Literacy is competence with a written language, a script. This competence includes not only an individual's ability to read and write a script but also one's access to and competence with the documentary resources of a literate society. Literacy holds a prominent place in the political goals of both developed and developing nations as manifest in universal, compulsory education where literacy is seen as a means to personal, social, and economic fulfillment. Literacy is a more general concept than READING and writing, including not only competence with and uses of reading and writing but also the roles that reading and writing play in the formation and accumulation of the procedures, laws, and texts that serve as the primary embodiment of historical culture. Literate, bureaucratic, or "document" societies are those in which such archival texts and documents play a central and authoritative role. Such societies depend on highly literate specialists.

Writing and communication Writing has obvious advantages over speech for communication across space and through time, factors which various media, including the book, the printing press, the telegraph, and computer technologies, exploit and extend in various ways. Writing played an essential role in the formation and operation of the first large-scale societies, whether as cities, nations, or empires in ancient China, Sumer, Egypt, and Mesoamerica, where it played a critical role in record keeping (Nissen, Damerow, and Englund 1993), codification and publication of law (Harris 1989), the development of literature (Havelock 1963), and the accumulation of knowledge whether as history or science (Eisenstein 1969).

Writing and representation Not only does writing alter patterns of communication, written texts and commentaries on texts build up a tradition of scholarship. Such accumulations tend to lose their connections with personal authorship and may come to be treated as objects in their own rights, as Scripture, as Law, or as Science. Consequently, writing comes to serve as a mode of representation of what is taken as "known." Three aspects of this problem have been taken up in the cognitive sciences: the relation between speech and writing, the acquisition of literacy, and the effects of literate representations on the formation of mind.

Speech and writing Although scripts are not designed according to fixed principles, WRITING SYSTEMS may be classified according to type, each type bearing a particular relation to the structure of speech. Each type of script, consequently, requires a reader to carve up the stream of speech in a distinctive, graphically determined way. The problem for the learner is to analyze, that is, conceive of, oral speech in terms of the categories offered by the script (Shankweiler and Liberman 1972; Faber 1992; Harris 1986; Olson 1994). On this view, the properties of speech available for INTROSPECTION, such as words, sentences, syllables, and phonemic segments, are the consequence of literacy, of applying written models to speech. A major problem in learning to read is learning to "hear" speech in a new way, that is, in a way compatible with the items -- words and letters -- composing the script. Studies of nonliterate adults' (Morais, Alegria, and Content 1987) and of prereading children's beliefs about writing (Ferreiro and Teberosky 1982) as well as the vast literature on metalinguistic awareness (Goswami and Bryant 1990) tend to support this view.

Writing and the mind Although the mind as a biological organ is common to all humans, mind as a conscious, conceptual system is in part the product of culture. In a modern bureaucratic culture, mind is closely linked to literacy but just how remains the subject of research and theory. Although the theory linking forms of writing with levels of culture and thought is to be found in such eighteenth-century writers as Vico and Condorcet, modern theory is more clearly traced to Levy-Bruhl's theory of "primitive thought," now widely criticized, and the theories that first appeared in the 1960s by Goody (1968), McLuhan (1962), Havelock (1963), and later Ong (1982), which contrasted "orality" and "literacy" both as modes of communication and modes of thought. Writing allowed, it was argued, a particular form of study and contemplation, the formation of logics and dictionaries, a focus on "verbatim" interpretation and memorization with an interpretive bias to literalism. Although the increasing and pervasive reliance on written records and other written documents in many societies is undeniable (Clanchy 1992; Thomas 1992), the relations between "orality" and "literacy" continue to be debated. CULTURAL PSYCHOLOGY attempts to understand the cognitive implications of such developments. Although writing never replaces speaking but rather preserves aspects of speech and other forms of information as permanent visible artifacts, these literate artifacts may in turn alter the very linguistic and conceptual practices of a social group, activities that blur, almost to the point of obliterating, the distinction between orality and literacy.

Literate thought Although mind reflects as well as invents culture and although human competence must be analyzed in terms of the available technologies (Clark 1996: 61), the technology of greatest importance for understanding conceptual and intellectual advance in the arts and sciences is the invention of writing and other notational systems (Donald 1991; Olson 1994).

Conceptual development in children is, in part, the consequence of the acquisition of these systems for representing thought (VYGOTSKY 1986). Furthermore, writing is instrumental to thinking in general as a form of metalinguistic knowledge -- that is, knowledge about the lexical, grammatical, and logical properties of the language. Vocabulary knowledge, for example, is greatly extended by reading (Anglin 1993; Anderson 1985), and reflective knowledge about words serves as a major aspect of measured intelligence in a literate society (Stanovich 1986).

Literacy and social development Because literacy plays such a prominent role in modern societies, it is often assumed that the route to social development is through teaching people to read and write (UNESCO 1985). Current research and practice has shown that in order to bring about cultural and social transformation, literacy must be seen as an activity embedded in social and cultural practice. Literacy, bureaucratic institutional structures with explicit procedures and accountability, and democratic participation are mutually reinforcing. Rather than being seen simply as a goal, literacy has come to be seen as a means to fuller participation in the institutions of the society, whether in law, science, or literature (Street 1985) as well as a means for their transformation.

See also

Additional links

-- David Olson


Anderson, R. C. (1985). Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading. Pittsburgh, PA: National Academy of Education.

Anglin, J. M. (1993). Vocabulary development: a morphological analysis. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development 58, no. 10:1-66.

Clanchy, M. (1992). From Memory to Written Record. Oxford: Blackwell.

Clark, A. (1996). Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again. Cambridge, MA: Bradford/MIT Press.

Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the Modern Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Eisenstein, E. (1979). The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Faber, A. (1992). Phonemic segmentation as epiphenomenon: evidence from the history of alphabetic writing. In P. Dowling, S. D. Lima, and M. Noonan, Eds., The Linguistics of Literacy. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Ferreiro, E., and A. Teberosky. (1982). Literacy before Schooling. Exeter, NH: Heinemann.

Goody, J. (1968). Literacy in Traditional Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goswami, U., and P. Bryant. (1990). Phonological Skills and Learning to Read. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Harris, R. (1986). The Origin of Writing. London: Duckworth.

Harris, W. V. (1989). Ancient Literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Havelock, E. (1963). Preface to Plato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Morais, J., J. Alegria, and A. Content. (1987). The relationships between segmental analysis and alphabetic literacy: an interactive view. Cahiers de Psychologie Cognitive 7:415-538.

Nissen, H. J., P. Damerow, and R. K. Englund. (1993). Archaic Bookkeeping: Early Writing and Techniques of Economic Administration in the Ancient Near East. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Olson, D. R. (1994). The World on Paper. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Methuen.

Shankweiler, D., and I. Liberman. (1972). Misreading: a search for causes. In J. Kavanaugh and I. Mattingly, Eds., Language by Ear and Language by Eye: The Relationships between Speech and Reading. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 293-317.

Stanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew effects in reading: some consequences of individual differences in the acquisition of literacy. Reading Research Quarterly 21:360-407.

Street, B. (1985). Literacy in Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thomas, R. (1992). Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

UNESCO. (1985). The Current Literacy Situation in the World. Paris: UNESCO.

Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language, A. Kozulin, Ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Further Readings

Bruner, J. S. (1996). The Culture of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cole, M. (1996). Cultural Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Condorcet, M. de. (1802). Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind, Being a Posthumous Work of the Late M. De Condorcet. Baltimore, MD: G. Fryer.

Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1992). Beyond Modularity: A Developmental Perspective on Cognitive Science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Levy-Bruhl, L. (1923). Primitive Mentality. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Nelson, K. (1996). Language in Cognitive Development: The Emergence of the Mediated Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vico, G. (1744/1984). The New Science of Giambattista Vico, T. Bergin and M. Fish, Eds. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.