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the literacy ledgerReflections, findings, stories and the lowdown

Literacy and Reading

March 1, 2010 By

In all the research we’ve done about literacy, one thing is clear: It doesn’t seem like anyone can agree on a definition.

The classic Merriam-Webster definition is:

  1. able to read and write
  2. versed in literature and creative writing … having knowledge or competence, computer-literature, politically-literate

But in today’s world, the word literacy takes on a broader definition. According to the United States National Institute for Literacy:

“The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 defines literacy as ‘an individual’s ability to read, write, speak in English, compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual and in society.’ This is a broader view of literacy than just an individual’s ability to read, the more traditional concept of literacy. As information and technology have become increasingly shaped our society [sic], the skills we need to function successfully have gone beyond reading, and literacy has come to include the skills listed in the current definition.”

Worldreader is invested in helping people improve their literacy skills. Certainly, the ability to access more reading materials – cheaper, faster and at all levels – is the obvious contribution. But additionally, while e-readers can function just like a book, getting used to pressing buttons and navigating menus could provide a modest improvement of technology literacy, in much the same way that mobile phones have done in many parts of the world.

But I would contend that there is a difference between literacy – the ability to read, write and navigate through the world– and having a passion for reading. All well-read people are literate, as you have to know how to read in order to read voraciously. But surely, not all literate people love reading. In fact, most don’t even read habitually – the US has a 99% literacy rate, where literacy is defined as people over 15 who can read and write. Yet 1 in 4 US American adults read no books in 2006.

Literacy is important so that citizens can vote, so people can qualify for jobs and read labels on their medication. But it is reading that opens minds, that allows children to dream, and that ultimately connects them with a larger universe of possibilities. The girl who reads Asimov can aspire to be a roboticist, the girl who reads Bill Bryson can set her sights on faraway places, and the boy who finds two beat-up books at his local library can build a windmill.

At Worldreader, we are committed to increasing literacy, but we would love to do more than that – we love to see that spark in a person’s eyes as they browse through their e-readers and find a book that captivates them, that they want to delve into immediately. After all, it was our love for books that inspired us to begin this journey.