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Defining literacy

a pile of books in a library

Defining literacy

An individual who is literate has traditionally been defined as someone who can read and write to a certain level. In most societies, a person who can read and understand a newspaper is considered literate. However, a person does not need to write to that level to be considered literate. Simply filling in basic forms such as a job application is considered sufficiently literate. Obviously the definition of literacy depends on the the task that the person is expected to complete.

When a person reads or writes they are interpreting symbols. These symbols change over time and vary considerably between languages. Reading is the interpretation of symbols into a message that can be understood and processed by the reader. Literacy therefore, is the ability to interact successfully with the world by sending, receiving and decoding messages.

In keeping with this definition, to successfully interact in today’s world, our literacy skills must be expanded beyond just pen and paper. For example, you may have received scam emails (such as phishing emails) that pretend to be from a bank or the ATO. These emails can look exactly the same as a legitimate email however they ask for money, credit card details or other information that the legitimate organisation would never request. Being able to determine whether an email is legitimate or a scam is a literacy skill. The skills required for this task include:

  • Reading skills (determining if a sentence sounds like it uses the style of language you would expect).
  • Knowledge of scams (listening skills - media reports, friends or family discussing the latest scams).
  • Knowledge of technology (for example spotting clues in the email address or meta data).
  • Critical literacy - interpreting the structure of the email, comparing it to previous emails, looking at sentence structure, images, logos, thinking about the address or phone number.
  • Procedural skills - calling the organisation directly using a number obtained from a Google search (not a contact detail, link or website provided in the email).


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