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Changing Definitions of Literacy

Literacy, defined most simply, is the ability to read and write. But increasingly, we recognize that such a basic definition does not convey the power – economic, political, social, cultural – that comes with literacy (or the lack of power that accompanies illiteracy).

UNESCO, for example, defines literacy as "the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

But even this definition, now a decade old, fails to articulate how literacy might change in an “information age.”

“New literacies” that arise from new technologies include things like text-messaging, blogging, social networking, podcasting, and videomaking. These digital technologies alter and extend our communication abilities, often blending text, sound, and imagery. Although connected to older, “offline” practices, these technologies change what it means to both “read” and “write” texts. (They change the meaning of “text,” as well.)

These rise of “new literacies” necessary to wield these new technologies effectively place new demands on all of us – not just on students. We are all expected to move much more quickly to identify problems, for example; to know where to find information to help us address those problems – often on our own; to evaluate and synthesize information from a number of sources in order to try to solve those problems; to communicate with others about problems and potential solutions; and to monitor the solutions we’ve found and stay up-to-date with new issues as they arise.

We are increasingly expected do these tasks via the Internet, of course, to address elements of our professional and our personal lives. We do this as students, teachers, workers, and citizens alike.

Of course, it’s still useful to think about how many these new literacies do dovetail with that UNESCO definition too: to identify and interpret materials. But it’s important to consider how these practices, particularly when they’re online, shape comprehension and interpretation in new ways. How do these new practices shape community participation in the construction of knowledge?

For educators, this must involve a more sophisticated response than the Internet is “good” or “bad.” Moreover, it isn’t just a matter of thinking about potentially different cognitive experiences of reading digital versus print materials (although there is a growing body of research to that end). It’s about thinking about how students “move through” materials as they read and research and how digital materials make that a fundamentally different process.

Learners & New Literacies

University of Connecticut’s Donald Leu (PDF) has made several observations about these new literacies:

  • Online research and comprehension is a self-directed process of text construction and knowledge construction.
  • Five practices appear to define online research and comprehension processing: (1) identifying a problem and then (2) locating, (3) evaluating, (4) synthesizing, and (5) communicating information.
  • Online research and comprehension is not isomorphic with offline reading comprehension; additional skills and strategies appear to be required.
  • Online contexts may be especially supportive for some struggling readers.
  • Adolescents are not always very skilled with online research and comprehension.
  • Collaborative online reading and writing practices appear to increase comprehension and learning.

Number 5 on this list in particular highlights how dangerous the myth of the “digital native” can be – this idea that students born in an information age are somehow naturally or automatically predisposed to understand new information technologies. It is true (according to research from the Pew Research Center) that many teens now lead “tech-saturated lives”: 95% use the Internet. 78% have cell phones. 80% have a desktop or laptop. 81% use social networking sites. But that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily highly skilled when it comes to these new literacies. And as Leu points out too, having “traditional” literacy skills isn’t an indicator of having these new proficiencies either.

New Literacies and the Classroom

How will the role of educators change with the rise of new literacies? This is particularly important as students (again, all of us) have to navigate more complex and more rich media – online and not just in print.

With a world of digital materials at students’ fingertips, traditional instructional materials like textbooks are no longer canonical. But that doesn’t mean that the role of the educator is necessarily diminished. To the contrary, educators could be even more important as they guide students through the contexts of learning materials, not simply the content. Again, as Leu points out, collaborative practices seem to help boost learning.

This has profoundly important implications for educators’ professional development, something that cannot be addressed by treating new technologies as new instructional tools. Educators must develop these new literacies themselves – for themselves – before they can support students in developing them for themselves. Educators must learn to engage with new technologies and the literacy practices surrounding them (by blogging, for example, or by gaming).

New literacies will bring about new challenges for schools, because in no small part, new technologies (and the cultural practices around them) are changing incredibly quickly. All this in turn raises important questions about how – indeed, whether – new literacies “fit” into current school practices, and how schools will respond.

Reflecting on Your Own Literacies...

What are some of the new literacies that you believe you have developed as a result of new technologies? What are some of the new literacies you recognize you lack?

How can schools support all members of their community -- teachers, administrators, students, parents -- in developing these new literacies?

Image credits: Tim Geers

Audrey Watters


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