I have been struggling with literacy, both as a concept and theory.

The literature on literacy is very broad, it seems quite all-encompassing, so I am struggling to make sense of literacy in any useful sense at all. At the moment, I tend to think of literacy as a summary of the specific skills of reading, writing, speaking, etc. But I find whenever I come across any discussion or examination of literacy instead of those specific skills, I find myself really distracted and I believe does a disservice to the skills acquisition aspects of language teaching and learning.

I am really interested in whether there are any examples or thoughts on how literacy has been useful in language learning or teaching, especially to you personally or in the literature. I am hoping there is a more pragmatic application of literacy but I am struggling to find it.

  • 1
    I have searched extensively, but what I have found tends to break down into the various skills. Maybe literacy specialist teachers have been useful as a strategy, there were a couple of papers on that.
    – Poidah
    Nov 16, 2020 at 12:05
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    I think the best overview of the evolution of literacy is Unrau's 2013 chapter - researchgate.net/publication/300043247
    – Poidah
    Nov 17, 2020 at 1:17
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    UNESCO has the broadest view of literacy and has a great series of papers that run through their logic - en.unesco.org/themes/literacy
    – Poidah
    Nov 17, 2020 at 1:19
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    But in the end it is books like Munger's 2016 that breaks down literacy into its component skills that seems to really ties literacy together - milnepublishing.geneseo.edu/steps-to-success/chapter/…
    – Poidah
    Nov 17, 2020 at 1:21
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    This sounds like you are one of the most qualified people to answer your own question.
    – Tommi
    Nov 17, 2020 at 7:12

2 Answers 2


literacy is generally understood to mean reading and writing one's own language, not a foreign one.

It involves two skills: reading and writing

Learning a foreign language, involves four skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking. But when a person learns a foreign language, they are usually literate in their own language, unless they are learning by ear, which can happen, just like a person learning a musical instrument by ear and not by learning any music theory.

This is a basic definition of literacy on which all teachers and educators would agree. It is not controversial...

Of course, there is also foreign language literacy, being able to read and write a foreign language.

literacy/illiteracy numeracy/innumeracy


The problem with literacy as a useful teaching concept is that there is a lack of conceptual coherence.

Murphy's and Medin's seminal 1985 paper on conceptual coherence applies to literacy due to the lack of constraints of literacy's attributes and literacy's inability to detect important correlations. Is reading literacy? Is speaking literacy? What aspects are literacy and what are not? Whose definition of literacy do you prefer?

The lack of well defined attributes and features within the literacy concept makes it a very unhelpful concept, especially in language teaching practice. Literacy is a great concept for broad strokes discussion that massacre generalisation, cue in the media and political leaders with their simplistic solutions...

  • speaking is not part of literacy. Illiterate people already speak their own language but cannot read or write it.
    – Lambie
    Aug 20, 2021 at 16:30
  • Shouldn't speaking be understandable though?
    – Poidah
    Aug 20, 2021 at 16:33
  • speech comprehensibility is not part of the concept.
    – Lambie
    Aug 20, 2021 at 16:39
  • Agree. But from a layman's perspective it seems to be. The professional literature does not seem to incorporate it
    – Poidah
    Aug 20, 2021 at 16:48

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