Skip to main content

Language vs. Literacy: What’s the difference?

By November 10, 2020August 2nd, 2023Megan, Resources
Literacy vs Language: What's the Difference?

Language is a natural system of communication that a group of people use to express thoughts, feelings, ideas – to talk about themselves and the world. Language can be spoken, like English, or signed, like American Sign Language (ASL).

Literacy is usually thought of as the ability to read and write. However, there is more to it than that. To be literate means, “to be educated or cultured” and literacy is “having or showing extensive knowledge, experience or culture”. A literate person is able to participate fully in society – more than simply being able to read and write, a literate person can fulfill social, civic, and economic roles.

Researchers have identified three levels of literacy: functional literacy, cultural literacy, and critical literacy.

Functional literacy: this refers to the ability to understand and use printed information in everyday life. A functionally literate person can use their reading and writing skills to achieve their goals. For example, job applications and medical forms can be understood and filled out.

Cultural literacy: this refers to the shared knowledge and information that members of a culture share. It includes knowledge about literature and history – even jokes – and it allows people to participate in the cultural and political life of their communities. For example, a culturally literate Canadian likely understands references to Anne of Green Gables, Terry Fox, and Victoria Day.

Critical literacy: this refers to the ability to think critically about messages, whether they are spoken, written, or signed. A critically literate person can understand the not-so-obvious perspectives and messages that books, movies, newspapers, and other media contain. A critically literate person can analyze, question, reflect on, and disagree with these perspectives and messages, and can respond with their own ideas. For example, a person with critical literacy can question why a movie portrays a female character as weak, a black character as violent, or a Deaf character as stupid.

Literacy in ASL and English: For Deaf children, literacy in ASL and English involves all three levels so that they are able to:


Deaf children develop healthy self-esteem and a positive attitude towards literature and reading when they see themselves in stories, as in Deaf heritage literature – written in English, with Deaf characters and experiences.ASL literature includes stories, poems, legends, riddles, and humour told in ASL. It is based on the thoughts, emotions, and lived experiences of Deaf people. Because ASL is an unwritten language, its literary tradition is similar to that of oral cultures from all over the world, passed down from one generation to another. Now, ASL literature can be found recorded on DVDs, film, and the Internet.

While children can develop language skills naturally and easily if they are regularly exposed to accessible communication – for Deaf children, signed language is the only language fully accessible to them – literacy skills require time, effort, and encouragement to develop. The rewards, though, make the effort worth it: literate children become independent adults capable of thinking about themselves and their world.