What does it mean to be literate in 2015?

As part of my university course one of my assignments was to write this essay. When researched I found this topic intriguing and wanted to expand on some points which I could not for submission due to word count constrictions so I thought I could do so here on my blog. 

Literacy is a broad and complex skill that is constantly evolving. In its simplest form, literacy can be described as reading and writing skills and the competence in a certain area. Originating as cave drawings and marks to the well formulated written language known today literacy has a long past and an unpredicted future due to the expansion of uses and the invention of new technologies. Accompanied by grammar and punctuation to add tone and remove ambiguity, literacy represents oral language thus paramount in communicating and serving as an omnipotent tool. Literacy forms the foundations to a strong, stable economy and society; separating those of ‘oral societies’ and ‘literate societies’ (Hannon, 2004). Barton (2006) explains the separation theory as attributing the advancement of societies to literacy. The ability to record findings provides communication to future generations allowing reflection on past experience and knowledge leading to further advancement (Hannon, 2004). This is evident in present day as literate countries are far more advanced than countries whose literate population is far lower.

Being privileged enough to be educated within a Western country holding a high percentage of a literate population what does it mean to be literate in 2015?

Throughout the development and spread of literacy, being literate was a privilege held only by the bourgeois. It was restricted to keep the working class oppressed and ignorant – “I allow of no writing for the poor. My object is not to make them fanatics, but to train up the lower classes in habits of industry and piety” (quoted in Simon 1960:133 as cited in Hannon, 2004). Noting this, literacy has become far more accessible in the modern West. From being used for record keeping and legal business it has evolved to having a multitude of uses. From the years campaigning to allow the population to acquire literacy it is a great privilege for it to be as widespread allowing the benefits to be reaped.

Today, being literate has momentous knock-on effects. Literacy opens doors for an individual to delve into channels within oneself and to build upon personal character. Burnett (2006) categorised the benefits from literacy into 4 areas: human, political, cultural and societal. Human benefits are valuable as empowering the individual improves critical reflection of the surroundings and is the base of any forward thinking (Dreze and Sen, 2002). Bird and Ackerman (2005)’s studies back the notion that improved literacy skills benefit an individual through building self-esteem.

Having reading skills the reader can focus on the meaning of texts (Browne, 2004), developing understanding and giving opportunity to analyse the world around them allowing independent thought and opinion to form, building self-assertion and confidence. Having awareness of state affairs and the ability to form justified opinions leads educated individuals to become more politically involved (Hannum and Buchmann, 2003). Be it in the form of exercising one’s right to vote (Carron et al., 1989 as cited in Burnett, 2006) to tackling ethnic inequality (Telles, 1994 as cited in Burnett 2006). With a high percentage of the population being literate and aware across all financial backgrounds corruption and inequality can be tackled, as the lower class societies will be aware of the oppression previously afflicted by the bourgeoisie. With the abolition of finishing schools and allowing women in to mainstream schooling women were able to acknowledge the vast inequality faced and have the confidence and self-assertion to fight back against the superior male suppressor to be viewed and treated as equals.

Literacy can influence cultural change and preservation (Burnett, 2006). Through the empowerment of education women in Nepal were able to resist the patriarchal culture through self-expression through writing (Robinson-Pant, 2004). By writing down folk stories people can become more able to be involved in their culture (Chebanne et al., 2001, as cited in Burnett, 2006) thus preserving cultural spirit. Without literacy there would be no records of the past and without that reflection and development would not be able to happen as history is a never-ending cycle which repeats itself over and over. Without the knowledge of past events we would not be able to learn from previous mistakes and further advance technology and relationships between one another.

Literacy has a great effect on social aspects. Whitehead (2010) identified that the exposure to literature in early years allows the child to develop their ‘emotional intelligence’ – understanding emotions and feelings in social interactions thus highlighting the importance of literacy in communication. From tackling inequality in education women were able to take part in more social institutions – enabling them to manage financial matters alongside men (Robinson-Pant, 2004) contributing to economic growth. Even in a literate society where there is a lot of emphasis on being literate if one finds basic spelling and grammar difficult they can be ridiculed and embarrassed which affects mental health and self-confidence.

Recognising the benefits of literacy it is essential that future generations have a high standard of literacy. In the new urriculym for excellence Education Scotland (n.d) introduced literacy being transferrable across all curriculum areas emphasising the link between literacy and critical thinking. Linguistic minorities, migrants and people with disabilities are among populations with lower literacy rates, reflecting exclusion from mainstream society and reduced access to formal education (Burnett, 2006). Less traditional methods of literacy are now available to accommodate differing styles of learning. With digital, multi-modal and moving image literacy on the rise it opens up a different range of texts to children creating active participants, not passive consumers (Literacy for Understanding). This may reduce extra support required if these techniques help those who have lower literacy rates. My mentor on placement, who works with pupils with additional needs, said with the cuts to the additional needs sector more children are being left behind since there is too much demand from the one teacher. Having more dynamic platforms for children to learn means that regardless of the learning style they will all be practising their literary skills. Websites such as ‘Still Alice’ keep the learner’s attention on the topic at hand, and having click-to-continue aspect keeps the learner engaged. This allows the learner to build their education without realising it, especially for those who have a limited attention span and are apprehensive towards sitting and reading for a period of time. As well as this, learners can work in pairs which builds communicative skills and promotes teamwork. With the wide-spread recognition that no two people learn the same way I think platforms such as these are fantastic in building literacy skills.

To be literate in 2015 living in Scotland puts one at an advantage in comparison to less literate global populations. Giving thanks to the advocates of literacy in the past gaining the right to education for everyone the West has benefitted from the knock-on effects of having a highly literate population; establishing a fairer society, stronger economy and a developed democracy. With technology aiding and making literacy more accessible and digestible the younger generations will be able to sustain and further advance current knowledge striving for global empowerment and equality.


Barton, D. (2007) Literacy: An introduction to the ecology of written language. 2nd edn. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell (an imprint of John Wiley & Sons Ltd). P. 119

Burnett, N. (2006) Education for all global monitoring report 2006: Education for all global literacy for life (education on the move). Paris: United Nations Educational.

Drèze, J. and Sen, A. (2002). India: Development and Participation. New Delhi, Oxford University Press.

Education Scotland (No Date Available) Curriculum for Excellence: Literacy Across Learning Principles and Practise. [Online] Available: http://www.educationscotland.gov.uk/Images/literacy_across_learning_principles_practice_tcm4-540108.pdf [Accessed: 9 December 2015].

Hannon, P. (2004) The History and Future of Literacy. In T. Grainger (Ed.) The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Language and Literacy. London: RoutledgeFalmer. pp.19-32.

Hannum, E. and Buchman, C. 2003. The Consequences of Global Educational Expansion. Cambridge, Mass., American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Literacy for Understanding (n.d.) Digital Literacy. [Module Resource] Available: Literacy for Understanding module on Moodle. [Accessed: 9 December 2015]

Robinson-Pant, A. (2004) Women, literacy, and development: Alternative perspectives. [Online] New York: Routledge. Available: https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=1WFmlK5kM2YC&pg=PA15&lpg=PA15&dq=%E2%80%98The+illiterate+woman%E2%80%99+Changing+approaches+to+researching+women%E2%80%99s+literacy&source=bl&ots=Hnv82CvzvT&sig=1ikQOlPI8JILIJVD5mc1sH343zw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj87oKhos_JAhVHRBQKHVR1DYUQ6AEILjAB#v=onepage&q=culture&f=false [Accessed: 9th December 2015]

Whitehead, M (2010) Language and Literacy in the Early Years 0-7. 4th ed. London: Sage


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