Letting Literacy be Literacy

Posted by on Apr 6, 2009


In my opinion, most often discussions of “new literacies” are really discussions of new skills in applying literacy to new contexts. Let me explain.

Literacy, at its core, is about gathering and conveying meaning through communication. In the very beginning, before modern language, there was showing and viewing. I’d show you how to hunt a wooly mammoth, and you would view my showing. There would be meaning gathered through the act of showing and viewing.

Then the establishment of language brought in speaking and listening. I could now tell you how to make a spear, and you could gather meaning by listening.

The advent of written language allowed for the explosion of information we are experiencing today by allowing someone to write their thoughts and meaning can be gathered by reading these thoughts. No longer did people have to be in close proximity to share information. That is exactly what is happening right here. Yes, the vehicle has changed, in this case a blog post that resulted from a conversation on Twitter, two things not in existence 15 years ago, but the nature of what we are doing remains the same. I am writing my ideas, and you are gathering meaning by reading them.

This brings us to the new literacies. In my opinion, unless we’re talking about a new core way to convey and gather meaning through communication, we are talking about the application of literacy rather than the nature of literacy itself. In response to Will’s question today, I would maintain understanding transparency in my writing as technology changes is a skill rather than a core literacy.

I think this is important because it is very similar to my dislike for the Partnership’s establishment of their notion of 21st Century Skills. What they are calling “21st Century” are really rather timeless skills. We have communicated for centuries. We will continue to collaborate for likely ever. Problem solving has always been a major skill in life. Again, the application and context of these skills are certainly changing, but the skills themselves have always been relevant and meaningful.

If we held these things, the foundational learning skills as well as literacy, as timeless, we would be able to focus more on how we are engaging them in a relevant way in our modern culture rather than constantly fighting to redefine them.

And in my opinion, it’s how we apply these foundational pillars of learning that will yield true progress rather than the constant redefining and confusion brought on when everyone tries to requalify literacy and learning skills.

Thanks to Frederic della Faille for the Flickr image.


  1. Doug Belshaw
    April 6, 2009

    Ben, I think you’re conflating two issues here:

    1. That literacy is about communicating meaning.
    2. That literacy is separate from the tool.

    I’d agree with the first point but not with the second. Literacy is about using tools to communicate meaning. The medium, as Marshall McLuhan, famously said, is (at least in part) the message.

    Change the medium and you change the message. Change the message and it’s a different literacy. 🙂

    • Ben Grey
      April 6, 2009

      Doug- Hmmm, interesting point. If you agree with the first, then I’m not sure about disagreeing with the second.

      If I’m going to write to convey my thoughts, whether I use a pencil, pen, magic marker, or computer, my message is still going to be the same. What I am communicating has not changed based on the medium. Yes, the way you receive it changed, but the message and essence of the way I’ve delivered it remains. You read this. That is significant.

      When you say your are studying digital literacy, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more accurate to say literacy in a digital format. The way you interact specifically with the information may be a little different, as discussed in Reinking’s work, but really, you’re still reading. It would be like saying that fiction and nonfiction are their own literacies. I’ve yet to read a document about fiction literacy, or short story literacy, or even poetry literacy. Those are all genres as a part of reading, which is a core element of literacy. We all still have to decode the letters and abide by the general rules of breaking down the symbols to gather meaning. Thus, we are reading.

  2. Doug Belshaw
    April 7, 2009

    No problem, Ben – we needed more than 140 characters! 😀

    You said:

    If I’m going to write to convey my thoughts, whether I use a pencil, pen, magic marker, or computer, my message is still going to be the same.

    I disagree: your thoughts will always and necessarily be confined and limited by the tools that you use. There is certainly not a 1:1 relation (nor can there be) between what’s in your head and what you communicate to others. If this is the case, then the message really does depend on the message to a great extent, and affects the nature of literacy. If the tool changes, the literacy changes!

    You said:

    When you say your are studying digital literacy, I wonder if it wouldn’t be more accurate to say literacy in a digital format. The way you interact specifically with the information may be a little different, as discussed in Reinking’s work, but really, you’re still reading.

    Absolutely! I believe that literacy can be infinitely subdivided into as many ‘literacies’ as you wish. The author who ‘discovers’ a new literacy is really only pointing to an aspect of a wider literacy. Given that I belive new technologies engender new literacies, the overall umbrella ‘literacy’ must therefore continually expand and accommodate new literacy practices.

    (what are we going to do about blog post vs. this forum, Ben – shall we continue posting in both places?) 🙂

  3. dtitle
    April 7, 2009

    I think you are missing something important about literacy, and that is that literacy is an interaction between two or more people. If one does not understand the medium used by another, then there is no message conveyed. To me literacy is assuring that all can use the medium so that messages are understood. We teach alphabet and language for that reason, we had a literate populace due to public education for centuries.

    But we are not making sure these new digital mediums are shared by all. These new ways of transferring info long distance leave out our poorest children in large urban areas and our most isolated children in rural communities. The message does not reach these people because they do not understand, share or have access to the this medium. There is no literacy here.

    In these cases, the medium can not even pass on the message if the medium is unavailable, misused or misunderstood. As educators we must assure that whatever medium we choose, we make sure all know the medium or there is no message. This is the true goal of literacy. What good is blogs & twitters if new digital medium is unavailable to even use in a large portion of your population?

    What good was television when only few had access, and none could afford it? What good is a skill without the tools to practice it on? Digital media needs a digital Gutenberg, someone or some organization who can make this available to the masses. Then we can start to talk about a new literacy and the message it brings.

  4. Adrienne
    April 9, 2009

    Things get complicated when one considers that features of orality often appear in literacy and that a text, nowadays, comprises semiotic modes other than the written, whether it is on screen or on paper.

    For example, an I.M. on a cellphone is written but really it is very much like speaking and contains visual elements (emoticons), sound (songs; sound effects) and even tactile elements (vibrational sequences) all of which are used to convey various forms of informational meaning as well as affect. (See Angela Thomas, Youth Online for fascinating ‘discussion’).

    Have you explored Halliday’s systemic functional linguistics (concepts also used by Kress) and looked at how the products of literacy – multimodal texts – can be understood in terms of their ideational, interpersonal and textual metafunctions?

    Halliday predicted in the 1970s-1980s that the boundaries between writing (ie old fashioned literacy) and speaking would eventually collapse. Kress (1996) also predicted the ever broadening inclusion of other modes into ‘literate texts’.

    The New London Group, (in Cope and Kalantzis) also reframed literacies as Multiliteracies, and their Multiliteracies Framework is very useful for broadening thinking on literacy, as is Brian Street’s work on the differences between the autonomous model of literacy, and the ideological model.

    This is a really great platform for sharing ideas. Thanks.

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