Literally Literate: How the idea of literacy has spread beyond the act of writing

Literacy Meme

A literacy meme that says “oh so think literacy is just reading and writing?” across the top and “tell me how that’s going for you” across the bottom.

Whether in class or in the real world, we have all heard terms such as “digital literacy”,  “financial literacy” or even moreAlberta Education defines literacy as “the ability, confidence and willingness to engage with language to acquire, construct and communicate meaning in all aspects of daily living”. In this definition, we see how the idea of literacy has expanded beyond just the act of writing.

Examples of types of literacy

An image depicting types of literacy, such as information, technology, and data literacy.

Literacy has become shorthand for being able to navigate the complex systems that surround us. While in schools we still emphasize reading and writing the most, it is well documented that we need many literacies to become socially engaged citizens. As seen in Scribner and Cole’s “Literacy without schooling: Testing for intellectual effects”, literacy has long been entwined with schooling and therefore cognitive development. Researchers such as Scribner and Cole have pushed back on this, but in the modern American education system, one needs literacy to pursue education.

Student with book

A student being handed a book by a teacher.

So what does the extrapolation of the term literacy say about how we culturally view the act of literacy? First, it emphasizes the connection between literacy and schooling. The idea one has to be “financially literate” in order to grow your financial resources is just one parallel to this theory. With this new definition and new terms, we see an even greater conflation of literacy and schooling. To be literate in a topic is to be educated on it as well as being able to navigate complex situations surrounding a given form of literacy.

Second, we see an increase in the divides between traditionally literate and non-literate persons. As many of these types of literacies still need reading and writing skills to learn and use, one has to be traditionally literate to pursue many of these new types of literacy, especially those lower in socioeconomic status. Digital literacy can be economically uplifting, but one has to pursue knowledge via already established literacy skills, such as reading tutorials or blog posts. With the internet, we see a greater challenge for non-literate people to overcome.

What does this mean for students? Does this evolving definition mean that students who are being taught literacy have more on their plate? In my opinion, I think this rather shows people opening up the “right to literacy” to more skillsets. We all need a complex understanding to navigate our increasingly complex world, and everyone has a right to learn these other types of literacies as well. This is why we see iPad tutorials for elderly populations, or financial advice nonprofits. Like traditional literacy, arming people with these skills allow them to transcend the barriers that keep them down, and become politically and socially aware of the world around them. People have a right to knowledge of the systems around them, and the expansion of the term literacy is just one example of that growing belief.

Too Poor to Have Your Incredible Movement Make Millions? No Longer!

From shells and clay to “Reddit” and GameStop, writing has become cheaper and increasing democratizing. Systems of writing have progressed through an incredible number of technologies that have made writing more affordable throughout history.

A system of shells and clay indentations surely was an expensive system of writing, reserved for those who stood to make money in Susa. It seems unlikely that any political activists of Susa could have afforded to copy their essay on thousands of clay tablets.

Fast forward to the Printing Press of 1440. Suddenly ideas worth sharing like the Bible are no longer for those who can afford handwritten copies. It did not take long in human history, for activists to realize how writings like the Bible can catch fire at an affordable price.

Benjamin Franklin and many other enlightenment activists, although wealthy, now can actually spread their ideas such as revolting against unfair taxation. If the founding fathers wrote on clay tablets, it is likely that America would have remained a British colony.


The 20th century is where writing became about as cheap as it is today. Your average person could still afford to print their own pamphlets, and books had become cheaper than ever. But only large conglomerations like newspapers possessed the wealth and power to insight national change from writing.

Truly, all important speeches, announcements, etc. came filtered through the individual agendas of newspaper cooperation. Perhaps the phrasing “FBI Finds Nixon Aides Sabotaged Democrats” found on the front page of the Washington Post on Oct 10, 1972, could sway readers against Nixon before even understanding the situation.

Despite how cheap printing had become, newspaper companies remained in control of what was written and read by their massive audiences of voters. In other words, the proletariat was still being told what to think by those who could afford to tell them.

Fast forward to Jan 25, 2021. Extremely cheap online writing and communication have finally hit their stride. Communicating and writing on the forum “Reddit” if you look in the correct places is nearly entirely free, for example, a library computer. There the proletariat can finally discuss ideas to audiences of millions in a manner they can afford. This free passage of writing has brought greater coordination of free people than Ben Franklin could have ever imagined.  A subsection of Reddit, called “r/wallstreetbets,” created a proposition to topple the ability of the wealthy to control written narratives. Their success has once and for all proven that accessibility to writing can take power from the rich and give it to the poor.

Many articles have been written about the “wallstreetbets” GameStop short squeeze. But this will summarize the impact it has had on democracy through writing. Large firms and wealthy people were the only ones knowledgeable and rich enough to make significant money off of failing businesses in the past. “Wallstreetbets” was able to effectively counter these billionaires’ trade strategies and make even more from those billionaires. But “Wallstreetbets” is a group of millions of less wealthy people. So, the only way to effectively counter, as proposed before, is through cheap and mass communication. Only by being brought together through this communication could the proletariat have taken money, and control of what is perceived as possible from the rich and coordinate their movement. That is something that could never have been accomplished without technological and economic advancements on the clay tablet.