Literacy Glossary


"In a world of diminishing mystery, the unknown persists."

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland

Literacy is the cornerstone of all education. It has many aspects and components. It is both the form of pedagogy and the content of instruction. It is one of the critical measures of successful schools and education systems as well as of societies and economies. Moreover, literacy is increasingly seen as being intimately connected to citizenship, democratic process, equity, equality, and social justice.

The materials of literacy have become increasingly fluid and ubiquitous as text and content continue to migrate from the printed page to all manner of digital devices and media. Letters, words, images, and sound float at wavelength all around us, waiting to be accessed by smartphones, tablets, and laptops. No wonder that the notion of new literacies has gained strong traction in many quarters.

Rigorous research into the meaning of literacy, effective literacy instruction, and fair measures of a learner's literacy acquisition and literacy skills development continues apace, yielding specialized vocabularies and technical terms. On top of this activity, government actors and education policy advocates recommend, promulgate, and debate funding and regulatory measures that have an impact on many aspects of literacy education affecting millions of students and teachers.

In sum, literacy is at the central point of many configurations of personal and professional life, a word around which entire domains of theory, practice, and experience have clustered and continued to spiral from. To stay current about literacy requires an understanding of the many contexts in which literacy is implicated and a familiarity with many newer coinages and phrases in and through which concepts pertaining to literacy, literacy instruction, and literacy research find their deepest present viability and relevance.

To meet this need, the International Literacy Association (ILA) conceived the idea for this glossary. The ILA Literacy Research Panel (LRP) was tasked with identifying critical literacy terms currently in use throughout active literacy constituencies, and then providing a plain and concrete definition for each that is easily graspable and does not require prior specialized knowledge of any kind.

Past Precedents

In approaching its work, the LRP began by taking note of two similar efforts, namely The Literacy Dictionary: The Vocabulary of Reading and Writing, edited by Theodore L. Harris and Richard E. Hodges, published by the International Reading Association (now ILA) back in 1995, as well as the 2017 ELINET analytic glossary of the initial teaching and learning of literacy.

The former has not only all the strengths but also the limitations of a dictionary. It is comprehensive and observes all the formal requirements for elements that appear in dictionary definitions. It is also out of date, as the field has changed tremendously over the past two decades, and many terms now in use do not appear in it.

By contrast, the ELINET work is closer in intent and style to this glossary. It was commissioned by the European Literacy Policy Network under its contract with the European Commission to clarify the meaning of key terms pertaining to initial literacy teaching. Its purpose was to facilitate communication among ELINET partners, and it is not intended to be definitive. Its definitions are short and clear.

This ILA glossary eschews dictionary style and aims to capture only the cost critical terms that are informing current literacy practice and policy. Moreover, its scope is more expansive than initial literacy teaching. It includes terms that reflect the new modalities of text and content generation as well as the social justice and equity aspects of literacy instruction and policy.

Fittingly, this glossary is to be viewed only as an initial installment, because it will be continually expanded and refined. It should be viewed as a living document.

Selection of Terms

The LRP's plan was to identify literacy terms that are frequently encountered in written texts and online resources. The Literacy Dictionary and several online and text glossaries were reviewed to locate key words describing instructional practices.

In this review, it became clear that our professional terminology is ever changing and evolving to fit the priorities and advances in our field of literacy. Many of the words identified as central did not appear in earlier glossaries. Other terms convey different meanings depending on where they originated and how users have appropriated them.

In several cases, it was clear that a common concept or routine was described using different words. For example, there are several terms used to describe the classroom practice of having a small group of students share their interpretation of a commonly read text: reading circle, literature circle, book club, and discussion group.

In addition, there are rapidly developing new areas, such as visual literacy and technological or digital literacy. For this glossary, attempts to identify the most frequently used terms and provide definitions that help make their meanings clear and accessible to a general population of literacy practitioners, especially teachers, were made.

After agreeing on an exhaustive list of terms and concepts, the team coded and organized terms thematically. The thematic coding schema used involved the following categories:

  • Forms and Functions
  • Practices, Skills, and Competencies Across Human Abilities
  • Literary, Linguistic, and Rhetorical Devices and Concepts
  • Looking Across Difference and in Sociopolitical Contexts
  • Instructional Concepts and Approaches

After the terms were slotted into these groupings, they were collectively vetted and given rankings for their relevance to practicing teachers. For this volume, the practical over the theoretical, the concrete over the abstract, was privileged to achieve broad accessibility and utility with a focus on instruction. The goal, then, of each selection was to help foster a common language of literacy terminology useful to classroom teachers in terms of both supporting their understandings of literacy and enhancing their knowledge of its most basic yet important concepts.

Only those terms with the highest level rankings were to appear in the first version of the glossary to confine the scope of the work to this aim. Thus, the team organized terms by relevance in each domain, folding them into a shared spreadsheet. This was the source version for each of the five sets of words that were merged to form the glossary. (The respective word sets and an explanation of the five domain categories are set out in the appendices to this glossary.)

What was the result? The 300 terms defined herein, the "First 300" basic literacy terms all literacy teachers should know. The title is, of course, a play on the idea of Dolch's First 100 sight words that Edward Dolch identified in the 1930s–1940s.

How the Definitions Were Prepared

Each team member focused on a different domain set and supplied definitions for new terms, often revising the old Literacy Dictionary definitions for terms common to both. The intended result was to offer a new and updated sense of the field.

First submissions, as expected, presented an array of significant editorial issues such as style and completeness, redundancy and omission. In choosing to include some terms, the team was both choosing not to include others and selecting for the field a language and conception to define it.

There were terms that appeared to be likely synonyms but presented subtle but significant textures on meaning, for example, English learner and emergent bilingual. Choices as to which synonyms to elect and which to veto were made. Consequently, many terms of significant value do not appear in this abridged glossary. Nonetheless, significant thought was given to the consequences of inclusion and exclusion. Given the constraints of this project, the team believes they have fallen short of any comprehensive representation of the field. Thus, this work should be seen only as a representation of some—though not all—significant terms and concepts relevant to literacy, language, and literacy education.

Once terms were selected and definitions drafted, the LRP glossary team members were asked to complete their word sets by attempting to conform to a basic style and revising their initial definition drafts. Team members also read and commented on sections that were not of their primary focus, offering essential feedback for improving the quality and accessibility of definitions.

After the team had completed this stage of its work, the manuscript was shared with outside reviewers who offered additional feedback and suggested the revision of over 60 additional terms. The process was iterative: Cycles of feedback were considered by the team, incorporated into the definitions, and used to polish the glossary into its final form.

What Literacy Means

Literacy itself is a complex term. In its most basic sense, literacy has meant something close to the ability to read and write, the ability to use written language to communicate and make meaning. Of course, this definition is somewhat impoverished. It is bare-boned. For example, one can now encode meaning in ways that move beyond the printed text, and the digital revolution has made it possible to render meanings accessible across the five senses.

There are some who speak of literacy as a synonym for knowing, comprehending, applying, and so on. Concepts such as financial literacy and computer literacy evoke this sense of the term. Further, concepts such as critical literacy move us beyond simple communicative capacity. Here, literacy seems to suggest political awareness (analysis, synthesis, evaluation and so forth). As the field continues to emerge, new definitions of literacy will emerge as well, at times supplanting older definitions. At other times, complementing them.

Thus, this glossary is conceived of as a living, growing document. As users encounter or develop new concepts or practices, it is hoped they will contribute them to the online version of this resource. To continue the enduring conversation about literacy, a glossary page is being constructed on the ILA website. There, we as a profession will be able to continue to add new terms to the initial set. As you review the words included here, we invite you to identify others that also merit inclusion. Email your suggestions to

The glossary is a work of monumental effort in service to a profession moving to know itself. We hope that this resource will provide valuable assistance to those interested in the terminology of literacy, searching to understand concepts that would otherwise remain elusive, nebulous, or simply unknown.