IATE Term of the Week: Literacy

September 11, 2015 1:47 pm

LiteracyA few days ago, International Literacy Day was celebrated around the world. Different projects and events took place in honour of September 8, which was first proclaimed to be a day dedicated to literacy in 1965 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) with the purpose of promoting international awareness and supporting improved literacy. From the very first celebration of International Literacy Day in 1966 until today, various themes have been included in the Day’s agenda, such as “Literacy and Health”, “Literacy and Empowerment” and “Literacy and Peace”. This year’s theme was “Literacy and Sustainable Societies” and laid a strong focus on literacy as a key driver that can affect sustainable development. As stated in UNESCO’s official webpage concerning this year’s theme, “literacy skills are the prerequisite for the learning of a broader set of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values, required for creating sustainable societies. At the same time, progress in areas of sustainable development, such as health and agriculture, serves as an enabling factor in the promotion of literacy and literate environments.”

In order to spread the word about this day and its significance, TermCoord has chosen “literacy” as the IATE term of the week. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, the word “literacy” comes to refer to “the ability to read and write”, while at the same time it can also have a much broader meaning, that of ” knowledge of a particular subject, or a particular type of knowledge”.

Litarecy_IATEFrom its definition as a term, “literacy” seems to be easily understandable. If we try to define it as a concept, though, we will come up against its complexity. This is due to the fact that people perceive the meaning of being literate or being illiterate in contrasting ways that are highly dependent on time, national context, culture and personal experience. Since the mid-twentieth century, academics from different disciplines have engaged in an ongoing discussion over the term’s meaning and how it pertains to the broader idea of knowledge and education. As presented in Education for All: Literacy for Life that was compiled by UNESCO, this discussion has resulted in four distinct understandings of literacy:

– literacy as an autonomous set of skills: the cognitive skills of reading and writing; other skills and competencies such as “information literacy”, “visual literacy”, “media literacy” etc.
– literacy as applied, practised and situated: eg. “functional literacy”
– literacy as a learning process: eg. “critical literacy”
– literacy as text: focuses on the nature of texts that literate individuals consume and produce.

An umbrella term that is nowadays often used by scholars in order to avoid all this confusion is that of “multiple literacies”. Context-specific ways of ‘reading the world’ have to be developed within distinct contexts (such as technological, social, information, health, visual, media, political and economic ones), so that the individual can cope with the existing reality.

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Related Terminology Resources

Information Literacy Glossary

Written by Evangelia Antoniou,
Communication Trainee at TermCoord
Student at the University of Luxembourg

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