CM: Literacy: Terms and Definitions

May 10, 2023

Literacy encompasses many different forms and can be used in many different aspects of life. It extends beyond the ability to read and understand words on a page. Below are some key definitions of various kinds of literacy. Many of these types of literacies will be explored in more detail throughout this issue of Community Matters. 

What is literacy? 

According to Alberta Education, literacy is defined as “the ability, confidence and willingness to engage with language to acquire, construct and communicate meaning in all aspects of daily living.” Literacy can include reading, writing, viewing, listening, speaking, and more. A technologically-driven world has expanded our notions of literacy as we communicate and interact globally using multiple types of print, images, symbols, and sounds, especially through digital media. [1] 

Literacy is important because it opens up opportunities for individuals to acquire the knowledge they need to achieve personal goals and improve their qualify of life. Literacy helps lay the foundation for lifelong learning and active participation in society. [2] 

Major Types of Literacy 

Below are some of the different kinds of literacies that people and systems will commonly interact with in today’s society. While these are the types of literacies that individuals can develop in their life-long learning journey, it is also incumbent upon institutions (e.g. educational, health, justice) to further these literacies and provide the tools necessary to foster a healthy and democratic society. 

Financial literacy: According to the Government of Canada’s Task Force on Financial Literacy, financial literacy is defined as “having the knowledge, skills and confidence to make responsible financial decisions.” Achieving these skills means a person can make day to day choices about how to spend their money and stay on top of financial obligations, navigate the financial marketplace, plan ahead for how to use their money for life goals such as retirement, and evaluate the financial information and advice they get. In addition, they can make the best use of the resources they have such as tax credits, workplace benefits, pensions, and others. [3] 

Information literacy: The American Library Association defines information literacy as “a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” This skill is considered particularly important in a time of rapid technological change and the significant increase of information resources. With so much information coming from varying and unfiltered sources, questions about the accuracy, validity, and reliability of this information comes into question. The increasing quantity of information coupled with uncertain quality poses challenges for society. An informed citizenry needs the ability to evaluate information and its sources critically in order to use information effectively and incorporate it into one’s knowledge base. [4] 

Digital literacy: British Columbia’s Digital Literacy Framework defines digital literacy as “the interest, attitude and ability of individuals to use digital technology and communication tools appropriately to access, manage, integrate, analyze, and evaluate information, construct new knowledge, and create and communicate with others.” 

Characteristics of digital literacy include information literacy, critical thinking and decision making, digital citizenship (e.g. practicing legal and ethical behaviour), and sound understanding of technology concepts and operations. [5] 

Health literacy: The Centers for Disease Control defines personal health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.” 

There is also organizational health literacy, which describes “the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others.” 

These are recently revised definitions, which seeks to acknowledge that organizations have a responsibility to address health literacy, incorporate a public health perspective, and emphasize a person’s ability to use health information instead of just understanding it. [6] 

Civic literacy: The Samara Centre for Democracy defines civic literacy as “knowing about the institutions of government and how they work, having awareness of the issues of the day, understanding how to take political action to pursue a cause, and carefully consuming media both on- and offline.” 

The four dimensions of civic literacy identified by the Samara Centre are institutional knowledge (e.g. knowledge of democratic processes), political ability (e.g. voting, writing to elected leaders), topical knowledge (e.g. following current affairs, awareness of public policy issues), and media literacy (e.g. recognizing false information, identifying bias). [7] 

Cultural literacy: ABC Life Literacy Canada defines cultural literacy as “being able to understand the traditions, regular activities and history of a group of people from a given culture.” Aspects of a culture can include their language, arts, science, beliefs and practices, and their understanding of their environment.  

Having cultural literacy can help someone understand, relate to, and interact with people from diverse backgrounds that may be different from their own. Learning about how other people live can make you more culturally sensitive and aware. [8] 

Workplace literacy: ABC Life Literacy Canada defines workplace literacy as “the skills employees need to have in order to be successful at work functions and manage the demands of their jobs in a healthy, productive way.” 

Having workplace literacy means an employee can work accurately and efficiently, ensure workplace safety, helps them obtain and maintain employment, and earn more. [9] 

Legal literacy: In “Legal Literacy: An Introduction to Legal Studies” by Archie Zariski, a number of expanded definitions for legal literacy are offered, which emphasizes being a member of the community while also challenging the legal system. 

“Full legal literacy goes beyond the development of a basic legal competence and implies the acquisition of knowledge, understanding and critical judgment about the substance of law, legal process and legal resources, enabling and encouraging the utilization of capacities in practice.” [10] 



  1. Alberta Education [2015)]. Literacy Definition. Retrieved from:  
  2. Alberta Education [2017]. Literacy Fact Sheet. Retrieved from:  
  3. Task Force on Financial Literacy (2010). Canadians and their Money: Building a brighter financial future. Report of Recommendations on Financial Literacy. Retrieved from:  
  4. American Library Association (2000). Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. Retrieved from:  
  5. Government of British Columbia [2014]. BC’s Digital Literacy Framework. Retrieved from:  
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022). What is Health Literacy? Retrieved from: 
  7. Morden, M., S. Prest, J. HIlderman, and K. Anderson (2019). Investing in Canadians’ civic literacy: An answer to fake news and disinformation.” Toronto: The Samara Centre for Democracy.  
  8. ABC Life Literacy Canada [2021]. “What is Cultural Literacy?” Retrieved from:  
  9. ABC Life Literacy Canada [2021]. “What is Workplace Literacy?” Retrieved from:  
  10. Zarski, A. (2014). Legal Literacy: An Introduction to Legal Studies. Athabasca University Press. Retrieved from:  
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