Defining “literacy” has become complex.boy sitting on bench while holding a book

It might surprise you to hear of literacy as a controversial topic, but there is not a universal consensus for how literacy is defined. The answer varies between cultures, and it also varies within our culture. Further, the meaning of the word is currently evolving, making defining literacy more complex.

Alongside the nuances of time & culture sit ideas about the concept of childhood & the best educational standards. Determining the meaning of literacy is a universal challenge with unique solutions depending on the context. Here are just a few of the questions being asked:

In an increasingly digital age, how does technology impact a country’s definition of their culture’s literacy?

How do we measure an idea that we are no longer sure how to define?

Are you literate in the U.S. today if you don’t know how to google?


Literacy Then

While the roots of story can be traced back to oral traditions, literacy is a fairly recent phenomenon. For much of history, books were rare & so were the people who could read & write them.

In the 15th century, the printing press changed the way that information was recorded & shared, but it would still be several centuries before the word literacy would emerge.

Book, Read, Old, Literature, Pages

The word “literate” dates back to the early 15th century, when it was used as an adjective meaning “educated, instructed, having knowledge of letters.” At this time, “illiterate” was also used to reference “uneducated, unable to read and write.

The word “illiteracy” or “inability to read and writeappears later (1650’s).

After another century (1750s), the meaning of “literate” evolved to mean “acquainted with literature.

The word “literacy” meaning “the ability to read & write” was not introduced until 1883! By 1894, the adjective “literate” was also being used as a noun, much as it is today referring to “one who can read and write.”

Etymologies courtesy of:



Literacy Now

What does literacy mean today? 

The short answer is it depends who you ask. Most people will give you the 1883 definition, but today’s  online dictionary offers a glimpse into the complexity. The modern dictionary defines “literacy” as “the quality or state of being literate,” lists the following definitions for “literate”…

1a : educated, cultured

  b : able to read and write 


2a : versed in literature or creative writing

  b : lucid, polished

c: having knowledge or competence


Depending on the context then, “literacy” can refer to “educated,” “able to read & write,” “versed in literature or creative writing” or even “competent.”

The Context of Story