Two recent articles in the New York Times have brought this question to the forefront of my mind this week.

The first: Teenagers’ Internet Socializing Not a Bad Thing by Tamar Lewin:

“…their participation is giving them the technological skills and literacy they need to succeed in the contemporary world. They’re learning how to get along with others, how to manage a public identity, how to create a home page.” – Mizuko Ito, lead researcher on the study, “Living and Learning With New Media.”

The second: Becoming Screen Literate by Kevin Kelly

“When technology shifts, it bends the culture. Once, long ago, culture revolved around the spoken word. The oral skills of memorization, recitation and rhetoric instilled in societies a reverence for the past, the ambiguous, the ornate and the subjective. Then, about 500 years ago, orality was overthrown by technology. Gutenberg’s invention of metallic movable type elevated writing into a central position in the culture. By the means of cheap and perfect copies, text became the engine of change and the foundation of stability. From printing came journalism, science and the mathematics of libraries and law. The distribution-and-display device that we call printing instilled in society a reverence for precision (of black ink on white paper), an appreciation for linear logic (in a sentence), a passion for objectivity (of printed fact) and an allegiance to authority (via authors), whose truth was as fixed and final as a book. In the West, we became people of the book.

Now invention is again overthrowing the dominant media. A new distribution-and-display technology is nudging the book aside and catapulting images, and especially moving images, to the center of the culture. We are becoming people of the screen. The fluid and fleeting symbols on a screen pull us away from the classical notions of monumental authors and authority. On the screen, the subjective again trumps the objective. The past is a rush of data streams cut and rearranged into a new mashup, while truth is something you assemble yourself on your own screen as you jump from link to link. We are now in the middle of a second Gutenberg shift — from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality.”

Along with an older article from the New York Times,

The Future of Reading: Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading by Motoko Rich:

“Clearly, reading in print and on the Internet are different. On paper, text has a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision. On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends.

Young people “aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line,” said Rand J. Spiro, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University who is studying reading practices on the Internet. “That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.”

It’s interesting to see more established publications trying to document and understand this shift in literacy, especially considering that many people still believe that literacy is solely being able to read and write in printed form.

This is something I would like to bring to our discussions of reading and writing at ISB. Although I make an effort to bookmark everything I come across, I’m sure I’ve missed quite a bit.

Do you have any resources, especially from more “established” or “traditional” media outlets, to share? I’m looking specifically for concrete, research-based (like this BECTA report or this recent MacArthur Report), examples or articles that would help people outside the educational technology field better understand this shift.

What are your thoughts on the concept of literacy? Does your school have a definition that reflects our changing and expanding understanding of literacy?

10 thoughts on “What is Literacy?

  1. I get the impression (at least at our place of work) that much of the thinking around literacy seems limited to the traditional view – i.e. reading/writing/speaking/listening – with occasional forays into digital literacy. This view *might* accommodate non-linear reading, but struggles with non-linear writing, and seems to dismiss non-linear speaking as mere incoherence.

    As all fields become broader and more connected, I prefer a more wholistic indicator of literacy, and would define anew literacy as being ‘operational fluency’ within and across a variety of networked domains.

  2. Hi Kim,

    I do think that schools need to think about changing the definition of literacy – indeed, to open up that definition to the multitude of literacies that already exist. Rather than thinking about literacy in terms of the reading / writing strands, it really needs to include viewing, representing, and some kind of processing.

    I have been an NCTE member for years and until recently was disappointed that they had not moved away from this traditional notion of literacy. However, in the last year or two, they really have moved far and fast and now have embraced 21st Century literacies as part of their mandate. Perhaps you might find some of their resources useful? They have even made it a big part of their annual conference, which happened this weekend. Incidentally, if you become a member of NCTE you will find many more resources available to you than the ones you see only on their website.

  3. Kia ora Kim

    We go round in circles with this today – but one could say ’twas ever thus.

    When I was taught (English) literacy in the 60s we had a teacher who honestly believed that if a word was not to be found in the dictionary, it didn’t exist. Many English teachers (of the old school) believed this. I was not very well educated in those days, but even I could figure that the words in the dictionary weren’t always like that – we were taught this in English! Shakespeare, for instance, used a strange diction and some strange words – whatever happened to those, was my question.

    Today we have all sorts of problems with examination authorities who eschew mobile text language, especially English exams. And I wonder.

    Recently I re-read “Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson and was again delighted to find reference to a book that I’d read, 40 years ago, by Simeon Potter, “Our Language”. In both books the message was clear. Language, and the ways that it is communicated, are living things. They react sometimes slowly sometimes rapidly like swarms of bees, always on the move.

    Literacy clearly has an association with symbolism. I think it is a far cry to say that literacy is only to do with the power of speech or the skills associated with that. Yet, without speech, the symbolism of ‘literature’, whether it is Shakespeare’s script, or a text message using the symbols of that medium, would have no relevance.

    Sign language, no less a language than any other, also has its base in symbolism – involving signs and actions. But it is really more like the spoken language, for it is not designed to represent the written words and often simply does not follow those.

    Literacy is bound to the spoken language AND the written symbolisms that represent the language. A person who is incapable of writing, because of some physical disability, is no less literate than someone who is not disabled but who does not know how to write. But you would agree that there may be a difference. For instance, the able person who does not know how to write may not be able to read either. Not necessarily the person with the disability who cannot write.

    So literacy can have many facets. We need to define these more explicitly. I gather that the vision we may have of these change as much as language does.

    It eventually comes down to opinion, either that of the individual or of the authorities. And to have any acceptable measure of literacy, by whatever means it is metred, requires standards. Unfortuntely, this is where it becomes set in a way that doesn’t really fit the nature of language. So standards must be continually revised to meet the needs of society and its understanding of literacy.

    Which brings us back to your question. My gut feeling is that we are chasing a moving spot of light. As quickly as we have defined where it is and mapped its shape, it has moved on.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  4. @Borborigmus,

    I think many schools are struggling with their understanding of literacy. I wonder if it’s even possible to understand a more expanded “version” of literacy without having experienced it for yourself?


    Thanks so much for the resources! I like this definition. Now what I would like to see is a breakdown of what this looks like for the classroom from PK all the way to grade 12. I have my own understanding, but it often helps start these kinds of conversations with others when there are external resources promoting the same ideals.


    I love your examples and your vision of literacy as ever changing. I think you have captured the essence of the problem very eloquently here. So how do we deal with that constantly fluid understanding in the classroom? How do we address the changes that come naturally over time if others are unwilling to accept that there have been changes? Is it the historical perspective that will convince them? I’m going to have to try that one out. I like focusing on the concept of literacy as a work in progress – if we are able to help our students reach that understanding, I think we are preparing them well for their future. Thanks so much for your very thoughtful and very thorough comment!

  5. Kia ora Kim

    You have prompted me to put up a post.

    I hope you don’t mind – I sometimes use one of my comments, that I put on anothers post, as the text of a post. It is not always appreciated by the blogger, though there really isn’t anything wrong with doing that as far as I can see.

    I always link to the original post as I feel endebted to the blogger who first initiated the comment from me.

    Thank you for stimulating my thoughts.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  6. Kim,
    More interesting articles on the subject. I am reading “The Dumbest Generation” – which presents an interesting counter argument. And, the author happens to be local.
    Thank you for your comment – I am somewhat new to the process and can see how reading and commenting can be addictive.


  7. @technoquaker,

    I’ve heard of this book – I need to get myself a copy. Reading and commenting is amazing – all of the conversations you can have without leaving your couch, and all of the learning that can happen 24 hours a day!

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