Who is illiterate?    - Rosa Maria Torres

 Most people consider this question to have a simple answer: il­literates are people who can neither read nor write. However, the problem is substantially more complex. Much remains to be analyzed and discussed about the definitions of <<literacy>> and <<il­literacy>>.

 To start with, it is necessary to bear in mind that for the purpose of census records and official statistics, illiteracy is reduced to the category of absolute illiteracy, counting as illiterate only those individuals who declare themselves as such. People who can recognize the letters of the alphabet or who know how to write their own name, however, often do not consider themselves to be il­literate, and consequently do not claim to be such for statistics.

 The very notion of <<illiteracy>> is imprecise, and contributes to the confusion. The word defines a person in terms of deficiency (the lack of literacy), implicitly assuming that whoever knows and can work with the alphabet possesses the capacity to read and write. But this is clearly not the case. Many people know the alphabet by heart without knowing how to read or write. Francisca Naula, a woman who participated in a recent literacy campaign, told me, “When I was little, I memorised the alphabet. I could look at the let­ters and say ‘M’ and ‘A’. I was told that I had to connect the two let­ters to say ‘MA’, but I didn’t understand. It wasn’t worth anything to know the alphabet because I couldn’t read.”

 Moreover, the notion of <<illiteracy>> is customarily associated with the lack of schooling. A person who never attended school is automatically considered illiterate, and one who did attend, literate. Nevertheless, this is not strictly the case.  On the one hand, there are persons who learn to read and write on their own, with the help of a family member or a friend, investing great effort and considerable autodidactic energy. On the other hand, school attendance and even a completed primary school career are not necessarily guarantees for learning how to read and write. Many in­vestigations and evaluations have been conducted in this connec­tion which go to prove the inefficacy of schools to transmit literacy not just in our own country, but also in Latin America and all over the world.

Knowing how to read is not simply knowing how to recognize and mechanically decipher a group of letters: it implies being able to correctly comprehend what is read. Knowing how to write is not just knowing how to write one’s name, or being able to copy a text or take down dictation: it implies being able to clearly and correctly express one’s own ideas in writing. Consequently, the measure between the concept of being illiterate and that of being literate is not just rote memorization of the alphabet, but a lengthy process of acquiring a command of the written language in different ways and on different levels. There are those who accordingly maintain that to some degree all of us are illiterate, because we are continuously perfecting our capacity to read and write comprehensively.

All the above leads us to identify the problem of illiteracy not just in census statistics or among those who never went to school, but in the very heart of our so-called “literate” population, even in univer­sity lecture halls. Ask any university professor and you will hear the recurrent complaint: many students arrive at the university without being able to a write a theme, with serious difficulties in under­standing the principle ideas of a text. This is what is called “functional illiteracy”.

On a world level today, functional illiteracy would seem to be of even greater magnitude than absolute illiteracy. During the past few years countries as highly developed as the USA, Germany, England or France have begun to discover that they have millions of youth and adults who have attained a “formal literacy level” in the school system, but who, in reality, can neither comprehend what they read, nor express themselves in writing. What can you expect of our society, where we have not even begun to become aware of that situation, and where no studies yet exist to help deter­mine the magnitude of the problem?

At any event it is certain that the lack of knowledge and understan­ding of this vast and involved problem of illiteracy has ill-fated con­sequences. One is the narrow and negative judgments usually surrounding illiteracy and the very condition of the illiterate person. In connection with illiteracy we are accustomed to hearing expres­sions like “social anathema”, “scourge”, “malady”, “harrowing reality”, “plague”, and even “vice”. We speak of “eradicating” illiteracy as if it were an epidemic or sickness. The illiterate person is described with adjectives like “blind”, “cultural defendant”, “unfor­tunate illiterate”, etc., evoking the image of someone who is ig­norant, disabled or handicapped, and not that of a normal person characterized by the simple fact that he does not know how to read or write.

The illiterate person becomes the object of shame and guilt for be­ing illiterate, not the society which permits and repeats this form of social injustice. In like manner, it is the student who is deemed in­capable of learning or not appreciative of reading and writing, and not the educational system, which, by the grace of its methods, is able to convert learning into a tedious and sterile task, instead of the real challenge it should be, full of creativity, discovery, pleasure and fun.

Rosa Maria Torres wrote this article during International Literacy Year and during her time as Educational Director of the National Literacy Campaign of Ecuador.