Asking The Wrong Questions

It is nearly impossible to determine the role of textual literacy in the 21st century workplace.  This is not because of the supposedly ill-effects of illiteracy on business, but rather, because no standard definition of literacy exists—just standard expectations.  We cannot understand the importance of professional literacy without first examining what it truly means to be literate and what it truly means to be illiterate.

The problem is simple; we do not have a universal definition of literacy, and without one, we cannot hope to understand what role it might play in the success or failure of a business.  All of the most accessible resources that attempt to define literacy contradict each other to an extent, or offer varied information: “According to the National Coalition for Literacy, adult literacy is defined as the ability to use ‘printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.’ The Chicago Literacy organization Literacy Works states that their mission is to ‘fulfill the promise of a basic human right: to read, to write, and interpret the world[…]’ Similarly, fellow organization Open Books states on their website that ‘Literacy skills are life skills, and there is a literary crisis in America’” (CITE).  Instead of asking ourselves why we need our employees to be literature, we should be asking, “But what do we really mean by ‘literacy?’” and trying to understand why, “Most of these adults have some reported reading ability, yet they are not considered a member of the group labeled ‘literate’” (CITE).

There is another question that we must ask ourselves: where is the line between literacy and illiteracy?  There is no clear distinction between the two, or even between literary deficiency and illiteracy, which makes it impossible to understand the role it plays in the workplace or otherwise.

We must consider “Those who are merely ‘functionally literature’ [who] may be able to complete a set of simple reading tasks or answer simple comprehension questions, but they may not have the literacy skills needed to operate in their daily lives as determined by a sector of society, whether this is the education system, the business world, or social groups.”  Where do these individuals fall on a universal illiteracy scale?  In the workplace, are they still considered to be deficient, even though they can read material and comprehend it at a basic level?  Or does the workplace view them as illiterate?  But the line between literacy and illiteracy is blurred even outside of the workplace; are their skills proficient enough for society to view them as literate, or do they fall short, despite the setting?

When attempting to evaluate the role of literacy in the modern workplace, “It is important to keep in mind that multiple literacies exist in the world and that people have the ability to be proficient in numerous literacies, using them in different facets of their lives (CITE). Until this sentiment is recognized and accepted as true, and universal definitions of literacy and illiteracy—as well as their boundaries and grey areas—are established, we will not be able to determine their importance in any capacity, but especially in a professional capacity.




Bond, Veronica. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Literacy: A Look into the Value, Measurement, and Power Hierarchy of Literacy.” DePaul University Mar. 2011. Web. 18 Sep. 2014.

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