There are no universal definitions and standards of literacy, however the most common definition is:

‘The ability to read and write at a specified age’. In 1978, UNESCO’s General Conference adopted the still in use definition of functional literacy as: ‘A person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning of his (or her) group and community and also for enabling him (or her) to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his (or her) own and the community’s development.’

Over the 1980’s and 1990’s, definitions of literacy broadened to accommodate the challenges of globalisation, including the impact of new technology and information media along with the emergence of knowledge economies. The World Declaration on Education for All (Jomtien, 1990) placed the challenge of literacy within the broader context of: ‘Meeting the basic learning needs of every child, youth and adult.’ Literacy is no longer exclusively understood as an individual phenomenon, but is seen also as a contextual and societal one.

Today, the spectrum of literacy includes:

  • Alphabetic literacy, which refers to a person being able to write his or her own name
  • Functional reading and writing literacy that allows a person to read or write on the most elementary and basic levels of everyday life
  • Social literacy that empowers one to read, write and communicate effectively using the cultural language of a particular community (e.g. social and linguistic norms, unspoken communication customs, etc.)
  • Information literacy, which requires people to use critical thinking skills to locate, evaluate and use information in order to become independent learners
  • Digital information literacy: this includes emerging literacies such as computer, network, software, visual, multi-media, audio, tool, and Internet literacy
  • Aliteracy is a newly coined word meaning having the ability to read but being unwilling to do so

Definitions of literacy now include numeracy, problem-solving skills, and knowledge of social practices, language and culture. They will soon include some level of computer literacy. Literacy is about more than reading and writing – it is about how we communicate in society. It is about social practices and relationships, about knowledge, language and culture

Dzingai Mutumbuka

Human Development Sector Manager, World Bank Eastern & Southern Africa


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