Literacy in the 21st Century

What does it mean to be literate in today’s digital society?

I have recently had the opportunity to spend a week with my seventy-seven year old father, whose primary use of his laptop is to check the forecast and play solitaire. He would be the first to consider himself digitally illiterate, unsure how to set up or check email, or install software updates that perpetually pop up on the screen. Yet his lack of technological knowledge has not been a hinderance. He pays his bills through the mail or in person, and checks in with us kids by telephone every few weeks.

Citing Warschauer, Misfud (2005) notes how “becoming literate has always depended on mastering processes that are deemed valuable in particular societies, cultures and contexts”. (p. 133). As I grapple with what it means to be literate in today’s digital society, the importance which culture and context play seems paramount. My father’s lifestyle and livelihood is not dependent on digital fluency. He is fully literate in the context and culture of his life.

Clearly, the ability to read and write represent only a portion of what it means to be literate in today’s society. The Partnership of 21st Century skills, as cited by Belshaw (2011) employs a framework around the “four Cs’ of ‘critical thinking and problem solving; communication, collaboration; and creativity and innovation.” (p. 42). While Belshaw seems somewhat critical of the lack of definition applied to the various types of literacy that the Partnership heralds as important, I myself am less concerned with defining the notion of literacy, and think that the real focus should in fact be on developing skills necessary for these four C’s across all areas of an individual’s culture and context.

Misfud (2005) states that “viewing literacy through the affordance lens means that digital literacy becomes personal and not universal.” (p. 136). When I consider individuals like my father, I see the validity in her statement. Yet the skills required to problem solve and think critically and creatively, to collaborate and communicate effectively, are universal. While I am not yet sure how I would define literacy, helping students to develop these skills seems most imperative. If we can do it well, they will be able to transfer them to whatever contexts and cultures they encounter.


Belshaw, D. (2011). What is ‘digital literacy’? A pragmatic investigation. Retrieved from

Misfud., L., (2005). What counts as digital literacy: Experiences from a seventh grade classroom in Norway. Retrieved from

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2 Responses to Literacy in the 21st Century

  1. Great post! Your story about your father reminded me of my dad, who is turning 80 this year. He only had a Grade 4 education, but continues to be an avid reader…. but not novels… the Reader’s Digest and other magazines! He loves the short, abridged versions of articles that the Reader’s Digest often includes from other magazines. He especially loves the joke sections. By the traditional definition, would he be considered illiterate because he has never read a novel or written an essay? Probably. He recently has figured out how to use Skype and can call us on the iPad or computer without any assistance. He can even read the instructions and hook up the internet and a printer to the computer. Does this sound like someone who is illiterate? Multiple definitions of literacy are obviously not a modern phenomenon, as my father and your father can attest to. The quote you use at the end of your post seems to fit. Literacy of all forms are a personal reflection of what people need to carry on successfully within society. Thanks!

  2. Erin says:

    “Yet the skills required to problem solve and think critically and creatively, to collaborate and communicate effectively, are universal.” I thought this was so eloquently put, Kim. Perhaps the problem with trying to define literacy is that the focus becomes the definition rather than the skill, or the “doing”. That is, does it really matter what we call it, as long as we are seeking ways for our students to reflect and discover meaning in the world around us, whether in art, nature, technology, or traditional print? That sounds quite “new-age” of me, but it’s just a question to ponder! Some of the comments over the last two weeks have reminded me of two colleagues who were close to retirement. I recall a few professional development meetings that focused on the “new” thing–Assessment for Learning, 21st Century Learning, etc.–where they would be chuckling to themselves, sitting comfortably in the back. They were of the adage that “everything old becomes new again” and that as long as you stuck around, the ideas that were once “en vogue” in the education world would make their way to the forefront again, made-over a bit, re-styled, and re-titled. I don’t know that I believe that absolutely, but more than once I have wondered if 21st Century Learning is really 21st Century? Yes, there is new technology, but are there universal skills, outcomes, or philosophies that teachers have been addressing and/or working on all along? Probably!


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