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How do you define literacy?

By 7th June 2016Blog


How do you define literacy?

What is literacy? Is a controversial question.

The Literacy Trust defines literacy as “the four strands of language – reading, writing, speaking and listening”. However, UNESCO has a slightly different view in that they define literacy as the ability “to read and write text” while maintaining a broader meaning of “being knowledgeable or educated in a particular field.”

UNESCO goes on to literacy define into four discrete understandings of literacy:

  • Literacy as an autonomous set of skills;
  • Literacy as applied, practised and situated;
  • Literacy as a learning process
  • Literacy as text.

Literacy as skills

The most common and prevalent understanding of literacy is that it is a set of skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening.

Speaking and listening skills underpin all learning and are the start of all other literacy skills. Without speaking and listening skills, reading and writing skills are laid on shaky ground with poor foundations. Yet speaking and listening skills are given scant attention in the 2014 curriculum. Research conducted by Hart and Risley (1995) have shown that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have significantly less exposure to language and may start school with language skills which are so poor that they are in danger of not being able to access the curriculum.

Reading skills and the process of learning to read is mired in controversy. It is the current vogue to focus on reading comprehension skills and in the early years on phonics, followed by a test at KS2. However, there are other ways of helping children of whatever age to learn how to read fluently and can include:

  1. Reading to pupils
  2. Asking questions about a text, scaffolding interaction with the text including comprehension
  3. Making sure pupils understand what inference is and how to infer by asking themselves questions about character, text and meaning
  4. Constant exposure to texts
  5. Be a good reading example
  6. Identifying different texts in various settings
  7. Modelling how to decode words which are unfamiliar
  8. Classifying the genre of the text
  9. Continuation of phonic knowledge and awareness
  10. A focus on sight words and the spelling of sight words
  11. Asking the pupils to read from the board, rather than you, the teacher doing it
  12. Ensuring pupils understand and can spell subject-specific terminology

The most important thing, though, is that pupils should be able to practice reading.

Writing skills start with penmanship and handwriting, move to understanding different writing formats, structure, cohesion, grammar and spelling. Suffolk County Council Education Authority have provided various strategies for improving writing. Moreover, the National Curriculum defines writing skills as transcription (spelling and handwriting) and composition (ideas and structure) before listing exactly how this is seen in the lengthy appendices. While writing is technically the most tested with both writing and grammar individually tested, it shouldn’t be boiled down to just exam practice, writing and grammar is more than naming parts, but the understanding of the choices a writer makes in order to convey meaning.

Literacy as applied, practised and situated

This approach focuses on the application of literacy skills in relevant ways during various events (Heath, 1983) to be understood in various social situations. Put simply, pupils should be able to know and use language in different ways in different situations which suit that situation e.g. knowing that text language is not suitable for school when writing, or that formal English sounds strange when playing on a computer console with a friend. Learning takes place in day-to-day relationships between pupils and the environment where they find themselves. The literacy skills in the above section are shaped by the social contexts, purposes and relationships. In each situation that a pupil finds themselves, whether it be a classroom, a test, using the computer etc. the form and process of the writing, reading or oracy will be different. Different outcomes will hang on the accuracy of the account, how persuasive it is, or whether the spelling and layout are correct. With this view, whole school literacy is important because if a pupil sees that the literacy expectations are different in different subjects or with different teachers, they will learn the expectations and live up or down, to those expectations.

Literacy as a learning process

Literacy can be viewed as an active and broad learning process, rather than as a product. In a learner-centered educational process, collaborative learning shifts the focus away from the individual toward more social practices building on newer understandings of literacy Rogoff (2003). Indeed the EEF (Education Endowment Foundation) cite collaborative learning as being one of the most effective methods of narrowing the gap.

Literacy as text

This way of understanding literacy is to focus on literacy in terms of how texts are produced and consumed by pupils. It pays attention to the analysis of passages of text or discourse and sees discourse within the wider community. In other words, it helps the teacher focus on the kind of text that is being taught in the classroom and whether it suits the needs of the pupils in terms of their literacy development. For example, science textbooks are notorious in the difficulty of the language used, in a class of struggling readers a teacher should ask themselves whether the text is suitable to get across the information, or whether they need to use a different text or even a different way of imparting the information (Kress and van Leeuwen, 2001)


  1. Every lesson needs to have a focus on speaking and listening and give an opportunity for speaking and listening skills to be developed.
  2. Reading skills need to be practised from decoding to inference.
  3. Writing skills such as grammar, need to be explicitly taught and practised
  4. Literacy and literacy expectations should be consistent throughout school
  5. Pupils need to be able to understand the differences between formal and informal language use
  6. Collaborative learning can be seen as literacy
  7. Teachers should focus on the texts and whether they match the pupil in terms of ability and suitability

Most importantly, although the product of literacy is important and rigorously tested, so is the process of learning literacy and being able to apply it in real-life situations.