How does one Define Illiteracy

Literacy is one of the defining categories of how education is treated in a country or area. It is a direct byproduct of the economic status and the political stability of a nation. Third-world countries who are struggling politically and economically tend to have lower literacy rates. (In these countries, there is often a wide split between the number of males who are literate and the number of females who are. For example, in Afghanistan, 43.1% of males are literate, as compared with 12.6% of females.) Countries that are among the world’s most influential tend to have high literacy rates among both men and women. These countries also tend to have some sort of standardized educational system that is available to all students regardless of race, creed or socio-economic status.

The CIA Factbook defines literacy as “those age 15 and over who can read and write.” But what does that actually mean? Where do they actually get those statistics? It’s a very broad term. The United States, Canada and the United Kingdom all have a 99% literacy rate, which means according to the CIA that 99% of those 15 and older can read and write. But what I really want to get down to is: how well?

There are many different levels of literacy. The most basic level is your basic functional literacy. This allows you to order from the menu at a restaurant, to read road signs, possibly fill out a simple application. Most upper elementary school students can do that. Even penmanship may be labored at this level. In fact, many people may not even consider this literacy. Those who cannot manage at this level are considered to be illiterate.

The second tier of literacy is the ability to read, but because it’s below grade level, it becomes hindering to read the newspaper, magazines, or instruction manuals. You are able to write, but spelling and grammar problems cause it to become cumbersome. They may be able to write correctly, but penmanship difficulties lead to illegible writing, and the reader cannot decipher what is written.

The third tier of literacy is at a basic high school level. Reading the newspaper, magazines, important mail (such as social security papers, insurance papers, etc.), and some (simplified) books do not pose much of a problem. Filling out extended job applications with written essays are not much of a problem either, although minor spelling and grammar inaccuracies do occur. Most major mistakes are found with some proofreading, but getting to that point may be inconsistent. E-mail and other correspondence tend to have a casual tone, even when it should be more professional.

The uppermost level of literacy is the profession level. These people read the newspaper and sometimes read “highbrow” magazines or other professional literature. They also tend to read the classics, such as classic Greek tragedies, Russian literature and Shakespeare. Their writing skills are that of the professional letter and understand the different styles of writing for different audiences (i.e. writing to friends or sending a quick e-mail to a colleague requires a certain tone, but writing a letter on behalf of your company or school requires a different one). However, in all writing, Standard English is almost always used.

So, what tier defines literacy? According to the National Institute for Literacy, literacy is “an individual’s ability to read, write, and speak English, compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual, and in society.” I believe this is a fair definition of what literacy is. At least, it’s more specific than the CIA’s definition. I also believe that schools should not graduate students who do not meet these criteria before graduation. We are doing these students a disservice by doing so, and therefore are setting them up to fail. I tend to agree with the National Institute for Literacy and their definition of what literacy is, but it’s up to our schools to uphold that standard to create truly literate students who are getting ready to enter the adult world.