What does it mean to be literate?

Definitions vary:

  • Reading, writing, speaking and listening (The Common Core State Standards Initiative)
  • Understanding, using, reflecting on and engaging with written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate in society (The Programme for International Student Assessment)
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) 2010 report, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2009 Results

Here’s a video on the PISA 2009 Results.

At its most basic, literacy means the ability to read. When and where did this ability begin?

  • Scientists believe symbols representing ideas first developed around 8,000 years ago in ancient Sumer, in what we call Iraq. The symbols were used by commercial and agricultural interests to keep track of the numbers of things—chickens and eggs, for example.
  • Egyptian hieroglyphics developed about 5,300 years ago; it was the first system to include some phonetic symbols, not just pictographs.
  • Written Chinese notations began around 3200 years ago.
  • Around 3500 years ago, in Canaan, in what is now Syria, a consonant system of notations was first used.
  • Later alphabets (Phoenician, Hebrew and Aramaic) using both consonants and vowels, are thought to be based on this Canaan alphabet.
  • Beginning around 2700 years ago, the Greek alphabet derived from these others.
  • Literacy was widespread among male citizens of ancient Rome, but with the fall of the Roman Empire, literacy retreated , becoming the practice of princes and priests. Over the centuries, as trade increased, so did the need for some literate citizens. The Industrial Revolution which produced cheap paper and books became a strong force for more widespread reading, but so did educational reform which required children to learn reading, writing and arithmetic.

Today in the U.S., the ability to read is not universal, even though some statistics show the U.S. has a 99% literacy rate.

  • One out of three fourth graders scored “below basic” on the 2009 National Assessment of Education Progress Reading Test, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
  • More than 67 percent of all U.S. fourth graders scored “below proficient” on this same test, meaning they are not reading at grade level.
  • If a child is not reading proficiently by fourth grade, that child has a 78% chance of never catching up.

–Mrs. K

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