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What is ‘literacy’?

The English word ‘literacy’ has a simple definition – the ability to read and write – and yet its precise meaning is subject to endless debate,

Adult literacy


The first question that we will address in EPALE’s September discussion on adult literacy is what we actually mean when we talk about literacy. The English word ‘literacy’ has a simple definition – the ability to read and write – and yet its precise meaning is subject to endless debate, not least in European projects, as literacy does not have a direct translation in many languages.


Reading and writing

Reading and writing are foundation skills. Not only are they required for further study, they are also crucial in helping us to understand and engage with the world around us. In this sense literacy is highly contextual – what we are required to do with our literacy is always contextualised – situated within a particular socio-cultural setting. Indeed, it has become common to refer to literacies, rather than literacy, to emphasise the point that literacy is a social practice and so there is not one form of literacy that everyone needs. Instead, we all need (and use) different literacies depending on our social or professional group (e.g. nurses, teenagers, academics); the kinds of activities we engage in (e.g. shopping, dealing with bureaucracy, studying etc. ); and the different social and institutional contexts in which we act (school, work, home etc.). 

In many cases literacy is given a broader definition – often including speaking (as in the English Adult Literacy Core Curriculum), but sometimes also soft skills such as team working and learning to learn. There is also the expression ‘basic skills’, which is often used interchangeably with literacy. However, basic skills (as the plural suggests) is an umbrella term – encompassing numeracy and digital skills as well as reading and writing.


Other literacies

A further complication for translators is that 'literacy' has another meaning in English. As well as being used to talk about the ability to read and write, it is common for literacy to be preceded by a term referring to a specialised field. Thus, we have computer literacy, financial literacy, quantitative literacy, emotional literacy, and many others (I've just found 33 of them including ocean literacy). While for each of these specialised areas the use of information mediated by text, often specialised text, plays an important role, the meaning of literacy here is not reading and writing, but competency – being able to engage competently in that area. 


Illiteracy and functional illiteracy

When considering what literacy is, we also need to distinguish between illiteracy (not being able to read and write at all), and functional illiteracy (being able to read and write, but not well enough to meet the demands of everyday life). An adult can only be deemed functionally illiterate if they cannot meet the demands placed on them in their own particular social and professional context. Of course, the demands placed on adults change continually – just because someone was once functionally literate does not mean that they will be able to adapt to new and different demands and remain functionally literate.

Finally, we should be very careful about our use of the term ‘illiterate’. There are very few adults in Europe who are illiterate, particularly in younger generations, largely due to the introduction of universal schooling. There are large numbers of people in every European country who are unable to meet the demands on them in terms of reading and writing, or who are limited in their life choices by their poor literacy skills, but they can read and write. They are not illiterate, they are functionally illiterate.

David Mallows has 30 years of experience in adult education as a teacher, teacher trainer, manager and researcher. He was previously Director of Research at the National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy (NRDC) at the UCL Institute of Education, London and currently represents the European Basic Skills Network in EPALE as thematic coordinator for Life Skills.

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