What is literacy skills

What is literacy? | National Literacy Trust

The importance of literacy

Lacking vital literacy skills holds a person back at every stage of their life. As a child they won't be able to succeed at school, as a young adult they will be locked out of the job market, and as a parent they won't be able to support their own child's learning. This intergenerational cycle makes social mobility and a fairer society more difficult.

People with low literacy skills may not be able to read a book or newspaper, understand road signs or price labels, make sense of a bus or train timetable, fill out a form, read instructions on medicines or use the internet.

Low levels of literacy undermine the UK’s economic competitiveness, costing the taxpayer £2.5 billion every year (KPMG, 2009). A third of businesses are not satisfied with young people’s literacy skills when they enter the workforce and a similar number have organised remedial training for young recruits to improve their basic skills, including literacy and communication.

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Literacy statistics

Our research underpins our programmes, campaigns and policy work to improve literacy skills, attitudes and habits across the UK.

  • Children who enjoy reading and writing are happier with their lives

    Children who enjoy reading are three times more likely to have good mental wellbeing than children who don’t enjoy it. Read more.

  • 1 in 11 disadvantaged children in the UK say that they don’t have a book of their own

    Children who say they have a book of their own are six times more likely to read above the level expected for their age than their peers who don’t own a book. Read more.

  • Children born into communities with the most serious literacy challenges have some of the lowest life expectancies in England

    A boy born in Stockton Town Centre (an area with serious literacy challenges) has a life expectancy 26.1 years shorter than a boy born in North Oxford. Read more.

  • 1 in 2 children in the UK enjoy reading

    Only 1 in 2 children and young people said they enjoy reading in early 2022, which is as low as the number has ever been since we first asked the question in 2005. Read more.

  • 2 in 5 children in the UK enjoy writing

    In 2022, 2 in 5 children and young people said that they enjoy writing, a slight recovery from 2021, when it was at the lowest level we have recorded since 2010. Read more.

  • Audiobooks can support wider literacy engagement

    1 in 5 children and young people said that listening to an audiobook or podcast has got them interested in reading books. Read more.

See more of our research reports.

Adult literacy rate

16.4% of adults in England, or 7.1 million people, can be described as having 'very poor literacy skills.' Adults with poor literacy skills will be locked out of the job market and, as a parent, they won’t be able to support their child’s learning.

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More information

  • How does England's literacy compare with other countries?

    How does literacy in England stack up against other European countries?

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  • Education in England, Wales, Northern Ireland & Scotland

    How does the national curriculum work in England, Wales, Northern Ireland & Scotland?

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  • Literacy and digital technology

    What opportunities and challenges does digital technology present to children's literacy?

    Learn more

What are literacy skills? | Thoughtful Learning K-12

Literacy skills help students gain knowledge through reading as well as using media and technology. These skills also help students create knowledge through writing as well as developing media and technology.

Information Literacy

Students need to be able to work effectively with information, using it at all levels of Bloom's Taxonomy (remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating). Information literacy involves traditional skills such as reading, researching, and writing; but new ways to read and write have also introduced new skills:

  • Consuming information: The current excess of information requires students to gain new skills in handling it. When most information came through official publications like books, newspapers, magazines, and television shows, students encountered data that had been prepared by professionals. Now, much information is prepared by amateurs. Some of that work is reliable, but much is not. Students must take on the role of the editor, checking and cross-checking information, watching for signs of bias, datedness, and errors. Students need to look at all information as the product of a communication situation, with a sender, subject, purpose, medium, receiver, and context.
  • Producing information: In the past, students were mostly consumers of information. When they produced information, it was largely for a single reader—the teacher—and was produced for a grade. It was therefore not an authentic communication situation, and students felt that writing was a purely academic activity. Now writing is one of the main ways students communicate. It has real-world applications and consequences. Students need to understand that what they write can do great good or great harm in the real world, and that how they write determines how powerful their words are. Students need to take on the role of professional writers, learning to be effective and ethical producers of information.

Media Literacy

Media literacy involves understanding the many ways that information is produced and distributed. The forms of media have exploded in the last decade and new media arrive every day:

Students' use of media has far outstripped educational use, and students will continue to adopt new media long before teachers can create curricula about it. It is no longer enough to teach students how books, periodicals, and TV shows work. Students need to learn how to critically analyze and evaluate messages coming to them through any medium.

As with information literacy, the key is to recognize the elements of the communication situation—sender, message (subject and purpose), medium, receiver, and context. These elements are constant regardless of the medium used. By broadening the student's perspective to see all media as part of a larger communication situation, we can equip students to effectively receive and send information in any medium. Students must learn to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each medium and to analyze each message they receive and send.

Technology Literacy

We are living through a technological revolution, with huge changes taking place over brief spans of time. A decade ago, Facebook didn't exist, but now many people could not live without it. The average cellphone is now more powerful than computers from several years ago. We are surrounded by technology, and most of it performs multiple functions. In Growing Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World, Don Tapscott outlines the following eight expectations that students have of technology.

  • Freedom to express their views, personalities, and identities
  • Ability to customize and personalize technology to their own tastes
  • Ability to dig deeper, finding whatever information they want
  • Honesty in interactions with others and with organizations
  • Fun to be part of learning, work, and socialization as well as entertainment
  • Connecting to others and collaborating in everything
  • Speed and responsiveness in communication and searching for answers
  • Innovation and change, not settling for familiar technologies but seeking and using what is new and better

As you can see, students expect a great deal out of their technologies. You can help them use technology wisely:

  • reading Web sites;
  • using search engines;
  • using map searches;
  • accessing videos, podcasts, and feeds;
  • evaluating Web resources;
  • researching on the Internet;
  • e-mailing, chatting, texting, microblogging;
  • using social sites;
  • visiting virtual worlds;
  • blogging and using wikis; and
  • using message boards, newsgroups, and VOIP (Skype).

By understanding how to evaluate this new information and how to use these new tools to create effective, well-grounded communication, students can harness the power of new technology and be inspired to learn.

Literacy for all

Literacy is a human right and the basis for lifelong learning. It empowers individuals, families and communities and improves their quality of life. Through its “multiplier effect”, literacy contributes to eradicating poverty, reducing child mortality, curbing population growth, achieving gender equality and promoting sustainable development, peace and democracy.

In today's rapidly changing knowledge-based society, where social and political participation is both physical and virtual, acquiring basic literacy skills, improving them and applying them throughout life is of paramount importance. nine0003

Since its founding in 1946, UNESCO has played an important role in the overall literacy effort.

UNESCO's current policy is to promote literacy and create an enabling environment, which is an integral part of lifelong learning. The organization is also committed to ensuring that literacy continues to be a priority both nationally and internationally. In an effort to realize the vision of universal literacy, the Organization works with countries and partners through literacy programmes, outreach and its knowledge base. nine0003

UNESCO's overall approach to literacy for all aims to:

  • build a strong foundation through early childhood education and education;
  • providing quality basic education for all children;
  • scaling up literacy programs for youth and adults lacking basic literacy skills;
  • creating an environment conducive to literacy.
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    Since the majority of the world's illiterate people are women, UNESCO encourages targeted initiatives such as the Global Partnership for Girls' and Women's Education.

    UNESCO monitors global literacy levels through the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), the EFA Global Monitoring Report and regional assessment programs such as the Research Project on Literacy Assessment (RAMAA), the South and East Africa Consortium for Educational Quality Monitoring (SACMEC) and the Latin American Laboratory for the Evaluation of Educational Quality (LLECE). nine0003

    Through two projects supported by the United States of America, UNESCO is building a repository of open literacy education resources and encouraging countries to use best practices to accelerate literacy programs.

    Related links:

    • Literacy and UNESCO
    • Education for All (EFA)
    • UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) - Literacy
    • Litbase: A database of best practices in literacy and numeracy
    • Literacy Program Outcomes Assessment Research Project (RAMAA)
    • International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) - South and East African Consortium for Monitoring the Quality of Education (SACMEC)
    • Latin American Laboratory for Educational Quality Evaluation (LLECE)

    Awards and celebrations:

    • International Literacy Day
    • UNESCO International Literacy Prizes

    What does it mean to be literate in today's world

    Can you read and write? Do your family, friends and acquaintances know how to do this? It is not surprising if these questions puzzle you, because the ability to read and write is also not surprising. But can you say with certainty that every person you interact with is literate? Not everyone will answer this question in the affirmative, because reading and writing is by no means a synonym for literacy, at least in our days. nine0003

    So what does it mean to be literate? Today there is no single understanding of the essence and level of educational skills that reveal the essence of the concept of "literacy". But we can say with confidence that now people understand literacy as something completely different than, for example, half a century ago, if only because the level of literacy that was relevant at that time today simply does not allow a person to live normally and work effectively.

    In short, we invite you to discuss with us on the topic of what it means to be literate, and try to understand the peculiarities of this issue in this short article (by the way, if you are not familiar with our material “Literacy. Is it needed in modern world”, be sure to read it, because it is likely that it will also lead you to interesting thoughts about literacy and its importance in human life). nine0003

    Peculiarities of literacy in the conditions of modern technological progress

    The problem of literacy of the population is extremely acute today, and it is of particular interest for the system of continuous education, because it most directly concerns the content, goals and technological support of the learning process.

    For centuries, literacy was limited to learning to read and write and was based on a standard set of rules. And in the minds of the public, the term "literate" was synonymous with the term "educated." Today, due to the complication of forms and channels of communication, changes in the cultural and linguistic diversity of the world, the concept of literacy has expanded. nine0003

    For example, in 1958 people who can read and understand the essence of the text, as well as briefly write down information about everyday life, began to be considered literate. In the mid-1960s, the term “functional literacy” appeared, and a little later, people who were able to take part in all activities where literacy is needed for effective functioning began to be considered functionally literate.

    If we turn to modern official and scientific and methodological texts, we will find in them information about other types of literacy, such as reading literacy, mathematical literacy, science literacy, bibliographic literacy and other types, due to orientation in certain subject areas. nine0003

    The 21st century is characterized as the world of screen culture, which requires an appropriate level of reading competence and specific visual literacy. The latter, in turn, brings education into the sphere of perception of educational information in the "language of images". This means that a literate person must have the ability to analyze and synthesize visual reality.

    In addition, in recent decades, projects in the fields of scientific and technological literacy have been increasingly implemented, the reason for which has been the ubiquity of the ability to use information, use modern scientific and technological resources for communication. nine0003

    This refers to the ability to use the media, computers and global networks. In 2005, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina hosted a Colloquium on Information Literacy and Lifelong Learning, which adopted a declaration declaring information and computer literacy to be vital literacies for the 21st century.

    Here it would be very appropriate to mention the emergence of the term "media literacy", which, together with audiovisual literacy, implies the ability of a person to work with media products, which means that he must learn to read and evaluate media texts. nine0003

    With regard to computer literacy, it means the ability of a person, firstly, to realize the need for information, and secondly, to have the skill of its effective search, evaluation and use in compliance with ethical standards.

    In 2000, the Association for College and Library Research proposed standards for assessing information literacy in higher education. The development of various programs of "immersion" in information literacy has begun. And in 2010, a diagram appeared demonstrating the components of information literacy. Among them are information ethics, critical thinking, the use of media and library resources. nine0003

    Along with information literacy, network literacy has become of particular relevance, because network communication today is a new type of communication, including communication of a teacher. Network literacy is directly related to the use of the Internet.

    And already here we can draw the first conclusions that a modern literate person, more than ever, must have critical perception, because he has to interact daily with information coming from a huge number of various sources. nine0003

    Peculiarities of literacy in the conditions of modern culture

    Above we outlined the requirements for human literacy in the conditions of technological progress, but there are other requirements - due to the modern cultural context. Cultural literacy is influenced by the extent to which people are involved in a particular cultural background knowledge. It also depends on the ability to understand the formal and informal language (and context) that create and represent contemporary culture. nine0003

    Cultural literacy requires a person to understand a wide range of basic knowledge that is the core of the culture in which he lives, and also be able to freely apply this knowledge in everyday, professional and business life. Cultural literacy includes a whole complex of types of literacy derived from it that a modern person needs to possess:

    • Literacy in the field of traditional (national) culture. This refers to ideas about culture, depending on the increase in the level of human knowledge about folk traditions, customs, creativity (dance, music, poetry). nine0014
    • Multicultural Literacy. The ability to freely navigate in the world of many cultures, realize its meanings and values, behave in a civilized manner in societies of different cultures and interact with their representatives.
    • Environmental literacy. This concept includes systemic thinking, knowledge of the principles of ecology, sharing of environmental values, the ability to be involved in environmental protection activities. Some researchers add here the ability to understand the language of nature, which any peoples possessed in the era of paganism, when they were illiterate in the traditional sense of the word today. nine0014

    At the same time, experts do not draw clear boundaries between the presented types of literacy, pointing out that they all constitute one integral family. There can be a lot of “literacies” of a person, but they will all be connected with each other, and there is no single system that could unite all human thoughts. However, more and more attempts are being made to unite the efforts of professionals from various fields in search of a common understanding of the phenomenon of literacy. But let's recap. nine0003

    In concluding this section of the article, we come to the second important conclusion on the topic of the requirements for literacy for modern man. It consists in the fact that everyone who wants to be literate in the broadest sense of the word should expand their boundaries and without fail study their native and other cultures, and also be interested in solving issues related to environmental problems, even if level of personal behavior.

    Characteristics of modern literacy

    When studying the features of modern literacy, one may get the impression that a person of our time needs some kind of special literacy, which is multifaceted and comprehensive, has universal properties and evaluation criteria. This has led to the fact that today you can increasingly hear the term “new literacy” (and for the first time it was mentioned by researcher David Buckingham back in the early 1990s in his articles).

    Consider the characteristics of modern literacy can be on the example of a number of new types of literacy, more often other people are interested. These include:

    • Multiple literacy. This term refers to the synthesis of various types of literacy, mainly related to practical activities. An example of such literacy is the combination of the capabilities of a person’s visual intelligence, when the ability for figurative perception and the ability to read and count are involved.
    • Multimodal literacy. The basis of this concept is the idea of ​​the diversity of the nature of languages ​​and the texts that form them. Traditionally, literacy has always been perceived as proficiency in the language and belonged to the field of linguistics. However, there are such languages ​​as the language of sounds, dance, colors, images, etc. Thus, the features of the modern world require people to be able to switch between different sign systems, recognize, analyze and interpret, and, if necessary, also recode any information structures. nine0014
    • Polyliteracy. This term comes into contact with the concepts of comparative philology and comparative linguistics and develops the idea of ​​polyglotism in relation to cultures. It assumes a person's ability to perceive, study and understand different cultures, the ability to switch between them, if necessary, based on the context of the activity performed.
    • Multiliteracy. The presented type of literacy consists of four components. The first is situationality, which is based on individual experience of working with information. The second is a flexible briefing that allows you to find forms of self-expression in the communication process. The third is a critical view, through which a person can relate information to individual needs and social context. And the fourth is the transformation of sign and semantic systems from one context to another. nine0014
    • Transliteracy. Here everything is somewhat simpler: transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact through different tools, platforms and media (from oral signals and signs, printed and handwritten texts, radio, television and cinema to digital social networks). We also note that transliteracy requires a person to be able to combine sources of information, to have critical thinking, skills to assess, select and integrate knowledge for specific tasks.

    Based on the above, a modern person must be able to write and read using fundamentally new tools such as laptops, tablets, keyboards, smartphones, etc. Online literacy also deserves special attention, because people are often faced with a situational flow of information. In addition, research by the University of California Santa Barbara, begun back in 2005, showed that ordinary reading and online reading are two fundamentally different types of mental activity. nine0003

    New literacy also includes such important skills today as searching for information using a PC, blogging, maintaining a website, using e-mail, Skype and other instant messengers, mailing, visiting an online store, etc. . This also includes specific professional skills: creating digital products, administering web resources, etc.

    In addition, it can be added that at present in educational practice, high-tech teaching aids are increasingly used, designed for different methods of both presentation and perception of educational information. And this once again indicates the need for modern man to master the new literacy. nine0003

    But, even taking into account all of the above, one should still not talk about the sum of the considered types of literacy. Today, it is more important for a person to realize the vital need to master new ways of interacting with both the real and the virtual world, creative adaptation to the nature of information, as well as to new characteristics of the information space.

    A modern person should not only be able to work with traditional paper media (as it used to be), but also be able to read data contained in sign systems of various nature. nine0003


    Here we can draw an analogy where a person knows only one part of the same multiplication table or alphabet. The situation is not the best, but nevertheless it sets the direction for the development of the meaningful part of the continuous learning of a person that takes place throughout his life.

    If people do not meet the requirements of modern literacy, they will be modern illiterate. If in past centuries the ability to write, and then the ability to print texts, divided literate and illiterate people, today this boundary can be drawn by the development of the Internet with the new types of writing, reading and even communication that it generates. nine0003

    Literacy, in terms of the understandings and areas listed in our article, provides people with a full life, allows them to participate in society and remain competitive in various fields of activity. A person of the present must always remain alert, i.e. be ready, if necessary, to improve both your general and functional literacy (we wrote more about what it is in the article “Modern types of literacy”).

    Everything that we have said about the new literacy indicates the need to expand the content of education, as well as the development of a person's ability to build any communication in different sign systems and express himself freely in their context. To achieve this goal, innovations corresponding to the peculiarities of our time should be introduced into the educational process. nine0003

    But while the methods of solving these problems are only at the level of development, the responsibility for becoming a modern literate person lies on the shoulders of each of us. First, we must accept the need for continuous education (in our case, self-education). And secondly, we ourselves must ensure our movement along this path.

    Being literate in the modern world, as before, means being able to read, write, express yourself and communicate with people around you on the topics of what is happening in everyday life. But it also means keeping up with the times, following the achievements and discoveries in the fields of science, technology, education, being able to use modern technologies, being free from stereotypes and prejudices that have a destructive effect on consciousness. nine0003

    Let's not argue that the topic of modern literacy can be considered much deeper than in our article. However, when creating this material, we pursued the goal not to conduct a full-fledged study, but to point out the directions in which a modern person needs to develop, who wants to be truly educated and literate. We hope we have achieved this goal.

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