Can You Be Illiterate Despite Being Literate?

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A wise person once said the definition of being literate is the ability to understand everything you read and the ability to articulate your thoughts. Unfortunately, in our time, people generally assume that they are all literate because they could literally read and write. In this paper, I will discuss whether or not someone could be illiterate despite being literate.

The definition of reading

What does reading mean? The word reading has many different meanings. “I’m not reading you Muaad” can mean I don’t understand what you are saying. Furthermore, someone could also say “You know what Muaad, you’re reading between the lines here” which could mean Muaad is overthinking the situation. If we look carefully, one of the meanings in old English is “the fourth stomach of a ruminant”. 

Ruminants have four stomachs. They chew the cud, swallow it, spit it back up and repeat the cycle. It is interesting to note that in old English, there was a link between pondering (ruminate) and chewing. The famous English philosopher Francis Bacon famously said: “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” After all, the hallmark of a good book is that it is read multiple times. 

What qualifies someone as a good reader?

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Most people don’t know how to read very well. Most people learn Abecedarian reading which is a basic way of knowing how to read letters and sentences. From there, people might learn to read paragraphs, chapters and then books. According to the Pew Research Centre, the average person reads 12 books a year. That number is on the decline as each year passes. There is plenty of variation between demographics since certain groups read more and others less. Shockingly, the most commonly reported number was 4 books per year.

For someone to actually become an expert reader, they would need a set of skills that they have learnt over a lengthy period of time. Mortimer Adler has written extensively about this subject. In one of his books, he discusses the different forms of reading which are elementary reading, comprehensive reading and informational reading. Comprehensive reading includes trying to understand what you are reading. If you don’t understand what you are reading this could mean one of two things:

  • You don’t have the prerequisites to study what you are studying. For example, if you haven’t studied maths and you try to take part in a physics study, then you will not be able to understand much with regards to physics (in this example) because you don’t have the prerequisites (in this case a knowledge of math) to go further in your study.
  • That you haven’t given it much thought.

What are the different reasons why people read?

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There are three different reasons why people read. People read for entertainment, information or understanding. Reading for pleasure (entertainment) is very rare in the world today because of the advent of YouTube, Netflix and games. However, in the past, people did read complicated books as a past time. In today’s world, people might read a tabloid or sports articles as a past time. Information reading is perhaps the most common form of reading as people do this regularly when they are reading the latest news in their local area or if they are reading about what is going on in the middle east for example. In today’s world, people do information reading online. They also do information reading on social media pages like Twitter and Facebook.

Reading for the sake of understanding is perhaps the most uncommon out of the three as this is usually done during the study. Students who are preparing for an exam might just read so that they could understand the notes they have taken so that they could pass their exams. Sometimes curious students might want to understand a topic that they are interested in. Reading for the sake of understanding requires a student to work hard at the process so they could take in and retain more information.


What are the three basic ways of reading a book?

There are three basic ways of reading a good book. Structurally, interpretively and critically. A book must be read structurally. Any good book has good architecture. The way a book is organised should be done in a way that helps the reader process the book. Furthermore, sometimes the organisation of a book is done in a way to send a message to the reader as well. The second way of reading a book is interpretively in which the reader has to decipher what the author is trying to tell him/her. In other words, what is going on? What can I learn from this book? The third is critically and this is when the reader begins to have a conversation with the book.

What is the issue with people who don’t read?

The problem stems from a complete disinterest in reading regular books. An intellectual once asked another normal person “how many books do you read a month” to which the normal man replied “none”. The intellectual was shocked and could not believe this response. Sometimes, the problem with people who don’t read comes from ungratefulness. They don’t understand what it feels like to be illiterate. They don’t understand the miracle that reading is. An illiterate person could glance at a page of a book and only see lines. A literate person could imagine an entire world and learn lessons. Both are looking at the same paper, but they are both seeing different things.

Yet the question I wanted to discuss whether or not someone could be illiterate despite being able to read? The answer, I believe, is yes. Knowledge is power (like Francis Bacon said) and it doesn’t come from reading for entertainment or reading to gain the latest information in the news. Rather, knowledge comes from understanding and what is the point of reading if it is not for the sake of taking the precious knowledge of the previous generations and applying it into your life? A literate person who doesn’t use their ability to read and gain knowledge is illiterate. That is not to say illiterate people are unknowledgeable, but, a literate person who doesn’t truly understand how to read and the ways to read is an illiterate person despite being literate.

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Published by Muaad

21. Enjoy reading, travelling, meeting people and living life to the fullest.

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