What is literacy?

Museum of the Navy

Quarterman shipfitter looks at blueprints, 1943. Museum of the U.S. Navy

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another and empowers them to achieve things they never thought possible. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.” 

International Literacy Association, 2018

On the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. In the face of changes in staff, in curriculum, in differing perspectives on literacy instruction.

I am defined by literacy. I’ve loved reading and writing all my life. My professional work is literacy: As a coach, I collaborate with teacher colleagues across grade levels on how to best teach English Language Arts in ways that meet the needs of all students.

When it comes to defining literacy, I rely on the International Literacy Association, for no two dictionaries, and hardly any two people, seem to have the same idea of it. Some believe it’s just reading and writing. But it’s so much more . . . .

In the ILA definition several things jump out at me, beginning with

the ability to interpret

in any context

I think of my grandfather.

Over a hundred years ago, my grandfather left school to work on his family’s little North Carolina farm. He married during the Great Depression. When tenant farming, sharecropping, and other odd jobs like painting houses weren’t enough for him to “make a go of it,” Granddaddy rode with men from his hometown to Newport News, Virginia, in hopes of landing steady work at the shipyard.

Granddaddy became a shipwright, responsible for helping build the keels of ships, less than a year before Pearl Harbor. When America entered World War II, production continued around the clock with the invention of a new thing: aircraft carriers.

He made his living; he took care of his own. He retired from the shipyard when I was five. He and Grandma moved back home and there I spent my childhood summers.

In the evenings he sat in his recliner while Grandma and I sat on the living room floor. She spread the newspaper out on the carpet, handed me the “funnies” section, and then she read the rest of the paper in a loud, clear voice to Granddaddy—his years around industrial equipment in the Yard had made him hard of hearing.

I eventually asked:

Why do you read the paper to Granddaddy? Why doesn’t he just read it?

He can’t, Dear. 

Why? Is something wrong with his eyes?

No, no. He just never learned to read, not much, really. He quit school in the fourth grade to help on his family’s farm, you see . . . .

I was stunned. This was the first time I’d known of anyone who couldn’t read.

It hurt my heart for him.

But I later learned that he could read intricate blueprints and build to those precise measurements. That’s what he did at the shipyard all those years.

It’s something I can’t do.

 the ability to identify, understand, interpret

using visual

materials across disciplines

and in any context

My grandfather was always a farmer first; he read the days, the seasons, the weather.

He read nature. When he and I came across strange worms gliding over his front sidewalk, he couldn’t identify them but instinctively knew to leave them alone. Decades later I researched them (land planarians) and learned that if he’d tried to crush or chop them up, every piece would have replicated and they would have destroyed the good earthworms that kept his garden so abundant and healthy.

Signs, symbols, meanings, he understood. Not in or from books, but from life. He possessed visual-spatial acuity. Keen intuition. He read the times in which he lived, comprehended that the way of life he and the generations before him had known was passing forever. He reached for better things. He worked hard. He collaborated with a lot of different people. The shipyard management eventually asked him to be a supervisor, and that’s where his courage ran out. It required regular paperwork. He declined the position.

My heart ached again, deeply, on learning that.

The ability to read, write, and communicate connects people to one another

and empowers them to achieve things

they never thought possible.

That belief is behind everything I do with teachers and students.

The greatest man I’ve ever known indirectly taught me, years ago, that reading and writing are the keys to opening doors of possibility and opportunity. He also taught me that literacy is so much more, long before this digital age.

We have to be able to read words and ascertain their meaning, but our survival depends on more. We must be able to read the times, read people, read what we see, what we are creating. And make sense of it. We must interpret. That’s the entire, inherent value of reading and writing in the first place.

We must communicate well with one another, recognizing that each of us possesses different strengths, all of which are valuable to helping each other. Communication is the keel on which all good relationships are built. We must speak, but we must listen more, absorb more, understand more.

Communication and connection are the basis of who we are

and how we live together

and interact with the world.

My grandfather survived—his family survived—because of his clarity of vision and sense of purpose.  He knew he lived through unique times. In his last years he preserved his life experiences for future generations not by penning a memoir but by recording his stories on a set of audiotapes. I don’t think he ever knew just how unique, how extraordinary, he was. In my mind I see him now—thick white hair, plaid shirt, gray pants with a black belt, black shoes, his big, wrinkled, work-worn hands folded in his lap, leaning back in his recliner listening to my grandmother reading. In addition to the nightly newspaper, she read the Bible through to him each year.

And so, on the eve of the New School Year, I contemplate my role in the scheme of things. I think of the constant adaptation of teachers to the times and the changing tides of literacy instruction; of students, each of whom has strengths and gifts that may not be obvious at first. I think of their futures and know that clarity of vision and a sense of purpose are vital to their learning and well-being. To all of our well-being. I think of my grandfather reading complex blueprints and going forth to build something previously unknown in a vastly changing world. I think about life literacy as well as literacy for life. How we live together and interact with the world.

For, in truth, we are building the world.


Here’s the story of Granddaddy and me encountering those unknown worms long ago: First do no harm.

16 thoughts on “What is literacy?

  1. A lovely tribute to your grandfather as well as a compelling case for literacy, the full realm of its definition. Good luck in this new school year. Your wisdom and compassion will lead you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I have thought about just that, putting his narrative in sequence and writing it. I also think that another thing that made him great was that he loved children; he took up so much time with me. With such joy.


  2. I cried reading these words- these poignant, beautiful, stop-and-made-me-think words. Literacy is what I’ve dedicated my life to as well and I had a grandfather I adored, much like yours. The way you saw all he COULD do and interpret about people, nature and life points to the complexity of people- we are not defined by what we cannot do but by what we can. I love how your grandfather listened to your grandmother read and how all of this has shaped you and the work you do with teachers and students. How proud they must have been of you! Fran, I know I say it every week but you are a very special person, teacher and writer. I wish so much that your writing about teaching and life would be in a book! You have outstanding talent and seeing the world and making sense of it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t even have words enough to thank you, Kathleen. Your summation of “we are not defined by what we cannot do but by what we can” hits straight to the heart of this piece and to my own heart. You keep making me think about my stories and how a collection might be possible! Thank you so very much for your edifying voice & words. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh! This is beautiful. I love how you see your grandfather, how your vision of him becomes a vision for all, how you honor all he can do and imagine even more. I love this line about students, that their “clarity of vision and a sense of purpose are vital to their learning and well-being. To all of our well-being.” My heart and my mind said “YES” over and over as I read. Thank you for your eloquence.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That line was a late addition to this post; I struggled to frame my thinking and what exactly I was trying to say. The whole thing underwent much revision. So gratified that it resonated so with you – thank you, Amanda!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I pinned this post to read later…I apologize for my delayed comment! One of the reasons I love being a librarian is that I get to laser-focus on literacy, both print and information. I also get to introduce students to a variety of people (fictitious and real) and careers through books and access to online databases they might otherwise never meet or consider. I get to tell the story of my vocational high school-educated father who joined the Army, then went on to head a Patriot missile team–and earning far more than his college-educated daughter in the process. Intelligence and literacy are multi-faceted; thanks for sharing your heartfelt story on this topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I so appreciate your thoughtful comments and am always glad to hear them, no matter how long it takes! The life stories we know and can share are vital to expanding horizons, exploring possibilities, seeing through different lenses, overcoming challenges. A story can make all the difference in a life and inspiration for living it … you’re so in the right role. I smile wryly at your dad out-earning you; life experience vs. college … thank you for your well-said point about literacy and intelligence being multifaceted. And thank you, always, for reading, and for your rousing words.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is one of the best definitions and explanations I have read of literacy so far. Thanks for amplifying the concept and application in life. I love the fact that your grandma read to him. That’s a way of reading ins’t it? I would love to hear her story also 🙂 And those audio tapes! That’s another way of writing. I will be back 😉 Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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