Achieving Literacy

The inherent difficulty of literacy explains the continuing struggle for global literacy. According to UNESCO in 2008 the world adult literacy rate is 84%. However, this masks significantly poorer levels in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa where the number of illiterate adults has actually increased since 1994. It also obscures the relatively low level of literacy being measured. In the United States, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy,14% of the population in 2003 (~30 million people) were below the basic levels of literacy, defined as the most simple and concrete tasks. This finding remains constant from 1992. On the other end of the spectrum, only 13% of the population were capable of “complex and challenging literacy activities,” a decline from 15% in 1992.

The relatively large number of functional illiterates and the disturbingly small number of proficient literates are causes for concern. In a world where literacy is a prerequisite for success, those who are functionally illiterate are marginalized while those who are fully illiterate are outsiders. Similarly, even those who have basic or intermediate skills are clearly limited in their abilities to use visible language. These data suggest a crisis if mass literacy and the sophisticated use of reading and writing truly are a foundational characteristic of the citizenry of the 21st century and beyond.

However, while illiteracy remains a problem there is at the same time an explosion in publishing and reading. More books are being published than ever; more books are being read than ever. Daniel Evans Pritchard compares reading and writing in America in 1957 and the present (from the Pew surveys). His conclusion?

“Our dilemma is not post-literacy, but super-literacy. Americans have developed acute logorrhea over the past decade.”

Are you reading a book at present?



23% (~32 million people)


47% (~140 million people)

Publishing and Readers

New Book Titles

Books per Reader



1 / 2,600



1 / 496

Logorrhea maybe be happening because, for many people, writing helps them think. Many of us have had the experience of using writing to sharpen our thoughts and to refine our ideas. By putting our ideas into words we are better able to work through the complexities, refine the logic, and clarify our thinking. In this sense literacy is a tool for reflection and concentration; it lets us externalize our ideas and in doing so refine them. It works not because the tool is easy to use but because it is difficult.

Translating our ideas into words is hard, very hard. We write to clarify but we also feel a sense of loss (incompleteness); the words don’t fully capture our ideas. The nuances are lost and the impact is blunted. As a result the reader doesn’t grasp our full meaning or appreciate the full import. Literacy is the struggle between the writer and the reader. The battle is the distance that must be bridged, the gap that must be overcome. The inadequacies of words are never more apparent than when we struggle to make ourselves understood and “the words fail us.”

In The World on Paper: The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading (1994), David Olson provocatively asks “is it possible that literacy is over-rated?” He goes on to illustrate otherwise but in doing so he alludes to a way of thinking about post-literacy:

“writing and reading playing a critical role in producing the shift from thinking about things to thinking about representations of those things, that is, thinking about thought. Our modern conception of the world and our modern conception of ourselves are, we may say, by-products of the invention of a world on paper [and, we might add, a world in cyberspace].”

If literacy marks the transition from thinking about things to thinking about the representation of things (abstractions, ideas, thought) then post-literacy may be understood not as dealing with abstractions but embodiment. Later we will talk about post-literacy and dance.

The challenges of the contemporary world are extraordinary. Protecting the planet while enabling growth and increased wealth is coupled with deep divides between peoples and culture over core values, ultimate authority, and principles of action. We are amassing unimaginable amounts of data as we explore the expanses of the universe and the nano mysteries of the human mind. We understand enough of genetic technologies to enable massive breakthroughs and perhaps also to cause crippling disasters. None of these, and many other challenges, have simple solutions. Historically, humans have built new tools to make new discoveries and solve pressing problems. We rise to the occasion by transforming ourselves. Is alphabetic literacy a sufficiently capable tool to allow us to respond to these challenges?

Literacy is slow to obtain, imprecise in its use, limited in its ability to capture constantly changing circumstances, not widely distributed in a sophisticated way, and crippled by its multiple forms (e.g. different languages and notations). And, in exhibiting these characteristics, literacy has also structured our brains in such a way that it shapes how we comprehend and how we think. The tool has become a prison. The prison has isolated the inmates.


10 Responses to “Achieving Literacy”

  1. John Miedema October 29, 2012 at 2:32 pm #

    Orality is learned almost by osmosis. Literacy is difficult. Digital literacy, built on print literacy, is even harder. Will post-literacy be harder yet? How many people have mastered dance?

    Do we need to keep getting more sophisticated in communication? Do we need to keep mastering the next level of complexity? Is complexity ever mastered? (The 2nd law of thermodynamics says no.) Maybe we need to learn to accept complexity. Is that really the meaning of post-literacy?

    • Jeff Penfold October 29, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

      I agree that the sane approach may be to simply learn to accept complexity because the trajectory seems to suggests that complexity will only increase.

      However, this is one of the areas that makes me wonder about what advances in machine intelligence can do for decreasing the complexity. In class we discussed Watson (the IBM system that won on Jeopardy) and wondered what it would be like if you had the power of Watson on a smartphone. Would this allow us to work with the machine intelligence to best process large amounts of information? You mentioned Natural Born Cyborgs in one of your other comments, could sufficiently intelligent machines help us extend cognition to the point that the trajectory of increasing complexity starts going down?

      • John Miedema October 29, 2012 at 8:42 pm #

        Funny you should mention IBM’s Watson.

        Both Watson (and Deep Blue before it) operate on completely different principles than the human brain. While machines are excellent at grinding out combinations, they are poor at pattern recognition. The reverse is true for the human brain.

        I agree that Watson is impressive. Consider though the hidden resource costs of offering these services. We don’t see it but the costs to the planet of these computing technologies (others too like Google) are enormous, only adding to the complexity of the human condition. The resource requirements of the human brain are relatively cheap.

        See Behind Deep Blue. My jaw dropped to learn that the algorithm simply used combination analysis, and no patterns. (After raising my jaw, I went and built my own chess program using the same techniques.)

        See How to Build Watson Jr. in your Basement. (Still on my to do list, but note the comment, “However, having ninety of them in your basement would drive up your energy bill.”)

        • Jeff Penfold October 30, 2012 at 9:15 am #

          The link on building Watson Jr was terrific – once I’m not in school full time I may have to give it a go!

          Granted that computers are not good at recognizing patterns but my underlying assumption is that computers could potentially get better at patterns as they help us design their own successors.

          I have to admit I had not thought about the energy requirements needed to run even a few seriously complex systems – it may well offset any decrease in complexity.

  2. John Miedema November 3, 2012 at 9:00 am #

    You said, “Is alphabetic literacy a sufficiently capable tool to allow us to respond to these challenges?” The driver for post-literacy seems to be complexity. It is an illusion that the past was simpler, that life is more complex these days, and that things are only getting more complex.

    In Too Big to Know, Weinberge says, “The limitations of paper made facts look far more manageable than they seem now that we see them linked into our unlimited network” (40). What Weinberger sees as a limitation, I see as a strength. Good old-fashioned literacy (GOFL) distills from data, filters out distractions, brings consensus for a time, fixes knowledge to allow for decision making. GOFL is intended to reduce complexity so that we can act when we need to.

    What’s changed is not the complexity of life, but the shape of literacy. Is this a good thing? Networks are leakier buckets than books. Post-literacy even more so.

  3. maryakem November 10, 2012 at 1:59 am #

    I feel many decision makers are not reading. They foist their inadequacy about the dormancy of their reading life on others and it is oppressive. I remember, for example, most vividly the sight of capital S SIR Ken Robinson announce in a high school auditorium at great cost to our impoverished school district.. “Do you remember libraries?”

    Well of course libraries are a memory to him. But for children 6 to 16 and for seniors deeply engaged by their reading life his ‘catholic’ approach to the topic…. aggravates me. He might not need a library but most likely this is BECAUSE he had one.

    There are certain members of society for whom reading being a part of life is possibly a right… where others have left it behind (or suspended it)

  4. maryakem November 10, 2012 at 2:05 am #

    Going to add here at the open data learning summit in Vancouver in September a conversation broke out about the North American tendency to privilege literacy over especially numeracy. It IS true. There is a spirit of reverence for reading that IS unreasonable…

    I might even say there are mechanics in the history of education that suggest the skew towards literacy is racist. The dogmatic rants about language of instruction, the history of destroying language as a function of schooling is aggressive the ‘Canadian narrative.’ In my life time, so much derived from the Bi and Bi Commission on Bi-culturalism and Bi-lingualism to trap the indentity of a Canadian to language. Will Canadians be adept in a multiliterate world when we have such a heat-seeking gaze upon reading and literacy, but not others?

  5. John Daniel November 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    One of the things I’ve noticed is an increased level of difficulty with text by otherwise highly intelligent people. I send them e-mails and the results are sometimes incomprehensible. I first noticed this in 2004 when one of the recipients of my very insightful, but admittedly long, explanation of a problem with the satellite ground system we were developing came to my office for an in-person explanation.

    Since then, I have made a concious effort to write shorter, simpler e-mails, still to people who are technically “rocket scientists”, with deteriorating results. Either I am not as good a writer as I think or their skills with literacy do not match their engineering skills – probably both. It is always face-to-face meetings that save the day.

    What really bothers me about this trend is that all discourse, including software engineering, is moving to the Internet in the form of text. I don’t see how that is going to work out well. Video conferencing is still rare and technically difficult. Maybe Twitter has the right idea for text. If you can’t say it in 140 characters, maybe you shouldn’t bother because few people will bother to read it and few of those will undstand. I don’t think the Internet is going to achieve its lofty promises if enabling 2-way communication until it is fast enough and ubiquitous enough to move beyond text.

  6. Zoe May 7, 2013 at 2:36 am #

    In looking at the difficulties of literacy, particularly on a global scale, I assert that an examination of sponsorship is necessary, particularly if we are to look to post-literacy as being global. Just as “literacy is […] limited in its ability to capture constantly changing circumstances [and is] not widely distributed in a sophisticated way,” post-literacy practices may in turn be limited by circumstance and distribution. In Deborah Brandt’s essay “Sponsors of Literacy” (excerpted from Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook), she asserts that “analysis of sponsorship forces us to consider not merely how one’s social group’s literacy practices may differ from another’s, but how everybody’s literacy practices are operating in differential economies, which supply different access routes, different degrees of sponsoring power, and different scales of monetary worth to the practices in use” (561). These considerations are essential to understanding how literacy currently functions on a global scale, but also in looking at how a post-literate world might operate. To dwell briefly on one of Brandt’s suggestions (“differential economies and different access routes”), I offer this Gallop poll from 2011 (😉 in which 32% of adults from 148 countries reported that they had home access to the internet. If we consider the stirrings of post-literacy to be technology—and especially internet—based, this tidbit of knowledge provokes many other questions regarding differing degrees of accessibility. Brandt’s questions are rooted in an examination of sponsors of literacy, and I have no doubt that a similar examination of sponsors of post-literacy will emerge—in the meantime, Brandt’s considerations can be utilized to more closely consider the possibilities of a post-literate global society within the current circumstances.

    • Michael Ridley May 13, 2013 at 10:11 am #

      One of the issues that comes up every time I teach my Beyond Literacy course with first year undergraduates is the concern about power. In essence they say “who will own post-literacy?” It begs the question, and the subsequent discussion, “OK, who owns literacy?” There is a tendency to focus on the first question and ignore the second question.

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