Book cover

A few years ago, when a very bright and avidly reading eight-year-old friend announced that she had named her new stuffed bear and its cub Bakey and Bearey, I asked her how she spelled the words. Memorably and instructively, she replied, “I don’t worry about spelling.” She shed more light on questions of literacy than she realized. Spelling does not equal literacy. It is not the same as reading and writing.

Popularly and politically, literacy is synonymous with culture and progress for individuals, societies, nations. It exists in dizzying promoted varieties; there are hundreds of proclaimed literacies. But literacy also resists transmission to everyone. The reasons why are as many as they are contradictory. They range from individual to institutional and political failings.

Literacy’s place in popular culture is one telling sign of confusion. Corporations celebrate reading and writing in normative, consumer, and durable terms—for their own profit. So do fields and disciplines, and identity groups. Their endless proclamations are revealingly, though poorly expressed.

Today few subjects attract the attention or spark responses as powerful as literacy does. Claims of literacy’s and illiteracy’s presumed consequences surround us. Few pressing issues—from individual and collective well-being, social welfare and security, and the state of nations—escape association with literacy. Divisive issues of politics, race, class, nationality, gender, or geography run up against it.

Despite literacy’s acknowledged importance, its powers on the one hand, and the dangers of its absence or diminution, on the other hand, are taken out of context and exaggerated. Revealingly, literacy is seldom defined.

At the same time, we drown in a new era of an endless flowering of many or multiple literacies. They range from the “‘new’ literacies” of “new media” of visuality, screens, moving and animated images, numbers and symbols, to assertions of literacies, of some kind or other, of every imaginable subject, from aural and oral to emotional, food, sex, culture, and countless others. And we are also told, less clearly and coherently, that literacy, as we have known it, is irrelevant in the age of post-everything. I have a list of almost 500 hundred “literacies” mentioned in print.

No wonder confusion is rife.

Critical examination, as my new book Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) reveals a different set of relationships and prompt other understandings. Literacy’s uses and impacts are also aligned with continuities and control. Literacy’s impacts are contradictory, seldom simple or unmediated.

Similarly, literacy at least as often is associated with groups as with legacy of individuals that dominate images. On the one hand, we need to focus on the collective as well as individual uses of literacy, as people throughout the ages have done. On the other hand, both collective and individual dimensions influence how each level acquires, uses, and are affected by reading and writing. Consider schooling or religious or governmental practices, or popular reading culture, or the collective aspects of artistic and scientific endeavors. Simple images quickly give way to complexity and sometimes contradictory.

Dominant images emphasize literacy for liberation (which can be quite restrictive) and individual advancement; less often for collective progress (or conservative reaction). The simplified association of classical Athenian democracy with the incomplete literacy of male citizens is an influential example.

We need to study literacy and literacies in new ways in their widest living circumstances and relationships, lived and written, experienced and recorded.

It is seemingly easy to study writing and “print.” But it has been so hard to study reading and writing as practiced across media and modes of understanding and expression, especially in their formative relationships to conceptions, ideologies, policies, institutions, and expectations.

In my historian’s view, literacy and its understanding are historical developments and must be understood that way. Developments over time and space profoundly affect our traditions of thinking about and understanding literacy and how teach it.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University, USA. He was inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies and founded the university-wide interdisciplinary initiative LiteracyStudies@OSU. One of the world’s authorities, his many books are recognized landmarks. His new book, Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies (Palgrave Macmillan) is just published.