LPerspective on Defining Literacy & the Language Arts

The National Council of Teachers of English is a professional organization dedicated to English education. In 1996, the NCTE, along with the International Literacy Association, published a shared vision for English language standards in education. Their document is available as a free download here & describes their perspective on literacy education. It reads:

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“Literacy expectations are likely to accelerate in the coming decades. To participate fully in society and the workplace in 2020, citizens will need powerful literacy abilities that until now have been achieved by only a small percentage of the population. At the same time, individuals will need to develop technological competencies undreamed of as recently as ten years ago.” 

The standards they describe fit into six categories as they explain the “broadened definition of literacy means that English language arts education must address many different types and uses of language, including those that are often given limited attention in the curriculum.” They list oral language as an example.

The six language arts categories these two organizations agree on are: speaking, listening, reading, writing, viewing & visually representing.  Interestingly, they have different ways of defining literacy as outlined below.


The NCTE Definition of 21st Century Literacies

Updated February 2013
Adopted by the NCTE Executive Committee, February 15, 2008

Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the 21st century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities, and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to

  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
  •  Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
  •  Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
  •  Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
  •  Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
  •  Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.

This position statement may be printed, copied, and disseminated without permission from NCTE.


The ILA’s Definition of Literacy

The International Reading Association changed their name to the International Literacy Association in 2013. Here is their definition of literacy:

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.”

They also state: “Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.”