What is literacy?

Education experts and researchers agree that developing the literacy necessary to succeed in the twenty-first century requires not just the skill to decode letters and words, but the ability to read and write to access knowledge and communicate with the world.  These essential “knowledge capabilities—which include the ability to compose, comprehend, synthesize, reflect upon, and critique—require conscious and sustained development throughout primary and secondary schooling.”[1]

Twenty-first century literacy includes

  • elementary literacy—the letter- and word-recognition abilities and phonetics that most students learn prior to third grade—and
  • adolescent literacy—the knowledge capabilities that build on primary literacy skills and develop the ability to compose, comprehend, reflect upon, and critique.

Literacy development is progressive and cumulative, and evidence-based instruction is required throughout the primary and secondary years in order to attain the level of functional adult literacy necessary to function as an adult in society, including participation in the economy, political process, and other activities of citizenship.

Because literacy development is cumulative, students who have been denied the opportunity to attain literacy fall further behind with each year of schooling. For example, students with low reading comprehension skills have trouble progressing further in school because they cannot read grade-appropriate texts. There are very few books written at a third-grade reading level that are cognitively appropriate for high school aged students, so students who are behind in their literacy development often cannot read texts that can engage and educate them with high school content.

Failure to engage students with interesting and developmentally appropriate content relevant to their lives then deters students from investing in further development of their literacy skills, causing students to fall even farther behind.

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[1] See generally Catherine Snow et al., Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children (1998).