LABELING AND DEFINING LITERACY IN 2016
Scholars have used a variety of terms to describe how literacy has changed:
- digital literacy
- digital literacies
- new literacies
- online reading comprehension
- digital inquiry
In trying to put a label on new concepts, educators/scholars are stuck trying to account for existing frameworks for thinking while simultaneously creating new vocabulary that accurately describes the fundamental differences between the existing and the new. Nobody sits down at a big meeting and makes a decision that everyone sticks to–the meanings of words may originally be envisioned by their creators but those meanings are complicated, negotiated, and transformed by everyone else who uses the words as well. The existence of a multitude of words to describe a series of similar concepts isn’t surprising–language in general functions this way (and the fast-paced change visible in the language of internet slang is a perfect example of this continual creation, complication, negotiation, and transformation in word meaning).
I think the plural form comes from an implied expansion of sorts–the idea that “literacies” includes a wider range of ideas than simply “literacy.” Corio (2003) asserts our definition of literacy has expanded from “traditional notions of reading and writing” to include a larger variety of mental activities (p. 458). Hammerberg explores the idea that literacies are multiple as a consequence of being connected to a variety (plural) of sociocultural contexts (2004, p. 649). Castek, et al. (2015) suggest there are additional “literacies” involved in online research and comprehension. All of these suggest a broadening of our original notions of literacy beyond simply reading and writing, and the term “new literacies” implies that these are relatively recent developments (which is true in a historical sense if you consider the length of time the “new” literacies have existed compared to the length of time the historical literacy/ies of the printing press have existed).
In defining what scholars consider to be “new” about literacy, we can look at a number of different definitions. At a broad level, Hammerberg (2004), drawing on Gee (1996) defines reading as “knowing how to be and act and think appropriately with the type of text, situation, or discourse at hand,” though this is true about both traditional and new literacies (p. 649). Coiro (2003, p. 458) suggests new literacies are “active, strategic, and critical process of constructing meaning” (p. 425). And finally, Castek, et al. (2015) suggest the following is true of new literacies (p. 325):
(1) The Internet is this generation’s defining technology for literacy and learning within our global community;
(2) The Internet and related technologies require additional new literacies to fully access their potential;
(3) new literacies are deictic [context matters];
(4) new literacies are multiple, multimodal, and multifaceted;
(5) critical literacies are central to new literacies;
(6) new forms of strategic knowledge are required with new literacies;
(7) new social practices are a central element of New Literacies; and
(8) teachers become more important, though their role changes, within new literacy classrooms.
I agree with the above quoted descriptions of how various scholars conceptualize new literacies. In particular, I think the most important traits to remember are that the new literacies are much more process-based than traditional literacies and inherently social.
I struggled with Lankshear and Knobel’s (2008) distinction between newness in the ontological sense and newness in the paradigmatic sense. After consideration and discussion during an online meeting for our class on October 6th, I decided my definitions are as follows:
- Ontological newness refers to a difference in how the task of literacies has fundamentally changed–it is a different way of perceiving the performance of literacies
- Paradigmatic newness refers to the way we might think about literacy’s existence, and by extension to the ways we teach and learn about it.
Both conceptions of newness are interesting for attempting to broaden our understanding of how literacies can be new, but I don’t feel an understanding of the semantic difference between these two is necessary to grasp some of the more practical aspects of applying and teaching new literacies.
Other labels like “online reading comprehension” or “digital inquiry,” or the use of upper or lowercase versions of these terms do not necessarily create more confusion, they just refer to specific pieces of larger conceptions of the new literacies. I have taken to using the term “new literacies” because it implies recent novel development, a plurality of forms of literacy, and it is not quite so specific as something like “digital inquiry,” which could be said to represent a specific part of the new literacies. I also feel that a messiness with language and terminology is inherent as a part of communicating using the new literacies given the effect that they have on language and modes of communicating–why would it not be inherent in the very terms we use to describe them? I feel that we should embrace this messiness, as our conception of literacy is certain to become more complicated in the future, and I don’t feel that an inability to define terms precisely in the immediate term necessarily prevents us from investigating the application of these concepts and their implications.
IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHING AND LEARNING
No matter what you call them, do you think the online reading/digital literacy skills, strategies, practices, and mindsets outlined in your readings from Week 4 and 5 are more, less, or equally important for today’s students compared to those related to offline reading comprehension, vocabulary, and/or fluency (as discussed in reading from Weeks 1-3)?
I feel the readings from weeks 1-3 on offline reading comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency are nearly (but not quite) as important as our readings on online reading and digital literacy skills, if only because foundational conceptions of literacy are helpful for providing the undergirding framework necessary for understanding and teaching the new literacies.
As an educator, in a practical sense, if I needed to pick only one set of articles to read, understand, and apply, I would choose our more recent readings on new literacies. While there were definitely parts of teaching reading that I was unfamiliar with that I learned from our first set of articles, in my mind, scholarship is most useful for driving our practice forward. While the articles from weeks 4-5 could not have been written without offline reading scholars pioneering our understanding of how reading comprehension is built and strengthened, much of the underlying theory and practice can be implied from our discussion of new literacies. In the same way that more recent software updates also contain bug fixes for all of the older versions, our more recent conceptions of literacy incorporate our understanding of more traditional print literacy.
To support my earlier point that the more practical of the two groups of readings would be the latter set on digital/online reading and writing, I would cite my new thinking about how I will expand my teaching of (the new) literacies as a result of these frameworks: Thinking about the new literacies has expanded my notion of what instruction should look like for students in a way that I might not have necessarily considered if I lived in a world with only traditional print literacies. One of the affordances of technology is the speed at which it can allow teachers to differentiate and to provide opportunities for inquiry and divergent knowledge creation–something very time consuming to do, and somewhat limited in scope when teaching using only traditional print literacies. Thinking about the new literacies and how to best apply them is an invitation to “push the envelope” so to speak, in a way that print literacies do not by themselves encourage. When new technology arrives at school, it feels somewhat disingenuous to simply use it to replicate existing print literacy practices. While the shift takes time, moving towards redefinition (SAMR model) feels like a kind of responsibility–if I have this new resource, I should be using it in a meaningful way. Additionally, the existence of new literacies outside the classroom necessitates our use and teaching of them inside the classroom. For example, if you will be faced with increasing demands for critical reading and evaluation in life outside of school, it is the responsibility of educators to provide you with instruction that will help you develop those skills.
Coiro, J. (2003). Reading Comprehension on the Internet: Expanding our understanding of reading comprehension to encompass new literacies. The Reading Teacher, 56, 458-464.
Hammerberg, D. (2004). Comprehension instruction for sociocultural diverse classrooms: A review of what we know. The Reading Teacher, 57(7), 648-656.
Castek, et al. (2008). Research on Instruction and Assessment in the New Literacies of Online Research and Comprehension. In Morrow, L. M., Comprehension instruction: Research-based best practices. C. C. Block, & S. R. Parris (Eds.). Guilford Press.
Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2008). From ‘reading’ to ‘new literacy studies. In C. Lankshear & M. Knobel, New literacies: Everyday pracices and classroom learning. Berkshire, England: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill Education.