In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Literacy

  • Introduction
  • International Reports in Literacy Education
  • Textbooks
  • Handbooks
  • Journals
  • Theoretical Perspectives
  • Literacy Debates
  • Boys and Literacy
  • Addressing Literacy Disadvantage
  • Writing
  • Multiliteracies

Education Literacy
Jennifer Rennie, Evan Ortlieb
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0095


Improving literacy standards is high on the agendas of governments and educational authorities around the globe. The importance of literacy cannot be understated. It is fundamental for all learning, both in and outside of school. It has been linked to personal well-being and for the role it plays in social, economic, and cultural development, and it is used as a measure of success for individuals, schools, and nations. Literacy enhances employability, job satisfaction, level of remuneration, and community participation. The terms literate and illiterate originated from the Latin term literatus, which means a learned person, and being literate has long been associated with the ability to read and write. Despite this definition of literacy, how one might describe a literate person has changed over time. History tells us that literacy is a mutable concept—never stable or fixed. Organizations such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) regularly report comparative literacy statistics for a range of nations worldwide. Given the importance placed on literacy globally, governments continue to pour huge amounts of funding into initiatives to improve student outcomes in literacy. In the quest to lift literacy outcomes, there have been heated theoretical and pedagogical debates in the educational arena. Furthermore, despite firm commitments to improve literacy outcomes for all students, there continues to be groups of students who fare less well than other students based on gender, socioeconomic status, and race.

International Reports in Literacy Education

Eminent reports on the status of literacy education have been widely distributed in the 21st century age of high-stakes testing and greater accountability. Reports included in this section highlight the educational progress of countries such as the United States (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development 2000), United Kingdom (Department for Education 2011) and Australia (Department of Education, Science and Training 2005), albeit similar reports are available for specific countries. In 1985 with the publication of the US–based Commission on Reading report, Becoming a Nation of Readers, it was understood that if what we know about reading instruction were implemented in every classroom, reading improvement would be tremendous. Yet, literacy rates remained stagnant over the next decade. The US National Research Council examined the underlying causes of these reading problems and soon thereafter published Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Though previously suggested for implementation, best practices of reading instruction were not often aligned with reading programs until the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development released Teaching Children to Read in the Report of the National Reading Panel. US federal funding was restricted to programs using these research-based practices. To further highlight the directives to prevent reading failure, the National Early Literacy Panel 2008 published Developing Early Literacy: A Scientific Synthesis of Early Literacy Development and Implications for Intervention. Directives were exerted toward beginning literacy attainment from early grades or even as soon as birth. With global initiatives in literacy research came international reports of literacy attainment. The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment report highlights comparable performance of many countries along with data that relates to specific states and territories. These reports indicate relative performance of literacy attainment in an attempt to influence literacy instruction and policy formation. These and other salient reports have been included in this compendium to provide an international perspective of policy, practice, and evaluative measures that have set the stage for understanding current trends in schools today.

  • Anderson, Richard C., Elfrieda H. Hiebert, Judith A. Scott, and Ian A. G. Wilkinson. 1985. Becoming a nation of readers: The report of the Commission on Reading. Washington, DC: National Academy of Education.

    The Commission’s report defined those aspects of skilled reading as inclusive of being constructive, fluent, strategic, motivated, and lifelong in pursuit. Members dichotomized reading as either “Emerging Literacy”—as in the beginning stages of learning to read, or “Extending Literacy”—as in proficient reading integral to learning all subject areas.

  • Department for Education. 2011. Review of the National Curriculum in England: Summary report of the call for evidence. Runcorn, UK: Department for Education.

    This review found pupils should be competent in foundational listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills before progressing to other subjects, emphasizing early literacy and language acquisition. A key stage approach, rather than a year-by-year approach, to curricular planning and instruction is suggested the most appropriate support system for English learning.

  • Department of Education, Science and Training. 2005. Teaching reading: Report and recommendations. National inquiry into the teaching of literacy. Canberra, Australia: Department of Education, Science and Training.

    This report recognizes best practices in reading instruction, which are paramount to societal success in the ever-changing economic times, involving aspects of both phonics and whole language approaches. This integration must also involve a highly skilled reading professional and support from the child’s home to ensure optimal literacy learning.

  • National Early Literacy Panel. 2008. Developing early literacy: A scientific synthesis of early literacy development and implications for intervention. Jessup, MD: National Institute for Literacy.

    The National Early Literacy Panel report is a synthesis of research published on early literacy acquisition. This meta-analysis includes diverse interventions with demonstrable positive effects on early literacy learning. It calls for additional high-quality research to advance the existing knowledgebase of early literacy acquisition and instruction.

  • National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. 2000. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction; Reports of the subgroups. National Institutes of Health Publication 00-4769. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services.

    This report describes the findings of the National Reading Panel, commissioned by Congress, to investigate and establish an evidence base for demonstrated successful types of instruction. The quantitative framework for analysis resulted in a number of recommendations for reading instruction.

  • OECD Programme for International Student Assessment.

    The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) measures young adults’ preparedness for meeting real-life challenges. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average was 493 points; with countries such as China (Shanghai, Hong Kong), Korea, Finland, Singapore, and Canada significantly outperforming others.

  • Snow, Catherine E., M. Susan Burns, and Peg Griffin. 1998. Preventing reading difficulties in young children.Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    This US review on preventing reading difficulties resulted in a framework for quality primary reading instruction that included explicit instruction in oral language, phonics elements, word recognition and meaning, fluency, comprehension, and writing. Beginning literacy instruction early is quintessential to growth and development.

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