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It’s Time to Cancel “Illiteracy” - Why We Don’t Say “Illiterate”

Welcome to September! Students are settling into the new school year and Fall is right around the corner. This month hosts National Adult and Family Literacy Week, a busy time for advocacy and educational campaigns about adult literacy.

As we think about how to promote and support adult education efforts, I’d like to share something very important to us at Literacy Works - it’s time to cancel the word “illiterate.”

As we’ve said before on this blog, how we talk about people matters. Let’s explore why labeling people as “illiterate” is harmful and what we can say instead.

It’s inaccurate

Literacy, like any other skill, is not a binary. There’s no switch that’s flipped one day and you’re suddenly “literate.” Even if we’re strictly talking about text-based literacy, there are multiple components that impact someone’s ability to understand, use, and produce written information.

Think about how we talk about young children who are learning to read. We don’t describe them as “illiterate,” because we recognize that learning to read and write is a complex process. Describing someone as “illiterate” erases all of the complexity and nuance that’s involved in the skills of reading and writing.

It makes a systemic problem a person problem

Labeling someone as “illiterate” is deficit minded - it focuses on what someone can’t do, and blames individuals for not having certain skills. Using this label shifts focus away from the real systemic issues we have around education in this country.

Roughly 20% of Americans struggle with basic reading and writing tasks. This is largely the result of education, housing, and economic policies that directly limit access to quality education for BIPOC communities, people with disabilities, and low-income neighborhoods. While it’s critical that we support individuals working to develop their literacy skills, we need to address systemic problems with systemic solutions.

It hurts people

I used to teach English as a Second Language at a refugee resettlement agency. I worked with many students who had not had access to formal schooling before coming to the United States. Often, I was only able to work with students for a few months before they started full time employment and could no longer attend classes regularly (that’s a topic for another blog). These students came in and left my class “illiterate.”

When people labeled these students as “illiterate,” it impacted the way they treated them. They were more likely to infantilize these students, acting like they couldn’t learn or do things for themselves. Their “illiteracy” became a fixed identity in other’s minds, so they never thought to ask if those students could read or write anything.

Labeling these students as “illiterate” dismissed the incredible skills they developed in a short amount of time. It reduced their grit and effort to something insignificant, because they didn’t cross the imaginary threshold to become “literate.”

What should I say instead?

If you’re ready to banish “illiterate” from your vocabulary, start by reflecting on what you really mean. The best way to replace this word is to be precise about the population or issue you’re talking about. Do you work with adults pursuing their GED? Say that. Do you organize advocacy efforts to combat barriers in education? Say that.

“Illiterate” and “illiteracy” are not specific terms, so you’re doing yourself and your work a favor by using more accurate and descriptive language.

Depending on the context, here are some alternatives we like to use at Literacy Works:

  • Adult learners

  • Students with literacy related goals

  • Adults working on reading skills related to everyday tasks

  • Communities impacted by educational inequity

Plain language is for everyone, not just people with developing reading skills. We all benefit from clear communication. And when we use precise and accurate language, we can be honest about the work we’re doing.



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