). From a time when literacy was the domain of an elite few, it has grown to include huge swaths of the global population. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which are some of the advantages the written word can provide. Kaestle (1985) tells us that “literacy makes it possible to preserve information as a snapshot in time, allows for recording, tracking and remembering information, and sharing information more easily across distances among others” (p. 16). In short, literacy led “to the replacement of myth by history and the replacement of magic by skepticism and science.”

If literacy involves the skills of reading and writing, digital literacy requires the ability to extend those skills to effectively take advantage of the digital world (American Library Association [ALA], 2013). More general definitions express digital literacy as the ability to read and understand information from digital sources as well as to create information in various digital formats (Bawden, 2008; Gilster, 1997; Tyner, 1998; UNESCO, 2004). Developing digital skills allows digital learners to manage a vast array of rapidly changing information and is key to both learning and working in the evolving digital landscape (Dede, 2010; Koltay, 2011; Mohammadyari & Singh, 2015). As such, it is important for people to develop certain competencies specifically for handling digital content.

ALA Digital Literacy Framework

To fully understand the many digital literacies, we will look at the American Library Association (ALA) framework. The ALA framework is laid out in terms of basic functions with enough specificity to make it easy to understand and remember but broad enough to cover a wide range of skills. The ALA framework includes the following areas:

  • understanding,
  • evaluating,
  • creating, and
  • communicating (American Library Association, 2013).

Finding information in a digital environment represents a significant departure from the way human beings have searched for information for centuries. The learner must abandon older linear or sequential approaches to finding information such as reading a book, using a card catalog, index, or table of contents, and instead use more horizontal approaches like natural language searches, hypermedia text, keywords, search engines, online databases and so on (Dede, 2010; Eshet, 2002). The shift involves developing the ability to create meaningful search limits (SCONUL, 2016). Previously, finding the information would have meant simply looking up page numbers based on an index or sorting through a card catalog. Although finding information may depend to some degree on the search tool being used (library, internet search engine, online database, etc.) the search results also depend on how well a person is able to generate appropriate keywords and construct useful Boolean searches. Failure in these two areas could easily return too many results to be helpful, vague, or generic results, or potentially no useful results at all (Hangen, 2015).

Part of the challenge of finding information is the ability to manage the results. Because there is so much data, changing so quickly, in so many different formats, it can be challenging to organize and store them in such a way as to be useful. SCONUL (2016) talks about this as the ability to organize, store, manage, and cite digital resources, while the Educational Testing Service also specifically mentions the skills of accessing and managing information. Some ways to accomplish these tasks is using social bookmarking tools such as Diigo, clipping and organizing software such as Evernote and OneNote, and bibliographic software. Many sites, such as YouTube, allow individuals with an account to bookmark videos, as well as create channels or collections of videos for specific topics or uses. Other websites have similar features.


Understanding in the context of digital literacy perhaps most closely resembles traditional literacy because it is the ability to read and interpret text (Jones-Kavalier & Flannigan, 2006). In the digital age, however, the ability to read and understand extends much further than text alone. For example, searches may return results with any combination of text, video, sound, and audio, as well as still and moving pictures. As the internet has evolved, a whole host of visual languages have also evolved, such as moving images, emoticons, icons, data visualizations, videos, and combinations of all the above. Lankshear & Knoble (2008) refer to these modes of communication as “post typographic textual practice.” Understanding the variety of modes of digital material may also be referred to as multimedia literacy (Jones-Kavalier & Flannigan, 2006), visual literacy (Tyner, 1998), or digital literacy (Buckingham, 2006).

Evaluating digital media requires competencies ranging from assessing the importance of a piece of information to determining its accuracy and source. Evaluating information is not new to the digital age, but the nature of digital information can make it more difficult to understand who the source of information is and whether it can be trusted (Jenkins, 2018). When there are abundant and rapidly changing data across heavily populated networks, anyone with access can generate information online. This results in the learner needing to make decisions about its authenticity, trustworthiness, relevance, and significance. Learning evaluative digital skills means learning to ask questions about who is writing the information, why they are writing it, and who the intended audience is (Buckingham, 2006). Developing critical thinking skills is part of the literacy of evaluating and assessing the suitability for use of a specific piece of information (SCONUL, 2016).

Creating in the digital world makes the production of knowledge and ideas in digital formats explicit. While writing is a critical component of traditional literacy, it is not the only creative tool in the digital toolbox. Other tools are available and include creative activities such as podcasting, making audio-visual presentations, building data visualizations, 3D printing, and writing blogs. Tools that haven’t been thought of before are constantly appearing. In short, a digitally literate individual will want to be able to use all formats in which digital information may be conveyed in the creation of a product. A key component of creating with digital tools is understanding what constitutes fair use and what is considered plagiarism. While this is not new to the digital age, it may be more challenging these days to find the line between copying and extending someone else’s work.

In part, the reason for the increased difficulty in discerning between plagiarism and new work is the “cut and paste culture” of the Internet, referred to as “reproduction literacy” (Eshet 2002, p.4), or appropriation in Jenkins’ New Media Literacies (Jenkins, 2018). The question is, what kind and how much change is required to avoid the accusation of plagiarism? This skill requires the ability to think critically, evaluate a work, and make appropriate decisions. There are tools and information to help understand and find those answers, such as the Creative Commons. Learning about such resources and how to use them is part of digital literacy.


Communicating is the final category of digital skills in the ALA digital framework. The capacity to connect with individuals all over the world creates unique opportunities for learning and sharing information, for which developing digital communication skills is vital. Some of the skills required for communicating in the digital environment include digital citizenship, collaboration, and cultural awareness. This is not to say that one does not need to develop communication skills outside of the digital environment, but that the skills required for digital communication go beyond what is required in a non-digital environment. Most of us are adept at personal, face- to-face communication, but digital communication needs the ability to engage in asynchronous environments such as email, online forums, blogs, social media, and learning platforms where what is written may not be deleted and may be misinterpreted. Add that to an environment where people number in the millions and the opportunities for misunderstanding and cultural miscues are likely.

The communication category of digital literacies covers an extensive array of skills above and beyond what one might need for face-to-face interactions. It is comprised of competencies around ethical and moral behavior, responsible communication for engagement in social and civic activities (Adam Becker et al., 2017), an awareness of audience, and an ability to evaluate the potential impact of one’s online actions. It also includes skills for handling privacy and security in online environments. These activities fall into two main categories: digital citizenship and collaboration.

Digital citizenship refers to one’s ability to interact effectively in the digital world. Part of this skill is good manners, often referred to as “netiquette.” There is a level of context which is often missing in digital communication due to physical distance, lack of personal familiarity with the people online, and the sheer volume of the people who may encounter our words. People who know us well may understand exactly what we mean when we say something sarcastic or ironic, but people online do not know us, and vocal and facial cues are missing in most digital communication, making it more likely we will be misunderstood. Furthermore, we are more likely to misunderstand or be misunderstood if we are unaware of cultural differences. So, digital citizenship includes an awareness of who we are, what we intend to say, and how it might be perceived by other people we do not know (Buckingham, 2006). It is also a process of learning to communicate clearly in ways that help others understand what we mean.

Another key digital skill is collaboration, and it is essential for effective participation in digital projects via the Internet. The Internet allows people to engage with others they may never see in person and work towards common goals, be they social, civic, or business oriented. Creating a community and working together requires a degree of trust and familiarity that can be difficult to build when there is physical distance between the participants. Greater effort must be made to be inclusive , and to overcome perceived or actual distance and disconnectedness. So, while the potential of digital technology for connecting people is impressive, it is not automatic or effortless, and it requires new skills.

Literacy narratives are stories about reading or composing a message in any form or context. They often include poignant memories that involve a personal experience with literacy. Digital literacy narratives can sometimes be categorized as ones that focus on how the writer came to understand the importance of technology in their life or pedagogy. More often, they are simply narratives that use a medium beyond the print-based essay to tell the story:

Create your own literacy narrative that tells of a significant experience you had with digital literacy. Use a multi-modal tool that includes audio and images or video. Share it with your classmates and discuss the most important ideas you notice in each other’s narratives.

Critical literacy

Literacy scholars recognize that although literacy is a cognitive skill, it is also a set of practices that communities and people participate in. Next, we turn to another perspective on literacy – critical literacy. “Critical” here is not meant as having a negative point of view, but rather using an analytic lens that detects power, privilege, and representation to understand different ways of looking at texts. For example, when groups or individuals stage a protest, do the media refer to them as “protesters” or “rioters?” What is the reason for choosing the label they do, and what are the consequences? 

Critical literacy does not have a set definition or typical history of use, but the following key tenets have been described in the literature, which will vary in their application based on the individual social context (Vasquez, 2019). Table 1 presents some key aspects of critical literacy, but this area of literacy research is growing and evolving rapidly, so this is not an exhaustive list.

An important component of critical literacy is the adoption of culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy. One definition comes from Dr. Django Paris (2012), who stated that Culturally Responsive-Sustaining (CR-S) education recognizes that cultural differences (including racial, ethnic, linguistic, gender, sexuality, and ability ones) should be treated as assets for teaching and learning. Culturally sustaining pedagogy requires teachers to support multilingualism and multiculturalism in their practice. That is, culturally sustaining pedagogy seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustain—linguistic, literary, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling.

For more, see the Culturally Responsive and Sustaining F ramework . The framework helps educators to think about how to create student-centered learning environments that uphold racial, linguistic, and cultural identities. It prepares students for rigorous independent learning, develops their abilities to connect across lines of difference, elevates historically marginalized voices, and empowers them as agents of social change. CR-S education explores the relationships between historical and contemporary conditions of inequality and the ideas that shape access, participation, and outcomes for learners.

  • What can you do to learn more about your students’ cultures?
  • How can you build and sustain relationships with your students?
  • How do the instructional materials you use affirm your students’ identities?

Community-based literacies

You may have noticed that communities are a big part of critical literacy – we understand that our environment and culture impact what we read and how we understand the world. Now think about the possible differences among three Iowa communities: a neighborhood in the middle of Des Moines, the rural community of New Hartford, and Coralville, a suburb of Iowa City:

what is literacy in writing

You may not have thought about how living in a certain community might contribute to or take away from a child’s ability to learn to read. Dr. Susan Neuman (2001) did. She and her team investigated the differences between two neighborhoods regarding how much access to books and other reading materials children in those neighborhoods had. One middle-to-upper class neighborhood in Philadelphia had large bookstores, toy stores with educational materials, and well-resourced libraries. The other, a low-income neighborhood, had no bookstores or toy stores. There was a library, but it had fewer resources and served a larger number of patrons. In fact, the team found that even the signs on the businesses were harder to read, and there was less environmental printed word. Their findings showed that each child in the middle-class neighborhood had 13 books on average, while in the lower-class neighborhood there was one book per 300 children .

Dr. Neuman and her team (2019) recently revisited this question. This time, they looked at low-income neighborhoods – those where 60% or more of the people are living in poverty . They compared these to borderline neighborhoods – those with 20-40% in poverty – in three cities, Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Los Angeles. Again, they found significantly fewer books in the very low-income areas. The chart represents the preschool books available for sale in each neighborhood. Note that in the lower-income neighborhood of Washington D.C., there were no books for young children to be found at all!

Now watch this video from Campaign for Grade Level Reading. Access to books is one way that children can have new experiences, but it is not the only way!

What is the “summer slide,” and how does it contribute to the differences in children’s reading abilities?

The importance of being literate and how to get there

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope” – Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary-General.

An older black man with a goatee speaks at a podium for the United Nations in a suit.

Our economy is enhanced when citizens have higher literacy levels. Effective literacy skills open the doors to more educational and employment opportunities so that people can lift themselves out of poverty and chronic underemployment. In our increasingly complex and rapidly changing technological world, it is essential that individuals continuously expand their knowledge and learn new skills to keep up with the pace of change. The goal of our public school system in the United States is to “ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.” This is the basis of the Common Core Standards, developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center). These groups felt that education was too inconsistent across the different states, and today’s students are preparing to enter a world in which colleges and businesses are demanding more than ever before. To ensure that all students are ready for success after high school, the Common Core State Standards established clear universal guidelines for what every student should know and be able to do in math and English language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade: “The Common Core State Standards do not tell teachers how to teach, but they do help teachers figure out the knowledge and skills their students should have” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2012).

Explore the Core!

Go to and click on Literacy Standards. Spend some time looking at the K-3 standards. Notice how consistent they are across the grade levels. Each has specific requirements within the categories:

  • Reading Standards for Literature
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text
  • Reading Standards for Foundational Skills
  • Writing Standards
  • Speaking and Listening Standards
  • Language Standards

Download the Iowa Core K-12 Literacy Manual . You will use it as a reference when you are creating lessons.

Next, explore the Subject Area pages and resources. What tools does the state provide to teachers to support their use of the Core?

Describe a resource you found on the website. How will you use this when you are a teacher?

Watch this video about the Iowa Literacy Core Standards:

  • Literacy is typically defined as the ability to ingest, understand, and communicate information.
  • Literacy has multiple definitions, each with a different point of focus.
  • “New literacies,” or multiliteracies, are a combination of multiple ways of communicating and making meaning, including visual, audio, spatial, behavioral, and gestural communication.
  • As online communication has become more prevalent, digital literacy has become more important for learners to engage with the wealth of information available online.
  • Critical literacy develops learners’ critical thinking by asking them to use an analytic lens that detects power, privilege, and representation to understand different ways of looking at information.
  • The Common Core State Standards were established to set clear, universal guidelines for what every student should know after completing high school.

Resources for teacher educators

  • Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education Framework [PDF]
  • Common Core State Standards
  • Iowa Core Instructional Resources in Literacy

Gonzalez, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2006). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms . New York, NY: Routledge.

Lau, S. M. C. (2012). Reconceptualizing critical literacy teaching in ESL classrooms. The Reading Teacher, 65 , 325–329.

Literacy. (2018, March 19). Retrieved March 2, 2020, from

Neuman, S. B., & Celano, D. (2001). Access to print in low‐income and middle‐income communities: An ecological study of four neighborhoods. Reading Research Quarterly, 36 (1), 8-26.

Neuman, S. B., & Moland, N. (2019). Book deserts: The consequences of income segregation on children’s access to print.  Urban education, 54 (1), 126-147.

New London Group (1996). A Pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures.  Harvard Educational Review, 66 (1), 60-92.

O’Brien, J. (2001). Children reading critically: A local history. In B. Comber & A. Simpson (Eds.), Negotiating critical literacies in classrooms (pp. 41–60). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Ordoñez-Jasis, R., & Ortiz, R. W. (2006). Reading their worlds: Working with diverse families to enhance children’s early literacy development. Y C Young Children, 61 (1), 42.

Saha S. (2006). Improving literacy as a means to reducing health disparities. J Gen Intern Med. 21 (8):893-895. doi:10.1111/j.1525-1497.2006.00546.x

UNESCO. (2017). Literacy rates continue to rise from one generation to the next global literacy trends today. Retrieved from

Vasquez, V.M., Janks, H. & Comber, B. (2019). Critical Literacy as a Way of Being and Doing. Language Arts, 96 (5), 300-311.

Vlieghe, J. (2015). Traditional and digital literacy. The literacy hypothesis, technologies of reading and writing, and the ‘grammatized’ body. Ethics and Education, 10 (2), 209-226.

Zimmerman, E. B., Woolf, S. H., Blackburn, S. M., Kimmel, A. D., Barnes, A. J., & Bono, R. S. (2018). The case for considering education and health. Urban Education, 53 (6), 744-773.U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences.

U.S. Department of Education. Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2022 Reading Assessment.

Methods of Teaching Early Literacy Copyright © 2023 by Constance Beecher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Literacy Beyond Reading and Writing

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Nicola Miranda

Literacy is defined as the ability to read, write, speak, and listen, which allows us to communicate effectively with one another  (Department of Education and Training, n.d).  However, in this generation, literacy goes beyond reading, comprehension, and writing skills. Literacy is an essential ability to participate actively and meaningfully in society.

On a global scale, UNESCO (2019) indicates that 773 million youth and adults cannot read and write, while 250 million children are failing to develop basic literacy skills. Based on this rate, individuals with poor literacy levels face difficulties in demonstrating their full potential in their communities.

Literacy Beyond Reading and Writing

Why is literacy important?

“Literacy is a fundamental human right and the foundation for lifelong learning.”  – UNESCO

Let us think about it like this. How many times in a day do you use your reading skills for simple daily tasks? Remember this can include reading a newspaper, messages, signs on the street, food labels, and more.

In today’s world, adults are expected to have the ability to read as this is required for understanding legal documents, health paperwork, bill payments, and more  (EduTrics, 2016) . 

Additionally, technology has evolved and showed us how basic means of communication are through social media, emails, messages, and phone calls. This demonstrates how essential basic reading and literacy skills are, to proceed with everyday life. 

What are the causes of illiteracy?

Literacy Beyond Reading and Writing

Although the causes of illiteracy are different for everyone, here are some common factors that contribute to illiteracy in adults (Lal, 2015):

  • Parents who had no or minimal schooling and education
  • Poverty and challenging living conditions
  • Learning disabilities
  • Lack of books at home
  • Lack of knowledge in home about the importance of reading

What are the effects of illiteracy?

Literacy enables individuals to feel empowered to reach their full potential in life and contribute to society (UNESCO, 2019). Adequate levels of literacy within the society will help people differentiate real news from fake news. Having poor literacy can create misinterpretations and confusion on how to access basic health care needs, information, or how to access education  (World Literacy Foundation [WLF], 2018).

Based on previous research, individuals with low literacy skills have been closely associated with poor health outcomes  (DeWalt et. al., 2004).  On an individual approach, illiteracy influences a person’s ability to access and understand health information for themselves and their families. Poor literacy skills increase the chance of developing high-risk sexual behavior. This is based on the lack of knowledge about sexual and reproductive topics, along with inadequate education or no use of contraception  (WLF, 2018).

According to a report from the  Every Library Institute (2019) , adults with low literacy levels are more likely to be unemployed and be dependent on criminal activities for their financial support. Previous research has indicated that 85 percent of juvenile delinquents are illiterate  (WLF, 2018) .

Education and welfare

Children with illiterate or low-literate parents are 72 percent more likely to have poor reading levels themselves. Hence, these children have higher chances of poor grades, behavioral problems, absenteeism, repeating school years, the habit of absenteeism, repeated school years, or drop-out  (ProLiteracy, 2021) . Additionally, work is prioritized more than schooling as functionally illiterate parents have lower expectations regarding education  (WLF, 2018) .

Literacy Beyond Reading and Writing

How can we reduce the bleak illiteracy rates?

It is challenging to fight the whole concept of illiteracy in the world, but we as individuals can take this fight step by step starting from early intervention. Developing literacy and language skills before formal schooling sets a child up for success in school and life. Here are some ways on how we can promote  early childhood literacy .

Regular shared reading:

  • Promotes vocabulary, listening, and comprehension skills.
  • Creates a deeper understanding of print concepts.

Interacting with print:

  • Looking at the print displayed in everyday life such as road signs, magazines, food packaging, posters, etc.
  • Activities that include writing, tracing, and coloring are also really helpful in engaging children to learn and foster a love for reading.

Language games and songs:

  • To develop listening and speaking skills
  • To improve vocabulary, letter, and phonological awareness
  • Songs that have rhyme, rhythm, and repetitiveness enable children to recognize, and memorize certain words and phrases.

Written by: Nicola Miranda

  • Department of Education and Training. (n.d).  What is literacy?   
  • Dewalt, D. A., Berkman, N. D., Sheridan, S., Lohr, K. N., & Pignone, M. P. (2004). Literacy and health outcomes: a systematic review of the literature.  Journal of general internal medicine ,  19 (12), 1228–1239. 
  • EduTrics. (2015).  How Literacy affects a Society – The importance of Education.
  • Every Library Institute. (2019).  The Crime and Library report.  
  • Lal. S. (2015).  The Economic and Social Cost of Illiteracy : An Overview.
  • ProLiteracy. (2021).  Adult Literacy Facts . 
  • Tasmanian Government Department of Health. (n.d).  Improving Adult Literacy.
  • The Royal Children’s Hospital. (2008).  Literacy in Early Childhood. 
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO].  Literacy . (2019).
  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [UNESCO].  There are still 781 Million Illiterate Adults.
  • U.S. Department of Education. (2014).  The Impact of ABS Program Participation on Long-Term Economic Outcomes.  
  • World Literacy Foundation. (2018).  The Economic and Social Cost of Illiteracy.
  • Pictures from Unsplash

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  • 3.3 Glance at Genre: The Literacy Narrative
  • 1 Unit Introduction
  • Introduction
  • 1.1 "Reading" to Understand and Respond
  • 1.2 Social Media Trailblazer: Selena Gomez
  • 1.3 Glance at Critical Response: Rhetoric and Critical Thinking
  • 1.4 Annotated Student Sample: Social Media Post and Responses on Voter Suppression
  • 1.5 Writing Process: Thinking Critically About a “Text”
  • 1.6 Evaluation: Intention vs. Execution
  • 1.7 Spotlight on … Academia
  • 1.8 Portfolio: Tracing Writing Development
  • Further Reading
  • Works Cited
  • 2.1 Seeds of Self
  • 2.2 Identity Trailblazer: Cathy Park Hong
  • 2.3 Glance at the Issues: Oppression and Reclamation
  • 2.4 Annotated Sample Reading from The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois
  • 2.5 Writing Process: Thinking Critically about How Identity Is Constructed Through Writing
  • 2.6 Evaluation: Antiracism and Inclusivity
  • 2.7 Spotlight on … Variations of English
  • 2.8 Portfolio: Decolonizing Self
  • 3.1 Identity and Expression
  • 3.2 Literacy Narrative Trailblazer: Tara Westover
  • 3.4 Annotated Sample Reading: from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
  • 3.5 Writing Process: Tracing the Beginnings of Literacy
  • 3.6 Editing Focus: Sentence Structure
  • 3.7 Evaluation: Self-Evaluating
  • 3.8 Spotlight on … The Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (DALN)
  • 3.9 Portfolio: A Literacy Artifact
  • Works Consulted
  • 2 Unit Introduction
  • 4.1 Exploring the Past to Understand the Present
  • 4.2 Memoir Trailblazer: Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • 4.3 Glance at Genre: Conflict, Detail, and Revelation
  • 4.4 Annotated Sample Reading: from Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
  • 4.5 Writing Process: Making the Personal Public
  • 4.6 Editing Focus: More on Characterization and Point of View
  • 4.7 Evaluation: Structure and Organization
  • 4.8 Spotlight on … Multilingual Writers
  • 4.9 Portfolio: Filtered Memories
  • 5.1 Profiles as Inspiration
  • 5.2 Profile Trailblazer: Veronica Chambers
  • 5.3 Glance at Genre: Subject, Angle, Background, and Description
  • 5.4 Annotated Sample Reading: “Remembering John Lewis” by Carla D. Hayden
  • 5.5 Writing Process: Focusing on the Angle of Your Subject
  • 5.6 Editing Focus: Verb Tense Consistency
  • 5.7 Evaluation: Text as Personal Introduction
  • 5.8 Spotlight on … Profiling a Cultural Artifact
  • 5.9 Portfolio: Subject as a Reflection of Self
  • 6.1 Proposing Change: Thinking Critically About Problems and Solutions
  • 6.2 Proposal Trailblazer: Atul Gawande
  • 6.3 Glance at Genre: Features of Proposals
  • 6.4 Annotated Student Sample: “Slowing Climate Change” by Shawn Krukowski
  • 6.5 Writing Process: Creating a Proposal
  • 6.6 Editing Focus: Subject-Verb Agreement
  • 6.7 Evaluation: Conventions, Clarity, and Coherence
  • 6.8 Spotlight on … Technical Writing as a Career
  • 6.9 Portfolio: Reflecting on Problems and Solutions
  • 7.1 Thumbs Up or Down?
  • 7.2 Review Trailblazer: Michiko Kakutani
  • 7.3 Glance at Genre: Criteria, Evidence, Evaluation
  • 7.4 Annotated Student Sample: "Black Representation in Film" by Caelia Marshall
  • 7.5 Writing Process: Thinking Critically About Entertainment
  • 7.6 Editing Focus: Quotations
  • 7.7 Evaluation: Effect on Audience
  • 7.8 Spotlight on … Language and Culture
  • 7.9 Portfolio: What the Arts Say About You
  • 8.1 Information and Critical Thinking
  • 8.2 Analytical Report Trailblazer: Barbara Ehrenreich
  • 8.3 Glance at Genre: Informal and Formal Analytical Reports
  • 8.4 Annotated Student Sample: "U.S. Response to COVID-19" by Trevor Garcia
  • 8.5 Writing Process: Creating an Analytical Report
  • 8.6 Editing Focus: Commas with Nonessential and Essential Information
  • 8.7 Evaluation: Reviewing the Final Draft
  • 8.8 Spotlight on … Discipline-Specific and Technical Language
  • 8.9 Portfolio: Evidence and Objectivity
  • 9.1 Breaking the Whole into Its Parts
  • 9.2 Rhetorical Analysis Trailblazer: Jamil Smith
  • 9.3 Glance at Genre: Rhetorical Strategies
  • 9.4 Annotated Student Sample: “Rhetorical Analysis: Evicted by Matthew Desmond” by Eliana Evans
  • 9.5 Writing Process: Thinking Critically about Rhetoric
  • 9.6 Editing Focus: Mixed Sentence Constructions
  • 9.7 Evaluation: Rhetorical Analysis
  • 9.8 Spotlight on … Business and Law
  • 9.9 Portfolio: How Thinking Critically about Rhetoric Affects Intellectual Growth
  • 10.1 Making a Case: Defining a Position Argument
  • 10.2 Position Argument Trailblazer: Charles Blow
  • 10.3 Glance at Genre: Thesis, Reasoning, and Evidence
  • 10.4 Annotated Sample Reading: "Remarks at the University of Michigan" by Lyndon B. Johnson
  • 10.5 Writing Process: Creating a Position Argument
  • 10.6 Editing Focus: Paragraphs and Transitions
  • 10.7 Evaluation: Varied Appeals
  • 10.8 Spotlight on … Citation
  • 10.9 Portfolio: Growth in the Development of Argument
  • 11.1 Developing Your Sense of Logic
  • 11.2 Reasoning Trailblazer: Paul D. N. Hebert
  • 11.3 Glance at Genre: Reasoning Strategies and Signal Words
  • 11.4 Annotated Sample Reading: from Book VII of The Republic by Plato
  • 11.5 Writing Process: Reasoning Supported by Evidence
  • 12.1 Introducing Research and Research Evidence
  • 12.2 Argumentative Research Trailblazer: Samin Nosrat
  • 12.3 Glance at Genre: Introducing Research as Evidence
  • 12.4 Annotated Student Sample: "Healthy Diets from Sustainable Sources Can Save the Earth" by Lily Tran
  • 12.5 Writing Process: Integrating Research
  • 12.6 Editing Focus: Integrating Sources and Quotations
  • 12.7 Evaluation: Effectiveness of Research Paper
  • 12.8 Spotlight on … Bias in Language and Research
  • 12.9 Portfolio: Why Facts Matter in Research Argumentation
  • 13.1 The Research Process: Where to Look for Existing Sources
  • 13.2 The Research Process: How to Create Sources
  • 13.3 Glance at the Research Process: Key Skills
  • 13.4 Annotated Student Sample: Research Log
  • 13.5 Research Process: Making Notes, Synthesizing Information, and Keeping a Research Log
  • 13.6 Spotlight on … Ethical Research
  • 14.1 Compiling Sources for an Annotated Bibliography
  • 14.2 Glance at Form: Citation Style, Purpose, and Formatting
  • 14.3 Annotated Student Sample: “Healthy Diets from Sustainable Sources Can Save the Earth” by Lily Tran
  • 14.4 Writing Process: Informing and Analyzing
  • 15.1 Tracing a Broad Issue in the Individual
  • 15.2 Case Study Trailblazer: Vilayanur S. Ramachandran
  • 15.3 Glance at Genre: Observation, Description, and Analysis
  • 15.4 Annotated Sample Reading: Case Study on Louis Victor "Tan" Leborgne
  • 15.5 Writing Process: Thinking Critically About How People and Language Interact
  • 15.6 Editing Focus: Words Often Confused
  • 15.7 Evaluation: Presentation and Analysis of Case Study
  • 15.8 Spotlight on … Applied Linguistics
  • 15.9 Portfolio: Your Own Uses of Language
  • 3 Unit Introduction
  • 16.1 An Author’s Choices: What Text Says and How It Says It
  • 16.2 Textual Analysis Trailblazer: bell hooks
  • 16.3 Glance at Genre: Print or Textual Analysis
  • 16.4 Annotated Student Sample: "Artists at Work" by Gwyn Garrison
  • 16.5 Writing Process: Thinking Critically About Text
  • 16.6 Editing Focus: Literary Works Live in the Present
  • 16.7 Evaluation: Self-Directed Assessment
  • 16.8 Spotlight on … Humanities
  • 16.9 Portfolio: The Academic and the Personal
  • 17.1 “Reading” Images
  • 17.2 Image Trailblazer: Sara Ludy
  • 17.3 Glance at Genre: Relationship Between Image and Rhetoric
  • 17.4 Annotated Student Sample: “Hints of the Homoerotic” by Leo Davis
  • 17.5 Writing Process: Thinking Critically and Writing Persuasively About Images
  • 17.6 Editing Focus: Descriptive Diction
  • 17.7 Evaluation: Relationship Between Analysis and Image
  • 17.8 Spotlight on … Video and Film
  • 17.9 Portfolio: Interplay Between Text and Image
  • 18.1 Mixing Genres and Modes
  • 18.2 Multimodal Trailblazer: Torika Bolatagici
  • 18.3 Glance at Genre: Genre, Audience, Purpose, Organization
  • 18.4 Annotated Sample Reading: “Celebrating a Win-Win” by Alexandra Dapolito Dunn
  • 18.5 Writing Process: Create a Multimodal Advocacy Project
  • 18.6 Evaluation: Transitions
  • 18.7 Spotlight on . . . Technology
  • 18.8 Portfolio: Multimodalism
  • 19.1 Writing, Speaking, and Activism
  • 19.2 Podcast Trailblazer: Alice Wong
  • 19.3 Glance at Genre: Language Performance and Visuals
  • 19.4 Annotated Student Sample: “Are New DOT Regulations Discriminatory?” by Zain A. Kumar
  • 19.5 Writing Process: Writing to Speak
  • 19.6 Evaluation: Bridging Writing and Speaking
  • 19.7 Spotlight on … Delivery/Public Speaking
  • 19.8 Portfolio: Everyday Rhetoric, Rhetoric Every Day
  • 20.1 Thinking Critically about Your Semester
  • 20.2 Reflection Trailblazer: Sandra Cisneros
  • 20.3 Glance at Genre: Purpose and Structure
  • 20.4 Annotated Sample Reading: “Don’t Expect Congrats” by Dale Trumbore
  • 20.5 Writing Process: Looking Back, Looking Forward
  • 20.6 Editing Focus: Pronouns
  • 20.7 Evaluation: Evaluating Self-Reflection
  • 20.8 Spotlight on … Pronouns in Context

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Read and compose in several genres to understand how genre conventions shape and are shaped by readers’ and writers’ practices and purposes.
  • Match the capacities of different environments to varying rhetorical situations.

Over time, people have developed specific ways of writing for particular rhetorical situations. These distinctive ways of writing can be referred to in part as genres. You may have heard the term genre in reference to publishing categories, such as novels or memoirs, but the term can refer to any type of writing that conforms to specific forms and benchmarks. Many genres include stories of different kinds—for example, folktales, short stories, accounts of events, and biographies. As author Jonathan Gottschall says in his 2012 book of the same title, humankind is “the storytelling animal”; people of all cultures have engaged in telling stories, both as storytellers and as audience members. Simply put, narrative stories are essential to many genres of writing.

A storyteller named Bronwyn Vaughan wears a crown and tells a narrative story to the children sitting in the audience. A decorated chair and a bookshelf are pictured.

Exploring Narrative: Elements of Storytelling

Narratives, whether about literacy or anything else, include these key elements:

  • Plot. Authors of narratives tell about one or more events. In fiction, the plot is the sequence of those events. In nonfiction, a plot is often referred to simply as the events, but nonfiction texts follow similar plot patterns, including exposition or introduction, a series of events leading to a climax or discovery, and events following the climax or discovery.
  • Characters. The events in the story happen to characters, or individuals who are part of the story. In nonfiction, these characters are usually real people. The audience should feel a connection to the main character or characters. Readers may like or dislike characters, blame them or feel sorry for them, identify with them or not. Skilled writers portray characters through the use of dialogue, actions or behavior, and thoughts so that readers can understand what these individuals are like.
  • Setting. Stories, fiction and nonfiction, take place in settings, which include locations, time periods, and the cultures in which the characters or real people are immersed.
  • Problem and Resolution. In narratives, the characters generally encounter one or more problems. The tension caused by the problem builds to a climax. The resolution of the problem and the built-up tension usually occurs near the end of the story.
  • Story Arc. Most narratives have a story arc—a beginning, a middle, and an end—but not necessarily in that order. The story arc, or order of events, may occur chronologically, or the story may begin in the middle of the action and explain earlier events later in the sequence.

Specific Details and Other Conventions

To immerse the audience in the story, authors provide specific details of the scenes and action. Many authors, and teachers, call this strategy “showing, not telling.” These aspects can include the following elements:

  • Sensory Details: Full, literal or figurative descriptions of the things that the characters see, smell, hear, touch, and taste in their surroundings.
  • Dialogue: Conversation between characters.
  • Action: Vivid portrayal of the events in the story. Writers often use short sentences and strong verbs to indicate physical or mental action.
  • Engaging Language: Sentence structure and word choices, including tone (vocal attitude of the narrator or characters), diction (language used by the narrator or characters), and varied constructions (different kinds of sentences), that provide specific, clear, and compelling information for the audience.

Establishing the Significance

Most importantly, the audience must feel that the story has some significance. While the author’s main point may only be implied, rather than stated outright as in a conventional academic essay, readers should understand the point of the story and believe that it matters.

Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for women’s education, is the youngest Nobel Prize laureate.

For example, in the prologue to her memoir about the importance of education for girls, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (2013), Malala Yousafzai (b. 1997) writes, “The day when everything changed was Tuesday, 9 October 2012.” Yousafzai provides reference to an exact date, the precise moment when a Taliban gunman shot her in the head because she had spoken publicly in favor of girls’ right to education. Identifying the date in this way is a technique that serves a variety of purposes. This technique provides a focal point to draw the audience into the story, identifies details that serve as rising action that the audience can assume will culminate on this date, marks the setting in both time and place for the audience, and ultimately foreshadows a climax of action for the reader. The following elements, therefore, are crucial for writers of narratives to consider when creating content for their writing.

  • Audience. Narratives are designed to appeal to specific audiences; authors choose storytelling elements, details, and language strategies to engage the target audience.
  • Purpose. Authors may tell stories for different reasons: to entertain, to reinforce cultural norms, to educate, or to strengthen social ties. The same story may, and often does, fulfill more than one purpose.

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UW College of Education

Embracing a broader definition of literacy.

A group of multiracial youth joyfully gather to view content on their smart phones. Image source: Shutterstock.

As the U.S. is facing another literacy crisis, particularly with the Science of Reading, Lakeya Afolalu has a solution. It’s to challenge schools and society to redefine literacy. “If we solely define literacy as reading and writing, then we omit the diverse ways that people communicate through multiple modalities,” she says. “We need to think more broadly about literacy, which will help schools and spaces create anti-racist, equitable and socioemotional approaches to literacy education.

An assistant professor of language, literacy and culture in the UW College of Education’s Teaching, Learning & Curriculum program, Afolalu first became interested in the topic of literacy as a child. “I was born in the Bronx, New York and raised in Detroit, Michigan. My mother is African American, born and raised in Detroit. My father is Edo Nigerian, migrated from Edo State, Nigeria to the United States,” she explains. “So, as I spent my childhood and adolescent years between New York and Detroit, Nigerian and African American languages and literacies were always around me.”

Over time, and through her doctoral studies, she learned that narrow definitions of literacy that privilege reading and writing often cause tremendous harm to youth of color in the education system. “I always like to say that this current literacy crisis is not new,” says Afolalu. “Literacy has always been gatekept, especially for communities of color.”

I always like to say that this current literacy crisis is not new. Literacy has always been gatekept, especially for communities of color.

She describes the experience of visiting cousins in the suburbs of Detroit who were her age and realizing that they were reading the same books, only fuller chapter versions than she got at her school. “That got me thinking at a young age about how your zip code influences the type of education, and especially literacy education, you get. This all inspired me to become a teacher.”

Another formative part of Afolalu’s experience included making sense of her African American and Nigerian identities, which was especially prominent during her travels between Detroit and New York. In Detroit, which is predominantly African American she was “Lakeya” — the name given to her by her African American mother. “But when I would go to New York City, I crossed into my Nigerian identity and cultural world,” she says. “So much so that when I walked through my father’s door, I was now called by my Edo Nigerian name, “Iyore.”

Overtime, Afolalu began connecting literacy to the arts and humanities when she taught middle school students. “My 6th grade students in Newark, New Jersey and 7th grade students in Harlem loved to dance during recess and in the hallway from one class to another,” she says. “The administration saw their dancing and music as a conflict with the curricula, but it was actually helping them get through the school day, to bond with each other, and instead of reading in the library, they were recording dance videos and sharing them.” In her students, she saw that dance and music are also gestural and oral literacies and forms of communication.

Expressing identity

Now in a position to further impact the education system, Afolalu’s research and teaching continue to amplify this message — literacy is more than reading and writing. Her expanded definition of literacy speaks to the potential of education to evolve to meet the needs of all its students and the future. Digital literacies, visual literacies, dance literacies, fashion — these expanded concepts of literacy truly support students’ identities. She doesn’t believe that we should get rid of traditional literacy basics, such as phonics, word recognition, and comprehension but rather that we should couple it with forms of literacy that are inclusive of students’ racial, ethnic, linguistic and gender identities. This is needed for an equitable anti-racist, and just approach to literacy education.

Her research, which focuses on Nigerian immigrant youth, is concerned with two questions. “I ask myself what happens to Nigerian immigrant youth identities when they move to the United States, and I also ask how do they use language literacy and especially digital literacies in making sense of their new host country, the United States,” says Afolalu.

Lakeya Afolalu

She describes how, in Nigeria, there are societal identity markers like ethnicity, gender and religion. “But when they come to the United States, it’s such a hyper-racialized place,” she says. “And so, for the first time, when many immigrant youths come here from the Caribbean and African nations, they must reckon with race, racial constructs and anti-blackness. So, I ask how U.S. racial identity constructs and racialization processes, in particular, influence how they make sense of their identities, languages, and literacies."

Her research highlights the many ways Nigerian immigrant youth navigate U.S. school and societal spaces. Some transition to natural hair, seek trendy fashion trends, visit symbolic U.S. stores like Starbucks and Target, and exchange soccer for American football. Literacy practices like these helped the youth racially, socially and culturally position themselves in the United States. Others hold onto their Nigerian languages and cultural values by using digital literacies to communicate with school friends in Nigerian on WhatsApp and Xbox chat.

On the other hand, some of the Nigerian youths’ parents told Afolalu that they didn’t bring their children to the U.S. to get into aspects of American popular culture but to pursue the best education. One 5th grade Nigerian girl, whose parents had lived in the U.S. the longest, allowed her to maintain a more hybrid identity, through her art literacies and visits home to Nigeria, that honored both Nigerian and American values. This approach more fluidly integrated the languages and literacies of where she’s come from and where she finds herself.

Digital spaces are also critical to Afolalu’s research. “Texting, Xbox chat, virtual drawing platforms, these spaces don’t often have the same racial, linguistic, and cultural hierarchies and boundaries that exist in the real world offline,” she says. “So, youth, especially African immigrant youth, are able to rise above identity expectations and showcase their preferred identities online.”

Becoming whole

As someone who understands educational inequities firsthand, Afolalu considers it her service to society to put her research into practice. She recently founded LitiARTS — a nonprofit organization that uses literacy, arts-education, and college and career preparation mentorship to enhance educational justice for youth of color around the globe while keeping their identities and well-being at the core. The organization aims to support the whole student in three ways, with mentorship on college applications, art-based workshops and meet-ups for students for community-building and resource-sharing. In their first year, LitiArts was selected as a finalist for NewSchools Racial Equity funding opportunity. They were also recently selected as a recipient of Common Impact’s Day of Service project where they worked with a team of volunteer staff from NVIDIA to strengthen LitiArts’ digital marketing.

This organization manifests one of Afolalu’s core beliefs — every student deserves access to a high-quality education no matter their zip code. LitiARTS partners with youth and communities to build students’ confidence, creativity, and self-expression through the arts; affirm their literacy skills and identities through expansive literacies; and create communities of healthy well-being and belonging through mentorship. This is all especially geared toward students of color and first-generation college students whose identities and well-being are often stripped during their schooling experiences.

With a new undergraduate course she’s teaching, called Postcolonial Identities in the Arts, Education and Society, Afolalu is also learning and exploring alongside UW students so that more future leaders, educators and people in general can continue to think in expansive ways about identity, literacy and the arts to impact change in schools and beyond.

Most importantly, I encourage my students to step into a position of agency to speak back to harmful colonial narratives and experiences that have negatively impacted their families, their communities and their schooling experiences.

“This multi-sited course takes a historical look at the role of colonization in identity constructions and narratives for communities of color,” she says. “We visit local Seattle art spaces, explore visual art collections by artists of color, and engage with the larger Seattle community to bring the course topics to life. Most importantly, I encourage my students to step into a position of agency to speak back to harmful colonial narratives and experiences that have negatively impacted their families, their communities and their schooling experiences. Seattle is truly a gem for understanding how communities of color have taken postcolonial approaches to re-author their identities and narratives.”

At the heart of Afolalu’s inquiry is how we see ourselves and others and how this perspective impacts our overall well-being, especially our joy individually and as a society, from the time we are in school and beyond. Afolalu tells a personal story from when she was 11 years old that encapsulates this idea about when her father brought her grandmother to the United States.

Although she was multilingual and spoke Edo and Nigerian Pidgin, at that time, Afolalu had characterized her grandmother as “unable to speak English.” This characterization stemmed from deficit depictions of Africans in popular media and in her school curricula. Later, through her lived experiences and graduate studies, she would come to see the rich linguistic repertoire that her grandmother brought with her. Though her grandmother is no longer here with us, Afolalu now describes her as multi-lingual, with a rich multitude of literacies to learn from, love and embrace.

Charleen Wilcox, Director for Marketing & Communications, [email protected]

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What is Literacy and Why is it Important?

what is literacy in writing

What is literacy?

Literacy is most commonly defined as the ability to read and write.

But it’s not as simple as it sounds. Reading and writing abilities vary across different cultures and contexts, and these too are constantly shifting.

Nowadays, ‘reading’ encompasses complex visual and digital media as well as printed material. An elderly person who can read the newspaper might struggle to get information from Google.

Similarly, different cultures will have different perceptions of literacy. The writing traditions of the English language make reading comprehension an essential part of literacy, but this might not be as important in cultures or groups that rarely read printed material.

Why is literacy important?

Students need literacy in order to engage with the written word in everyday life.

Think of how often you use your own reading skills in everyday life. It’s not just articles like this one that require literacy, but signs, labels, and the messages on your phone, too.

The same goes for writing. Nowadays, even phone calls have given way to instant messaging and text-based communication, making the ability to read all the more important.

But beyond the functional level, literacy plays a vital role in transforming students into socially engaged citizens. Being able to read and write means being able to keep up with current events, communicate effectively, and understand the issues that are shaping our world.

Ways to support literacy development

Literacy development should be a combined effort between home and school. Here are a few things you can do to support early learners’ literacy skills:

Encourage reading

Reading is the first pillar of literacy, so encourage young learners to immerse themselves in it frequently and deeply. This should involve exposure to a broad variety of different genres, such as newspapers, novels, comics, magazines, films, reference material, and websites.

Discuss texts together

Actively discussing what has been read encourages learners to make connections and think deeply about the ideas contained in texts. Follow up the reading or viewing of a text with a discussion of what it made learners think and feel.

Use games and activities that support literacy development

  • Write a half-page story that makes use of a new and unusual word or phrase.
  • Describe a person or object with as many adjectives as you can think of.
  • Information scavenger hunt: scour the web to find facts on a given topic within a set time frame.
  • Recap the plot of a novel or film in your own words (as learners progress they can try to do this in as few words as possible).
  • Have a competition to see who can find as many rhyming words as possible, starting from a given word. Learners could also write poems or songs with rhyme.

Make use of the library

Immersing children in a huge range of texts encourages them to dive in and explore. There’s no better place to do this than the school or community library.


Find a huge selection of printable literacy resources

You might like....

Reading Grant for Primary schools

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The Link Between Language and Literacy

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Language and literacy, two cornerstones of human communication and cognition, are intricately woven threads that shape our understanding and expression. Language is the medium through which we verbally or gesturally communicate our thoughts, emotions, and ideas, creating bridges that connect us to one another. Literacy, on the other hand, gives us the power to decode written symbols, unlocking the doors to knowledge, imagination, and empathy.

While language and literacy may sound like two separate entities, rather, they build upon each other and work together in fostering language development. The symbiotic relationship between language and literacy isn’t just a matter of learning grammar rules or deciphering texts; it’s a fundamental cognitive process that shapes our neural pathways, enriches our perspectives, and empowers us to navigate the complexities of the world around us.

Introduction to the Importance of Language and Literacy

Whether you speak English as your primary language, are bilingual , or are even multilingual, language serves as a bridge that connects people across borders, while literacy (a close companion of language) opens the doors to knowledge and understanding. Language enables us to build relationships, negotiate, and collaborate, consequently forming the bedrock of society. Literacy propels us toward advancement. 

The importance of language and literacy becomes even more evident with age. In fact, strong language and literacy skills are foundational for academic success across all subjects. These skills empower individuals to articulate their ideas, advocate for their needs, and contribute to their communities. Being able to read and understand diverse viewpoints makes for informed and engaged citizens who can empathize and connect with their communities.

That’s why it’s so important to put a focus on language skills during childhood. Young children start communicating in the form of sounds until they are able to form words. As they get older and their language develops, they begin to match sounds with written letters and words , which grow into reading skills. If a child struggles with developing reading skills, early literacy intervention is recommended and accessible in most public school districts or clinical settings.

The Stages of Language Development

Language development is a major milestone in a child’s development. Language development occurs in various stages as individuals progress from infancy to adulthood. These stages generally follow a predictable pattern, although the exact timing and progression can vary for each person.

Prelinguistic Stage : In the first language stage, infants develop the foundational skills necessary for language acquisition, such as making cooing and babbling sounds and responding to familiar sounds and voices.

Holophrastic or One-Word Stage : During this stage, children begin to use single words to convey entire ideas or meanings. These words can cover a wide range of concepts and may involve gestures or intonation to help express their intentions.

Two-Word Stage (Telegraphic Stage) : This stage is when children start combining two words to form simple phrases, often omitting less essential words like articles and prepositions. Their speech becomes more structured and follows basic grammatical patterns.

Early Multiword Stage : Children continue to expand their vocabulary and combine new words to create more complex sentences in this stage. They begin to use basic grammar rules and may ask simple questions.

Late Multiword Stage : Language becomes more sophisticated at this point as children use longer sentences and develop more advanced grammatical structures. They begin to use pronouns, conjunctions, and more complex verb tenses.

Mature Language Stage : By this stage, children have acquired a substantial vocabulary and a firm grasp of grammar. They can communicate effectively, tell stories, and engage in more complex conversations. Reading and writing skills also develop during this stage.

Adolescence and Adulthood : This is the time of continual refinement and expansion of language skills. Language skills continue to develop throughout adolescence and adulthood as individuals refine their communication abilities, acquire specialized vocabulary related to various subjects, and adapt their language to different contexts and audiences.

The Role Of Language In Literacy Acquisition

The relationship between language and literacy is symbiotic, each nurturing the development of the other. In the journey of literacy, language acts as both the vehicle and the destination. Fluent readers are good at decoding words on a page as well as grasping the nuanced meanings and context behind them. The ability to decipher the structure of sentences, understand the meanings of words in different contexts, and interpret the intended tone or message all rely on a strong foundation and overall competency in language.

Teachers and educators play a pivotal role in harnessing the power of language to facilitate literacy acquisition. By creating language-rich environments that encourage meaningful interactions, they provide the fertile ground in which literacy skills can flourish. They are also the ones who provide intervention and resources to those who need extra help in language development, such as students with disabilities or students learning English as a second language. 

As children become adept at connecting letters with sounds, they enhance their ability to read and spell words accurately. This phonics-based approach synergizes with language skills, enabling young learners to effectively bridge the gap between spoken and written language. Reading aloud, engaging in discussions, and encouraging creative writing promote language development and nurture the essential connections between language and literacy.

Strategies To Promote Language And Literacy Development

Promoting language and literacy development is crucial for children’s cognitive, social, and academic growth. Both language and literacy are building blocks for effective communication, critical thinking, and academic success. Explore these strategies for successful literacy development:

Interactive Reading Sessions : Educators should engage children in meaningful conversations while reading aloud to them. Encourage them to predict what might happen next in the story, discuss the characters’ emotions and motivations, and ask open-ended questions that spark their imagination. Connecting their thoughts to oral language and eventually written form are both opportunities to apply and exercise their literacy skills. 

Word-Rich Environments : Creating a language-rich environment can have a big impact on a child’s ability to learn languages. Educators should surround students with interactive learning tools and labels around the classroom, and give them ample access to books. They should also have frequent talks where new terms and ideas are introduced, implications are explained, and their ideas are welcomed. 

Multilingual Exposure : If a child is raised in a multilingual home, they should be encouraged to learn and use all available languages. Multilingualism may also improve cognitive flexibility and problem-solving abilities.

Storytelling and Creative Expressio n: Educators should encourage children to create their own stories, whether through drawing, writing, verbal expression, or body language such as facial expressions. Storytelling fosters creativity, helps children organize their thoughts, and improves their ability to sequence events logically.

Technology and Apps : Educators should select educational applications and online materials that emphasize language and literacy development. Technology captures the attention of very young children and can hold their interest, which is beneficial when developing language literacy. Balance screen time with other activities, as technology alone cannot wholly foster literacy development.

The Connection Between Language, Literacy, And Academic Success

The intricate interplay between language and literacy forms the basis of effective communication and serves as a catalyst for cognitive development and scholastic achievement. Language proficiency alone is not enough; literacy is its indispensable companion. Literacy extends beyond the basic ability to read and write. It encompasses the skills needed for reading comprehension, analyzing, and synthesizing information from various sources. To learn a chunk of material, students must be able to first understand spoken and written language, as well as be able to express their thoughts verbally and through written form. 

The connection between language, literacy, and academic success is a symbiotic relationship that cannot be underestimated. As educators, nurturing language and literacy skills in the early years lays the groundwork for unlocking a world of learning opportunities.

Addressing Language and Literacy Challenges

Language and literacy challenges can create barriers that impede students’ ability to grasp new concepts and engage with their peers. Very young children will show early literacy behaviors that can help predict their path to academic success. Children grappling with reading difficulties might experience frustration with English language arts, leading to a decline in their enthusiasm for learning. 

To tackle these challenges, a multifaceted approach is necessary and may need to be individualized. Schools and educational institutions can implement targeted interventions to provide extra support to students struggling with language and literacy. This might include specialized reading programs, one-on-one tutoring, and assistive technologies.

From the first day of life, children are exposed to and absorbing language. Having a literacy-rich environment is a determining factor in how successful they will be academically. Language and literacy will coincide through all stages of language development and should be nurtured in a way that makes each student as successful as they can be because every student has the right to be successful in school and life. 

As the reading, writing, and math intervention specialists, our solutions offer comprehension instruction to develop language and literacy skills and supports such as our Sound Library . Learn more about our evidence-based programs and how we can support language and literacy in your school.

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I first learned to read at the age of three while sitting on my grandmother’s lap in her high-rise apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, IL. While flipping casually through Time magazine, she noticed how I took a keen interest in the blur of black and white shapes on the page. Soon, I was following her wrinkled finger from one word to the next, sounding them out, until those words came into focus, and I could read. It felt as though I had unlocked time itself.

What Is a “Literacy Narrative?”

What are your strongest memories of reading and writing? These stories, otherwise known as “literacy narratives,” allow writers to talk through and discover their relationships with reading, writing, and speaking in all its forms. Narrowing in on specific moments reveals the significance of literacy’s impact on our lives, conjuring up buried emotions tied to the power of language, communication, and expression.

To be “ literate ” implies the ability to decode language on its most basic terms, but literacy also expands to one’s ability to "read and write" the world — to find and make meaning out of our relationships with texts, ourselves, and the world around us. At any given moment, we orbit language worlds. Soccer players, for example, learn the language of the game. Doctors talk in technical medical terms. Fishermen speak the sounds of the sea. And in each of these worlds, our literacy in these specific languages allows us to navigate, participate and contribute to the depth of knowledge generated within them.

Famous writers like Annie Dillard, author of "The Writing Life," and Anne Lammot, "Bird by Bird," have penned literacy narratives to reveal the highs and lows of language learning, literacies, and the written word. But you don’t have to be famous to tell your own literacy narrative — everyone has their own story to tell about their relationships with reading and writing. In fact, the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers a publicly accessible archive of personal literacy narratives in multiple formats featuring over 6,000 entries. Each shows the range of subjects, themes, and ways into the literacy narrative process as well as variations in terms of voice, tone, and style.

How to Write Your Own Literacy Narrative

Ready to write your own literacy narrative but don’t know where to begin?

  • Think of a story linked to your personal history of reading and writing. Perhaps you want to write about your favorite author or book and its impact on your life. Maybe you remember your first brush with the sublime power of poetry. Do you remember the time you first learned to read, write or speak in another language? Or maybe the story of your first big writing project comes to mind. Make sure to consider why this particular story is the most important one to tell. Usually, there are powerful lessons and revelations uncovered in the telling of a literacy narrative.
  • Wherever you begin, picture the first scene that comes to mind in relation to this story, using descriptive details. Tell us where you were, who you were with, and what you were doing in this specific moment when your literacy narrative begins. For example, a story about your favorite book may begin with a description of where you were when the book first landed in your hands. If you’re writing about your discovery of poetry, tell us exactly where you were when you first felt that spark. Do you remember where you were when you first learned a new word in a second language?
  • Continue from there to explore the ways in which this experience had meaning for you. What other memories are triggered in the telling of this first scene? Where did this experience lead you in your writing and reading journey? To what extent did it transform you or your ideas about the world? What challenges did you face in the process? How did this particular literacy narrative shape your life story? How do questions of power or knowledge come into play in your literacy narrative?

Writing Toward a Shared Humanity

Writing literacy narratives can be a joyful process, but it can also trigger untapped feelings about the complexities of literacy. Many of us carry scars and wounds from early literacy experiences. Writing it down can help us explore and reconcile these feelings in order to strengthen our relationship with reading and writing. Writing literacy narratives can also help us learn about ourselves as consumers and producers of words, revealing the intricacies of knowledge, culture, and power bound up in language and literacies. Ultimately, telling our literacy stories brings us closer to ourselves and each other in our collective desire to express and communicate a shared humanity.​

Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein is a poet, writer, and educator from Chicago, IL (USA) who currently splits her time in East Africa. Her essays on arts, culture, and education appear in Teaching Artist Journal, Art in the Public Interest, Teachers & Writers Magazine, Teaching Tolerance, The Equity Collective, AramcoWorld, Selamta, The Forward, among others.

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What is Literacy? The Power of a Definition

The authors base their literacy definition on the assumption that all individuals in need of extensive supports are capable of benefitting from literacy instruction..

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For many years researchers have debated the definition of literacy, especially as used in relation to students with multiple disabilities or severe special needs.  Elizabeth B. Keefe and Susan R. Copeland of the University of New Mexico propose a new way to think about Literacy as follows:  “To be literate means that you can share your thoughts with others in a way that they will understand you. Sharing your thoughts with others can be done in many different ways. Some of the ways that you can share your thoughts with others include writing, speaking, gestures, facial expressions, pictures, symbols, and technology —just to name a few. To be literate also means that you can take in information in many of those same ways. Your chance to become literate may depend on what others decide literacy should look like.”

They co-authored an article published through TASH in Research & Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities 2011, Vol. 36, No. 3Y4, 92–99.  They also put together a summary of the original article.

The purpose of this article is to:

  • 1) examine the historical definitions of literacy,
  • 2) to explore the impact of the literacy definitions on individuals who require extensive supports to participate in literacy instruction, and
  • 3) to propose a definition of literacy that is founded upon core principles of inclusion.

The authors base their literacy definition on the assumption that all individuals in need of extensive supports are capable of benefitting from literacy instruction. Furthermore, the authors assert that the understanding of literacy held by professionals may determine the opportunities for individuals who require extensive supports to engage in the literate world.

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Journey Explorers: a whole-school writing project for SEND settings

Added 07 Nov 2023 | Updated 09 Nov 23

Journey Explorers Web banner

What is Journey Explorers?

Created in partnership with Oakwood School (a specialist provision for children aged 3-12 years with complex educational needs), this premium resource provides everything you need to run a whole school-writing project or inclusive competition for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). This inclusive project allows all pupils to engage in a writing celebration with the opportunity to share a message in their own unique and creative way.

It was so exciting for us to be able to shape this project and ensure that the wonderful early writing skills of our learners are captured and celebrated. The learners have absolutely loved being part of the project and we cannot wait to run it again and again! Nicole Rostron, Assistant Headteacher, Oakwood School

Aim of the project

The whole-school writing project aims to provide pupils with the opportunity to engage in creative writing, using the inspiration of a journey. The carefully differentiated resources provided will support SEND settings to ensure all pupils have the relevant supporting materials necessary to be successful in their writing task. Pupils could write about a small journey from the classroom to the school hall, a recent journey to school on the bus, or a magical journey to a faraway land. The inspiration can come from anywhere!

What’s included in the Journey Explorers project pack?

  • A teacher guide with information about how to run the project and use the resources, a suggested teaching sequence and reading recommendations.
  • An introductory PowerPoint to kick-start the project (this could be used in an assembly or smaller class group)
  • Seven sensory stories exploring different types of journeys
  • Word mats (to provide key vocabulary linked to each of the seven sensory stories)
  • Colourful semantics word prompts (to help with sentence formation)
  • A certificate template for pupils, if running as a competition.
  • A PowerPoint visual version of each sensory story (appears as as separate download in the files below)
Being a part of this project showed that our children can achieve and can excel in their communication and writing skills. The different tiers enabled all children to participate at their own level and achieve. It didn't matter what the children were able to do as there was something for everyone. It gave our children an opportunity to be included in a writing competition that in a mainstream setting they wouldn't be able to participate in. Their parents were also able to see that their child is able to be a part of a big project and their work is valued regardless of any need their child has. Claire Jennings, Class Teacher, Oakwood School

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