Definition of Illiteracy

lilen gomez
Professor in Philosophy

Illiteracy is the condition of human beings who have not learned to read and write; in opposition to the idea of ​​literacy, by which reference is made to the abilities to identify, understand, interpret, create statements, from written discursive materials. The term comes from the Latin illiteratewhich designated those people who did not know the alphabet, that is, the letters.

types of illiteracy

In recent decades, the notion of illiteracy has been made more complex, giving rise to a more specific classification: we are talking about a type of absolute or primary illiteracy for the aforementioned case of individuals who never learned to read and write; secondary illiteracy, in the case of people who at some point in their lives learned to read and write, but later lost these abilities; or functional illiteracy, which occurs when individuals, even knowing how to read and write simple sentences, have not developed their literacy skills to a degree that allows them to use them for the benefit of their own lives or their community.

The criteria by which literacy is defined, as an individual’s ability to function in daily life situations that require the ability to read or write, is relative to the demands of their own culture or social group.

Illiteracy and social, cultural and economic conditions

Illiteracy is directly related to the material conditions of existence of human life. In this sense, there is a concrete correlation between poverty and illiteracy, since the conditions of poverty imply, to a large extent, the denial of access to education for broad sectors of society that are marginalized. On the other hand, illiterate people are relegated to a situation of absolute precariousness from which it is very difficult to get out, since their opportunities to enter the labor market are reduced. In this way, the link between illiteracy and poverty becomes a factor of structural exclusion, which impedes the well-being and development of broad social sectors, reaching a fifth of the population worldwide.

Literacy —namely, the action of teaching someone to read and write— is the first step for the integration of individuals into the educational system and also implies the possibility of displaying secondary and more complex skills and knowledge. In turn, literacy, in sociocultural contexts organized around writing, allows people to further develop their rights and freedoms; and, consequently, an improvement in the welfare of the community as a whole.

technological illiteracy

From the extension and intensification of the use of digital media in various areas of daily life in certain social contexts, the concept of digital or technological illiteracy has been coined, to refer to the ignorance of new technologies that limits individuals in their interaction with others. Specifically, digital illiteracy refers to the inability to handle computers, digital programs or commonly used software, surf the Internet, use virtual messaging platforms, social networks or computer tools in general; which entails a negative effect on the professional performance or the personal scope of the individuals. The expansion of the notion of illiteracy is due to the fact that, at present, the domain of communication has been profoundly transformed, in such a way that literacy is insufficient to access much of the relevant information that circulates in social environments. In this sense, ignorance about how new technologies work translates into a limitation of people’s activities to the traditional resources available.

Associated with the notion of digital illiteracy, the idea of ​​a “digital divide” has also been developed that separates people capable of communicating and accessing information through digital media, from those who are deprived of that possibility. The result of this digital divide is an even greater deepening of social inequalities.



Sarceno, JAE (2018). Illiteracy and its relationship with the social development of human beings. Scientific Journal of the Postgraduate Studies System of the University of San Carlos of Guatemala, 1(01), 85-96.

Álvarez, DOI, Jiménez, GEC, Arias, PD, & Verdugo, D. (2019). Technological or digital illiteracy. Pole of Knowledge: Scientific-professional magazine, 4(2), 393-406.