What does it mean to be literate?

Being literate means more than just knowing how to read and write. Gee (2014) said “Literacy is social because the mind itself is social.” (p. ix). I interpret this as meaning literacy can be thought of in many contexts; there are multiple literacies. Literacy is a social construction, and being literate means having the ability to produce, interpret, and understand language appropriately for these different social contexts. When I say language, I am referring to any way of allowing information to be seen or experienced. This could be a written language in the form of text, a computer programming language, art, music, or any other way. Gee also stated that “We share interpretations with others who have worked to form them, support them, and nourish them.” (p. 45). So not only does the social aspect of our world make for multiple literacies, it also makes for many ways of interpreting language and text. You learn to become literate through experiencing other people, and each of the people you learn from all have experiences with many other people. This makes it so there are many interpretations of language, and I believe being truly literate means you have an understanding of the language/text deep enough to question and form your own interpretations.

The Reader, By Gary Grey

This video shows the very obvious literacy that the father lacks, not being able to read and speak the language that his son does. The class is even titled ‘Adult Literacy Class”. It is likely that the father can read and write in his another language, but at the beginning he is unable to read, write, and communicate in english. Because there are multiple literacies, I would argue that the father is not literate in the english language, but saying that he is illiterate without making that distinction is incorrect. If you look closely at the video, you can see some more of the multiple literacies that people encounter every day. There are differences in how to act and speak when the father is in the store, in the classroom, with his friends, and with his significant other at home. At home, it is appropriate for him to joke and write ‘hello sexy’, but in his class this would not be okay, Each of these contexts differ in who the father is talking to and why the conversation is happening.

This definition of literacy as a social construct was also supported by Moja’s (2015) paper who said “…all literacy is enacted in a specific context, for a specific purpose, and to or with a specific audience” (p. 256). I interpret this as saying the old understanding of literacy, the ability to read and write, is not broad enough because there are so many different people, places, lifestyles, and interests. Literacy changes significantly based on culture and discourse. Street (1997) said “there are multiple literacies that vary in time and place” (p. 48). This means that not only does the definition of literacy change as you change location and activity, these specific definitions can change over time. Because I am defining literacy as a social construct, this distinction that literacy is not a fixed concept is important.


Using my definition of literacy, the ability to ‘judge’ someone as being either literate or illiterate becomes very difficult. The fact that person may not be able to read and write high level scientific articles in a specific field does not imply that they are illiterate, but rather that they have a low level of literacy in that specific discipline. However, that person is likely to be able to have a person to person, everyday conversation with a scientist (not discussing in depth, specialist work). This context, known as lifeworld discourse, can be used as a way for evaluating literacy of a person in a given society (Gee, 2014).

Cafepress T-shirt cartoon

The first time I consciously experienced this social aspect of literacy was the summer after I graduated from my undergraduate studies in Florida. I picked up climbing as a hobby the few years prior, and decided to take a month off and spend it at the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. There was a large ‘dirtbag’ climbing community who lived there who worked seasonal jobs and climbed full time, year round. As I began hanging out and climbing with them, I could barely understand anything they were saying. Being from Florida, I was not exposed to the ‘culture’ of climbing, and although I thought of myself as fairly educated, I had no idea what anyone was saying. Every few minutes I would have to ask about words I have never heard. For example, to a climber the cartoon shown above is funny. In order to understand it though, you must know what ‘onsight’ means (doing a climb without seeing anyone do it or having anyone tell you how to get through the hard parts) and what ‘beta’ means (the specific sequence to use, what holds to grab with what hand, and any other information about the climb), and the fact that it is frowned upon to shout beta while people are climbing, even though it happens frequently. On top of a vastly different vocabulary, the etiquette was also foreign to me (who carries what to the rocks, who climbs first, how long you can take on each route, when it’s okay to talk to other climbers, ect). In the beginning of that summer I felt completely illiterate in the context of climbing, but through my experiences I was able to learn a lot and increase my literacy in that context.

Although judging someone’s literacy is difficult, I do not think it is impossible to determining if someone is literate or not. Gee (2014) states “…literacy only empowers people when it renders them active questioners of the social reality around them” (p. 42). I interpret this as meaning you are literate when you have the ability to be able to produce and interpret language appropriately for these different contexts to the point where you are able to deeply understand and even question it. Literacy does not end with reading, writing, interpreting, and understanding on just a surface level. I argue that when an individual reaches that deeper understanding and begins questioning and forming their own interpretations, they are literate.


(2014, Spring). The Reader. Retrieved May 23, 2017, from https://vimeo.com/85710858

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

Moje, E. B. (2015). Doing and Teaching Disciplinary Literacy with Adolescent Learners: A Social and Cultural Enterprise. Harvard Educational Review, 85(2), 254–278. doi:10.17763/0017–8055.85.2.254

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

Street, B. (1997). The Implications of the ‘New Literacy Studies’ for Literacy Education. English in Education, 31(3), 45–59. doi:10.1111/j.1754–8845.1997.tb00133.x

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