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Traditionally, literacy is the ability to read and write (usually the former) in a given (usually first) language. In modern context, the word means reading and writing in a level that is adequate for written communication and generally a level that enables one to successfully function in a society.

The standards for what level constitutes "literacy" vary between societies. Other skills such as computer skills or basic math skills may also be included. These and the increasing inclusion of sound, still and moving images and graphical elements in digitally based communication call for an even broader concept of literacy.

The history of literacy is several thousand years old, but before the industrial revolution finally made cheap paper and cheap books available to all classes in industrialized countries, about a century and a half ago, literacy existed only in a tiny minority of the world's different societies. As an example, in 1841 England 33% of men & 44% of women signed marriage certificates with their mark as they were unable to write. Only in 1870 was Primary education made available for all in England.

Many policy analysts consider literacy rates a crucial measure of a region's human capital. This claim is made on the grounds that literate people can be trained less expensively than illiterates. Literacy also increases job opportunities and access to higher education. In Kerala, India, for example, female and child mortality rates declined dramatically in the 1960s, when girls schooled to literacy in the education reforms after 1948 began to raise families.

Teaching literacy

Some of the most effective methods of teaching literacy involve direct instruction of simplified phonetic systems.

In English, for example, the Distar system, developed by the RAND Corporation, has been adapted into a simple literacy instruction manual ("Teach your Child to Read in 100 Lessons") that permits a literate adult to teach an illiterate child by simply reading and following instructions. All of the complex instructional lesson design, skill building and optimal repetition and review have been "canned" in the book's instructional design. A computer program is even available that uses a similar system, but directly pronounces and tests the lessons, eliminating the need for a literate adult.

Comprehensive phonic programs exist, based on such systems as the Orton phonogram system, which was originated to teach brain-damaged veterans to read again. Using the 73 Orton phonograms and 14 spelling rules, 50,000 English words can be accurately pronounced and spelled with only 23 exceptional words. Although quite hard to learn, and far more exacting to teach, such systems provide students with powerful basic language skills.

A key technique in many comprehensive phonic systems is a spelling copybook, a sort of personal dictionary in which a student keeps a personal alphabetized list of words for review. The copybook usually shows how the word is pronounced, accented and syllabalized, and how standard spelling rules are invoked to determine its conventional spelling.

Several learning styles challenge conventional literacy programs. Visual and auditory learners often do well with conventional curricula. Kinesthetic learners often do well to use a copybook, less classroom practice and dictation, and more pencil practice, with a collection of magnetized letters and a steelboard to manipulate word-roots, prefixes and suffixes.

The degree of comprehension of course varies from person to person, and so the conditions for a certain state of "literacy" differ depending on who is defining the standard. For one attempt to define a standard of literacy, see [1].

Literacy readiness

It is well-established that children become able to "blend sounds" at different ages. Thus phonetic systems often cannot be applied by very young children.

Experts differ in their approach to this issue, some advocating a delayed, but more rapid acquisition of reading by means of phonetics, while others advocate early acquisition of a basic vocabulary through a "see and say" method.

A secondary advantage of phonetics is that it improves readers' spelling and writing abilities. See and say methods are said to increase the word acquisition rate and reading speed of many students.

While young children often require several hundred hours of instruction, spread over much of a year, motivated adults using a good instructional method can often acquire basic literacy with forty or fewer hours of instruction.

"According to UNESCO statistics, almost a billion illiterates remain as we approach the year 2000." [1]

Lack of literacy

Many have been concerned about the illiteracy of the world population, despite the fact that literacy rates have increased steadily over the past few decades, especially in the third world. Third world nations which adopted communism (China, Cuba, and Vietnam, for example), experienced some of the most dramatic growth of literacy, approaching US and European rates. The United Nations defines illiteracy as the inability to read and write a simple sentence in any language. Figures of 1998 show that 16% of the world population is illiterate (by the UN definition). In the United States alone, 5% of the population is illiterate by the US Government definition, according to the 1990 Census. Seven million UK residents are functionally illiterate according to Government figures. Among the Arab states, more than 25% of men and 50% of women are illiterate as of 2000. [1] The most likely reason for low levels of literacy is lack of education.

Some have suggested that the lower the illiteracy rate of a country, generally the lifespan increases, although critics have argued that this is a Post hoc. Literacy does aid the provision of healthcare in a number of very practical ways (ability to read prescriptions and understand doctors conclusions are two examples of this).

See also

Numeracy, Dick and Jane.

External links