Literacy has traditionally been described as the ability to read and write. It is a concept claimed and defined by a range of different theoretical fields.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines literacy as 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."
Many policy analysts consider literacy rates as a crucial measure to enhance a region's human capital. This claim is made on the grounds that literate people can be trained less expensively than illiterate people, generally have a higher socio-economic status and enjoy better health and employment prospects. Policy makers also argue that literacy increases job opportunities and access to higher education.
In Kerala, India, for example, female and child mortality rates declined dramatically in the 1960s, when girls who were schooled according to the education reforms after 1948 began to raise families. Recent researchers argue, however, that such correlations may have more to do with the overall effects of schooling rather than literacy alone. In addition to the potential for literacy to increase wealth, wealth may promote literacy, through cultural norms and easier access to schools and tutoring services.
Some have argued that the definition of literacy should be expanded. For example, in the United States, the National Council of Teachers of English and the International Reading Association have added "visually representing" to the traditional list of competencies. Similarly, in Scotland, literacy has been defined as: "The ability to read and write and use numeracy, to handle information, to express ideas and opinions, to make decisions and solve problems, as family members, workers, citizens and lifelong learners."
A basic literacy standard in many societies is the ability to read the newspaper. Increasingly, communication in commerce or society in general requires the ability to use computers and other digital technologies. Since the 1990s, when the Internet came into wide use in the United States, some have asserted that the definition of literacy should include the ability to use tools such as web browsers, word processing programs, and text messages. Similar expanded skill sets have been called multimedia literacy, computer literacy, information literacy, and technological literacy. Some scholars propose the idea multiliteracies which includes Functional Literacy, Critical Literacy, and Rhetorical Literacy.
Other genres under study by academia include critical literacy, media literacy, ecological literacy and health literacy With the increasing emphasis on evidence-based decision making, and the use of statistical graphics and information, statistical literacy is becoming a very important aspect of literacy in general. The International Statistical Literacy Project is dedicated to the promotion of statistical literacy among all members of society.
It is argued that literacy includes the cultural, political, and historical contexts of the community in which communication takes place.
The history of education has a long past. The first seats of learning were in India, Mesopotamia and Egypt and, at later date in Greece. The Nalanda University (India) is one of the oldest universities in the world, where Chinese monk, Xuanzang (aka Hiuen Tsang), came to learn Buddhist Philosophy and Mathematics in 625 AD. Although the history of literacy goes back several thousand years to the invention of writing, what constitutes literacy has changed throughout history. At one time, a literate person was one who could sign his or her name. At other times, literacy was measured only by the ability to read and write Latin regardless of a person's ability to read or write his or her vernacular. Even earlier, literacy was a trade secret of professional scribes, and many historic monarchies maintained cadres of this profession, sometimes—as was the case for Imperial Aramaic -- even importing them from lands where a completely alien language was spoken and written. Some of the pre-modern societies with generally high literacy rates included Ancient Greece and the Islamic Caliphate. In the latter case, the widespread adoption of paper and the emergence of the Maktab and Madrasah educational institutions played a fundamental role.
Although the present-day concepts of literacy have much to do with the 15th century invention of the movable type printing press, it was not until the Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century that paper and books became financially affordable to all classes of industrialized society. Until then, only a small percentage of the population were literate as only wealthy individuals and institutions could afford the prohibitively expensive materials. Even today, the dearth of cheap paper and books is a barrier to universal literacy in some less-industrialized nations.
Literacy has also been used as a way to sort populations and control who has access to power. Because literacy permits learning and communication that oral and sign language alone cannot, illiteracy has been enforced in some places as a way of preventing unrest or revolution. During the Civil War era in the United States, white citizens in many areas passed anti-literacy laws banning teaching slaves to read or write presumably understanding the power of literacy. In the years following the Civil War, the ability to read and write was used to determine whether one had the right to vote. This effectively served to prevent former slaves from joining the electorate and maintained the status quo.The literacy rate of Canada, being almost 99% in 2003, has declined, and will be under world's average literacy rates for adults in the next two decades, depending on the rate of declining.
The public library has long been a proponent for literacy in its communities. The release of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) report in 2005 revealed that approximately 14 percent of adults function at the lowest level of literacy and 29 percent of adults function at the basic functional literacy level, meaning they are not able to help their children with homework beyond the first few grades. The lack of reading skills hinders adults from reaching their full potential. They might have difficulty getting and maintaining a job, providing for their families, or even reading a story to their children. For adults across the country, the library might be the only source of a literacy program. Programs have been instituted in public libraries across the country in an attempt to improve the literacy rates in this country.
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