As I continue to try and build a personal understanding of literacy in the 21st Century, I find myself on a pendulum, looking on one end of the trajectory for a simple and concise understanding before swinging far to the other side, striving to fully comprehend the vastness of what it really means to be literate in today’s world, and the implications this all has on my teaching practice.
When I first began teaching, I saw literacy, the ability to read and write, as a basic skill required to function successfully as adults. Our education system strives to ensure that all students achieve an acceptable level of being literate. This is evident in the standardized tests and formal assessment requirements to evaluate whether or not a child is reading at grade level.
Now, new uses of the term ‘literacy’ have emerged, which have muddied the waters. Digital literacy, visual literacy, global literacy, health literacy, nature literacy… The list seems endless. Lankshear & Knobel, as quoted by Belshaw (2011, p. 185) differentiate between literacy with a lower case ‘l’, which they denote as the process of using words and symbols to read, write, view, listen, manipulate images and sound, and forge connections between different ideas, and Literacy with a capital ‘L’, which refers more to how we make use of language to generate meaning and take action in some aspect of life or being in the world.
While I find this framework for understanding literacy to be useful, I am still left wondering how to best teach both literacy and Literacies to my students. There seems to be so much more for us to teach. Is this because increased access to unlimited information and global opportunities has ramped up our perception of the number of discourses in which students will need to be fluent? How can I best teach my students to read and write the multiplicity of text forms using the vast array of tools, many of which I am unfamiliar with myself?
The results of a poll conducted by the National Council of Teachers of English (2009) suggests that the majority of educators believe basic literacy skills should be fostered within the context of developing discourse Literacies through cross-disciplinary, project and inquiry based teaching and learning experiences which incorporate significant aspects of student choice. If so, then perhaps the real work lies in adjusting our education system to better align the structures and resources in schools with this approach to teaching and learning.
Belshaw, D. (2011). What is ‘digital literacy’? A pragmatic investigation. Retrieved from http://neverendingthesis.com/index.php?title=Main_Page
National Council of Teachers of English (2009). Writing between the lines and everywhere else. Retrieved from