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Defining Literacy

We all know what “literacy” means, right? Well, maybe not. There has been some re-defining of the term in recent times, as the world and society changes and more is expected in the community, in the workplace, and elsewhere.

Literacy Texas defines literacy as follows:

Literacy is the ability to read, write, speak, and listen, use technology and apply numeracy, with enough skill and confidence to express and understand ideas and opinions, make decisions and solve problems, achieve goals, and participate fully in society. Achieving literacy is a lifelong learning process.

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development) simplifies this idea well:

Literacy is more than just reading, writing, and numeracy. It’s not about being literate or illiterate anymore, but having adequate skills for today’s demands.

In refining our own definition, we were inspired by definitions of literacy from other places, most notably the following:

UNESCOLiteracy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute, and use 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.

NAAL (National Assessment of Adult Literacy)Literacy is using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.

ProLiteracyLiteracy is the ability to read, write, compute, and use technology at a level that enables an individual to reach his or her full potential as a parent, employee, and community member.

A note about "illiterate"

We try to avoid using the word “illiterate”, preferring instead “low literate” or “beginning literacy”. 

There are a couple reasons for that approach:

1. For some people, “illiterate” is a pejorative term, often used with “ignorant” or “lacking skills”. Low literacy is generally not correlated with a lack of intelligence, and we don’t like to use terms that could be seen as insulting or condescending.

2. It’s usually not accurate! Literacy is a continuum, and people gain literacy on a scale. Very few people are at “zero” on that scale, which is what “illiterate” implies. “Low literate” is a better reflection of people’s actual literacy skills, which may be basic, but are rarely non-existent.

"Adult Foundational Education"

“Adult Foundational Education” is a term adopted by the Steering Committee of the Open Door Collective in 2022 to describe an education field that has often been described with terms such as adult literacy, adult education and literacy, adult basic education, adult basic skills or adult education.

The term Adult Foundational Education refers to core skills and knowledge that adults need for work, further education, supporting their families, participating effectively in their communities, and/or as citizens in a representative democracy.

It includes:

  • English language skills for immigrants and refugees (ESL/ESOL)
  • Beginning literacy for adults who cannot read and write well, or at all
  • Numeracy
  • Adult basic education
  • Adult secondary education leading to an adult high school diploma or high school equivalency certificate
  • U.S. citizenship preparation
  • Preparation for post-secondary education and occupational training or apprenticeships
  • Employability skills
  • Family/intergenerational literacy
  • Integrated Education and Training (IET) and Integrated English
  • Literacy and Civics Education (IELCE)
  • Other foundational education and skills that are needed throughout the adult life span but are not necessarily related to work or career, such as: digital literacy; financial literacy; health literacy; native language literacy; and literacy for self-advocacy, civic engagement, and social justice.

The definition’s details are still evolving, and comments on it are welcome. Read more about it, and get contact details for the Open Door Collective.

Some other literacy definitions

This list is far from comprehensive! For a much fuller list, refer to this page from TCALL.

ABE = Adult Basic Education

AEL = Adult Education & Literacy

ASE = Adult Secondary Education

CBO = Community-Based Organization (i.e., not federally funded)

EAL = English as an Additional Language

ELL = English Language Learning/English Language Learner

ESL = English as a Second Language (now being phased out in many places, and replaced with EAL or ELL)

HSE = High School Equivalency (more exact term for GED, which is a type of test used for HSE)

Literacy roles:
Administrator = someone who coordinates, manages, or directs programs and/or staff
Instructor = someone who teaches adults or children (often, but not always, a paid role)
Trainer = someone who provides professional development or other training
Tutor = someone who assists the learning of adults or children, particularly in small groups or one-to-one (often, but not always, a volunteer role)


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