Once upon a time, that was a very simple statement. A child could read and write; and we said that child was literate.
Or the child cannot read and write; and we said that child was illiterate.
The whole thrust, the big mission, of any serious school was to move every child from illiterate to literate. Oddly enough, our public schools for a long time have been very casual about this. They were always promoting bad techniques. They were grading loosely. They were suggesting in various ways that reading and writing weren’t all that important.
John Dewey, 100 years ago, was clearly suspicious of putting too much emphasis on literacy. He even called it a “perversion.” For him and his socialist cohorts the big mission was killing individualism, and turning children into cooperative comrades.
Things got so bad that by 1955 somebody could write a book called “Why Johnny Can’t Read” and millions of parents would exclaim, “They’re talking about my kid!”
The point is, our Education Establishment has never cared deeply about literacy. They still don’t. We hear the most amazing anecdotes about first- and second-graders who don’t know the alphabet, can’t print their names, don’t seem to know how to hold a pencil. This of course is a national scandal, and fixing it should be our first priority. (For example, Common Core should be entirely ignored until we have prepared the way for something more sophisticated than where we are now. If we can't even teach reading to little children, that all this blather about new "standards" is not just nonsense, it's dishonest.)
Now there is more bad news. The onrush of digital technologies and devices has given our Education Establishment sophisticated new reasons to slight literacy. The sophistry goes like this: what really matters now is that children can use the Internet and prepare a PowerPoint presentation.
For more analysis of this, see “What is literacy in the 21st century?” The Education Establishment wants the answer to be: digital manipulations. The answer had better be what it has always been: kids can read and write, competently and comfortably.
If you have always wondered what the Reading Wars are all about, I've just created a short YouTube video called "Reading is Easy," which presents the testimony of seven experts who say that if you teach with phonics, reading is indeed easy. This would seem to be the reason that our Education Establishment constantly condemned this approach. As noted, they were always promoting bad techniques.