WHAT is literacy?

Given the variation related to the term “literacy,” settling on a definition of the word is quite challenging.

In Reading at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many Can’t and What Can Be Done About It, Dr. Mark Seidenberg (2017) explains the notion that literacy is now an “umbrella term for communication involving print but also other types of information (visual images, auditory, video, combinations thereof).”  Dr. Seidenberg (2017) acknowledges that these “multiple literacies” related to society’s technological revolution are important and as such individuals should have the capacity to use these effectively, “but a person still has to be able to read.”

At the basic level, the American Heritage Dictionary defines literacy as “the condition or quality of being literate, especially the ability to read and write.”

Returning to the “umbrella” term, the International Literacy Association defines literacy as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.” (

As one can surmise, the answer to the question “what is literacy?” is multifaceted; however, at the basic and most foundational level, “literacy” is the ability to read and write.  According to Dr. Timothy Shanahan (2008) in his introduction to the Report of the National Early Literacy Panel, “the ability to read and write is fundamental to full participation in American society.”