What is Literacy? Literacy & Transformation

“TRANSFORMATION” (Image by Dejan Vucelic)

The question “What is Literacy?” may be easily defined at its most basic level (concerning the needs of the individual) as the ability to read and write (Literacyonline.org; Wikipedia; American Heritage Online Dictionary). Adding to this definition, Wikipedia lists computer literacy, numeracy, and “the ability to use language” including speaking and listening. Moving away from defining literacy as a set of skills, Wikipedia also offers the following:

What counts as literacy is determined by the cultural, political, and historical contexts of the community in which it is used….In modern contexts, the word means reading and writing in a level adequate for written communication and generally a level that enables one to successfully function at certain levels of a society if that society is one in which literacy plays a role in providing access to power. (2006, para. 1; Literacy in the 21st Century section, para. 1)

It is Ong, however, in Orality and Literacy (1982) who seeks to define literacy as a phenomenon defined and shaped by what came before it: Literacy is a move away from orality; it is a technology that transformed man’s developing consciousness, expression and communication in ways that orality couldn’t.

The question “What is Literacy?” is one that seemed simple enough to this writer; I had assumed a definition based on ability (skills) without much consideration for the antecedents of literacy or how profoundly literacy has affected and transformed world cultures. It is this transformation that I find most compelling. Ong writes:

[Writing] is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word….Writing heightens consciousness….To live and understand fully, we need not only proximity but also distance. This writing provides for consciousness as nothing else does. (Orality and Literacy, p. 81)

Not only does literacy, or the technology of the written/printed word, have the ability to transform the user, but literacy can transform the very language or grapholect it serves: “The lexical richness of grapholects begins with writing, but its fullness is due to print” (Ong, p.106).

Ong continues his exploration of literacy and how it has “shaped and powered the intellectual activity of modern man” by contrasting the qualitative differences between orality and literacy, the process of transformation among human cultures from orality to literacy (and most recently the emergence of a secondary orality), and the effects of this transformation on human cultures (Orality and Literacy, p. 82). Ong concludes that whereas cultures of orality were largely communal, socially-minded and in their story-telling, action-focused, the emergence of cultures of literacy signaled an inward turn, a “move toward a selfconscious, articulate, highly personal, interiority” (Orality and Literacy, p. 175).

It may be concluded then that one of the key factors that influenced and thereby transformed not just communication, record-keeping, story-telling, etc, but the ways in which we think about, express, and come to know ourselves, was literacy. Beyond a definition of what one can do as a literate being (ability, skill) lies a history of who one has been able to become (psychological development and transformation) because of the written and printed word, a secondary and perhaps deeper definition of literacy.


  1. Literacy. (2006). In Wikipedia [Web]. Retrieved 9/5/06, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy
  2. Ong, W. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. NewYork: Routledge.

About Marlen Harrison

Dr. Marlen Elliot Harrison has been teaching language, communication, composition, literature and gender/sexuality studies at universities in Asia, Europe and North America since 1997.
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