A Reflection on the Changing Nature of Literacy and the Implications for Teaching and Learning


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.


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.


Introducing New Literacies Scholar: Dr. Amy Carter Hutchison

Today’s blog post is an introduction to Dr. Amy Carter Hutchison, a new literacies scholar who is concerned with literacy, technology, how they are integrated in the classroom, and how best to provide teachers with effective professional development for integrating literacy and technology.

Dr. Amy Carter Hutchison

Why did she begin doing this work?

In an interview with the Voice of Literacy Podcast, Hutchison describes how her interest in this area of study was sparked when she was in a 1:1 classroom and observed just how little the devices were being used, so she set out to learn more about how teachers actually use technology in the classroom.

What kind of work does she do?

Her very descriptive online profile at George Mason University, where she is an Associate Professor, outlines the three areas her work focuses on, the research she does, and the populations she works with and for:

(1) Understanding how digital technology can be used equitably and to support diverse learners

(2)Understanding and Supporting the Development of STEM literacy among underrepresented students

(3) Understanding how digital technology can support the development of literacy skills and how to support and prepare preservice and inservice teachers to effectively integrate digital technology into literacy and language arts instruction.

Focused on these areas of interest, she conducts research across the PK-20 spectrum, across disciplines, in formal and informal learning environments, and with pre-service and practicing teachers using a variety of inquiry tools and methodologies. In her work, she has constructed and examined innovative instructional approaches and practices that are facilitated by the integration of digital technology, which most recently include the use of coding apps and augmented reality for literacy instruction.

What does she hope to accomplish with her work?

Also according to her George Mason University profile, with her work, she hopes to “[encourage] teachers to examine their instructional practice, to understand the ways that digital technology transforms what it means to be literate, to understand the importance of providing equitable access to high-quality instruction with digital technology, and to understand the interconnected nature of reading, writing and digital technology.”

She’s also the creator and director of The Technology Integration project, “a program designed to support teachers in designing effective and innovative instruction with digital tools” (Hutchison, 2016).

She’s won some awards (more than a few):

For her work, she has received a number of awards–most recently the “Literacy Research Association Early Career Achievement Award” (2014)–all of which are listed in her Curriculum Vitae.

What are some of the things she has published?

On her personal webpage describing her research, Hutchison outlines the themes flowing through some of her published research.

Hutchison conducted a national survey that examined how teachers use technology in their literacy instruction. As part of this survey, she looked at challenges and barriers teachers faced to implementing technology effectively.

After completing this survey, she concluded that teachers need more effective professional development to learn how to effectively integrate technology for literacy instruction, so she started studying how educators perceive their professional development related to technology and how to best conduct professional development to teach educators to integrate technology (particularly through blogging).

She has also focused on using iPads to “innovate and transform” literacy instruction.

Her academia.edu page also lists links to the full text of her published articles. I found her article, “Using Coding Apps to Support Literacy Instruction and Develop Coding Literacy” to be particularly interesting. After the URI Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, I wrote a cool-tools review of Ready that explored some of the same ideas (though at a much smaller scale–my review was just a blog post) explored by Hutchison, et al. (2015).

What unique idea(s) has this person contributed to the field?
What from her work has resonated with me and my previous experience and personal interests?

I think the idea of using coding to support literacy instruction is somewhat unique, and Hutchison et al.’s exploration of the idea provides several clear examples for how to bridge the gap between code and literacy, particularly in the English/Language Arts classroom. I attempted to explain how I might bridge this gap with my cool-tools review of Ready, but Hutchison’s article (linked above) does that much more effectively than I did. I think coding is latent with potential as a tool/framework/discourse, but it is usually relegated to the domain of math and science teachers. On a personal level, I am interested in learning more about how coding can be integrated into the English/Language arts classroom, as I am an English/Language Arts teacher, have many years of experience with coding as a hobbyist, and feel that the integration of these two areas is still in its infancy but holds a lot of possibility.

Another idea I found unique was the notion that, as part of effective professional development, teachers should engage in authentically using the same tools for learning that they want students to use. According to an article that Hutchison co-authored on using blogging as a literary response, “engaging teachers in literature response projects that utilize social networking blogs provided first-hand experiences that opened up a consideration of how such activities might be employed in language arts classrooms” (Colwell et al., 2012, p. 241). This idea resonated with me, because my experience going through a National Writing Project summer institute demonstrated to me just how effective becoming a writer myself was for improving my teaching of writing. Good professional development is not just sit-and-get (which it unfortunately often is). Good professional development is going through the same learning experiences you will eventually want your students to go through.

How might this person’s work be of interest to classroom teachers or the students in our class as we study digital literacy and online reading comprehension?

Hutchison’s work aims to discover how classroom teachers can better use technology in literacy instruction, and how best to teach teachers to use that technology. Her scholarship can inform teachers on how to use iPads, blogs, coding, social networking, and wikis (among other tools) in the classroom, but it can also inform teachers and teacher leaders not just how to use these tools, but how best to train teachers to adopt these tools and to integrate them fully in the classroom so they are not just used to maintain existing pedagogical structures but to create a completely new learning experience for students.

Do you think he/she represents more of a cognitive or sociocultural frame of mind in relation to literacy (based on what you’ve read so far)?

Based on my limited reading of Hutchison’s work, I think Hutchison represents a sociocultural frame of mind in relation to literacy, particularly when it comes to using coding to support literacy instruction. In “Using Coding Apps to Support Literacy Instruction and Develop Coding Literacy,” Hutchison describes the social context surrounding video games and coding apps (which are related), and argues that there is a clear bridge between learning the language of a game and content-specific academic language: “Gee (2013) contends that to participate in video games, players must learn the technical or specialized language of the game, which can prepare them to learn content-specific academic language in the future” (Hutchison,  et al., 2015, p. 5). This acknowledgement of the ways that the particular Discourses and language situations attached to the social context of a video game or coding environment can be used to bolster literacy represents, I think, a vision of learning as never separate from a particular social context.



Baker, E. A. & Hutchison, A. (2011, November 7). U. S. National Survey: Teachers’ Perceptions of Integrating Literacy and Technology. Voice of Literacy. Podcast retrieved from http://www.voiceofliteracy.org/posts/44575

Colwell, J., Hutchison, A., & Reinking, D. (2012). Using blogs to promote literary response during professional development. Language Arts, 89(4), 232-243. Retrieved from http://iastate.academia.edu/AmyHutchison/Papers/1561285/Using_Blogs_to_Promote_Literary_Response_during_Professional_Development

Hutchison, A., & Reinking, D. (2010). A national survey of barriers to integrating information and communication technologies into literacy instruction. In Jimenez, V. Risko, M. Hundley, & D. Rowe (Eds.), Fifty-Ninth Yearbook of the National Reading Conference (pp.-230-243). National Reading Conference. Milwaukee, WI. Retrieved from http://iastate.academia.edu/AmyHutchison/Papers/384319/A_National_Survey_of_Barriers_to_Integrating_Information_and_Communication_Technologies_into_Literacy_Instruction

Hutchison, A., & Reinking, D. (2011). Teachers’ perceptions of integrating information and communication technologies into literacy instruction: A national survey in the United States. Reading Research Quarterly, 46(4), 312-333. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/1503253/Teachers_Perceptions_of_Integrating_Information_and_Communication_Technologies_Into_Literacy_Instruction_A_National_Survey_in_the_United_States

Hutchison, A. (2012). Literacy teachers’ perceptions of professional development that increases integration of technology into literacy instruction. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 21(1), 37-56. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1475939X.2012.659894

Hutchison, A., Beschorner, B., & Schmidt‐Crawford, D. (2012). Exploring the use of the iPad for literacy learning. The Reading Teacher, 66(1), 15-23. doi: 10.1002/TRTR.01090

Hutchison, A. (2014). My Research. Web site retrieved from https://sites.google.com/site/isuliteracy/my-research

Hutchison, A. Curriculum Vitae. (2016). Retrieved from https://cehd.gmu.edu/assets/files/cv/2608.pdf

Hutchison, A. (2016). Hutchison, Amy Carter. George Mason University College of Education and Human Development Faculty Directory. Retrieved from https://cehd.gmu.edu/people/faculty/ahutchi9 

Hutchison, A., Nadolny, L., & Estapa, A. (2016). Using coding apps to support literacy instruction and develop coding literacy. Reading Teacher, 69(5), 493-503DOI:10.1002/trtr.1440