Redefining Literacy in the Context of Modern Society

Megan Fowler
May 28, 2017 · 4 min read

Traditionally, literacy was defined as the ability to read and write. But what is reading and writing? According to the first definition in Webster’s Dictionary for each term, reading is receiving the sense of letters by sight or touch, and writing is forming characters on a surface with an instrument (Merriam-Webster 2017). Both definitions reference a written language which has the potential to limit the ideas that can be communicated. However, these are not the only definitions for reading and writing. Reading can also be defined as the ability to interpret meaning or significance and writing can be defined as the making of a permanent impression (Merriam-Webster 2017). These broader definitions exponentially increase the scope of what it means to be literate. As a result, the inclusive definition of literacy is the ability to interpret and evaluate the world around us. This ability is composed of three dimensions; cognitive, social, and critical skills.

The cognitive aspect of literacy focuses on the interpretation of what we read. Before we begin to read, we must understand what we are reading and why we are reading it. While reading, we make sure that we understand what it is we are reading. When we are done reading, we take the time to ensure we understand the entirety of the message. Sometimes this may require us to read a message multiple times to ensure that we comprehend it. Additionally, depending on the source, the purpose for reading must be considered.

Is it a textbook for class or a novel for enjoyment? A documentary for education or a comedy to make you laugh? Based on the purpose of reading, being literate means to interpret the message accordingly while considering the source. For example, when I read an article from The Onion, I know to interpret it as satire.

The social aspect of literacy focuses on the experiences that contribute to interpretation of readings and how we will begin to evaluate the message. “When we hear a word or read a text, we simulate experiences in our head to give the word or text a specific meaning relevant to the context in which it occurred” (Gee, 215, p. 80). Building upon an example Gee used, a person’s experience with coffee will affect the way he responds when hearing that a coffee spill needs to be cleaned. Based on his history, the person may either get a broom or a mop to clean up the mess. As someone who does not drink coffee, a broom seemed like a ridiculous tool to use since a liquid is supposed to be cleaned up! After a few minutes, I realized that the book example was referring to the cleaning up of a spill of coffee grounds which is a solid material. Therefore, a broom made sense.

Doctor Who — Definition of Doctor

Another example comes from the popular sci-fi show, Doctor Who (2011). The premise of the show is that the main character’s name, “Doctor” is a nod to acknowledge that he helps save people. American and British cultures view this label with positive association, and as a result doctors are highly respected. Alternatively, in season 6, episode 7, a girl from the Forest of Gamma, discusses her reasons for joining the army to meet the Doctor. In her culture, the word “doctor” means “mighty warrior” because the word “doctor” is based on her culture’s experience with the Doctor during a time of trouble. Therefore, the context of the word “doctor” in language directly impacts the meaning conveyed by the sender.

The critical aspect of literacy focuses on the ability to evaluate what it is we have interpreted, what it means to us as people, and what implications it has in the world. Literacy can provide an individual with the tools necessary to free himself from social and cultural restraints. An example of this can be seen with the story of Frederick Douglass. As a child in slavery, Douglass learned how to read and write despite the protests of the man he served, Hugh Auld. Douglass later shared that Auld had told him that being literate “would forever unfit [Douglass for the duties of a slave; and as to himself, learning would do him no good, but probably a great deal of harm — making him disconsolate and unhappy. If you learn him how to read, he’ll want to know how to write; and this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself” (Royar, 1994). The slaveholder, Auld, recognized that literacy was the key to Douglass’s freedom. Sousanis (2015) also spoke of the value of freeing oneself from the constraints of routine and society. “To pierce this stifling atmosphere — a spark — a lightening of inertia, rupturing the smooth, undifferentiated façade of how it is, to reveal that we are anything but flat. This awareness stems from our ability to reflect on ourselves and on our environment” (p. 129)

In conclusion, literacy is no longer a stagnant concept. Aspects have been demonstrated that explain what it means to be literate when placed together. Literacy encapsulates the process of interpreting messages and evaluating what they mean. These skills are crucial to developing identity and can help broaden one’s personal horizons if permitted.


read. 2017. In Retrieved May 24, 2017, from

write. 2017. In Retrieved May 24,2017, from

Gee, J.P. (2015). Literacy and education. New York: Routledge.

Moffat, Steven (Writer), & Hoar, Peter (Director). (2011). A Good Man Goes to War [Television series episode]. In Moffat, Steven (Executive Producer), Doctor Who Cardiff, Wales: British Broadcasting Corporation One.

[DoctorWho201195]. (2011, June 4). Doctor Who — Series 6 — Is The Other Person River From the Past? Or The Future? [Video File]. Retrieved from

Royer, D. (1994). The Process of Literacy as Communal Involvement in the Narratives of Frederick Douglass. African American Review,28(3), 363–374. doi:10.2307/3041973

Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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