What is Literacy?

When I think of the term literacy, I picture a Matryoshka, one of those wooden stacking toys in which one doll opens to reveal another slightly smaller version of itself. Literacy is the outermost doll. When taken apart, it reveals the skills and knowledge needed to communicate with others. The smallest doll, the solid wooden core, represents the discrete literacy skills we learn early on that make reading, writing, and speaking possible. These skills, after all, are the heart of learning. Consider the act of reading, for example. Reading occurs in all facets of life whether at school, work, or home. We read for functional purposes, such as locating street signs when navigating an unfamiliar city. We also read for pleasure. And yet these definitions seem too simplistic. As Sylvia Scribner (1984) says, it is much easier to define what it means to be literate or illiterate than it is to describe literacy.

Scribner (1984) employs three metaphors to describe the purpose of literacy: literacy as adaptation, literacy as power, and literacy as a state of grace. Literacy as adaptation refers to the basic literacy skills needed to complete a specified task. For example, if I want to bake a cake, I must be able to read and follow the steps of the recipe. I must also understand the general construct of a recipe. A list of ingredients typically precedes the instructions. The amount of each ingredient is, generally speaking, non-negotiable. One must follow the steps in sequential order to achieve the desired result. Literacy as power suggests that literate people hold the power. In other words, skilled readers and writers tend to be more successful. While true to an extent, literacy and power are not mutually exclusive. After all, it depends on the extent of one’s literateness as well as how one defines power and success. These attributes may be contextually specific and change over time. Literacy as a state of grace refers to the special treatment literate people receive, underscoring the “literacy as power” claim. This grace, of course, typically extends to people who are cultured, book-smart, and articulate, not to mention white.

Frankel et al. (2016) shares a more precise definition of literacy as “the process of using reading, writing, and oral language” to make meaning within a social context (p. 7). When we consider what it means to read or to be a reader, we typically think of literacy in the context of academics. In other words, we teach young children to read so they can learn, but mastering discrete literacy skills does not ensure students will be able to successfully navigate and comprehend disciplinary content. Referring back to my recipe example, we make meaning of a text when we understand how it is organized. Just as important, we make meaning when interacting with others.

Ghouldy Muhammad (2020) challenges my understanding of literacy with her article about historically responsive literacy. I approach literacy through the lens of an educated, upper-middle-class, white woman. Students of color repeatedly and unfairly bear the label of struggling reader and writer, but how often do educators ask why? What if the literacy skills these students have in their toolbox are simply different, but no less valuable, than traditional literacy skills? For example, students of color “may struggle with skills like decoding or reading fluency, but they can read social contexts and environments exceptionally well” (Muhammad, 2020, p. 41). Functionally speaking, this is an important skill that many otherwise literate people lack. The phrase “reading the room,” referring to a person’s ability to interpret social cues, comes to mind.

The biggest takeaways from the articles I referenced when writing this include:

  • Literacy is not easily defined. We construct different meanings based on our own experiences.
  • Literacy is ever-changing. It is not a static skill but something that develops over time.
  • Literacy is a social transaction. People learn how to communicate by interacting with others.
  • Literacy should be culturally relevant. We must consider the backgrounds and needs of all individuals.


Frankel, K.K., Becker, B.L.C., Rowe, M.W., & Pearson, P.D. (2016). From “what is reading?” to “what is literacy?” Journal of Education, 196(3), 7-17.

Muhammad, G. (2020). What is historically responsive literacy? Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy, 38-6.

Scribner, S. (1984). Literacy in three metaphors. American Journal of Education, 93(1), 6-21.

Published by Melissa

I am a certified general education and special education teacher with a master's degree in literacy education. I currently co-teach 2nd grade in the morning and provide ELA and math instruction to a small group of 4th graders in the afternoon. I love my job!

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