Labeling and Identifying Literacy in 2018
Digital literacy, new literacies, online reading comprehension: are these all different names for the same animal? In a rapidly advancing world, it seems our names and definitions change before we can get a real handle on their meaning. Let’s begin by addressing our understanding of literacy, singular. In Alvermann’s 2003 book, Exemplary Literacy Instruction in Grades 7-12, she contends that up until recent years, literacy has been thought of as a neutral process of reading and writing, known as the “autonomous model of literacy”. However, Lankshear and Knobel’s work in From ‘Reading’ to ‘New Literacies’ presents literacy in a sociocultural context, whereas the skills of reading and writing are embedded within a culture; people read and write differently out of different social practices, and reading skills cannot be taught independent of cultural and social contexts. Since reading and writing skills are applied differently in various contexts, isn’t literacies a more fitting label?
Talking about literacy, singular, can be misleading because the term implies that there is one set process or skill set for consuming new information. Using the term literacies, however, indicates that there are different processes for different texts and situations, which is much more reflective of the reality of knowledge consumption and creation in the 21st century. In Dr. Julie Coiro’s speech, Online Reading Comprehension Challenges, Coiro contends that reading on the internet presents new ways of locating information, new contexts for synthesizing information, and new ways of sharing information gleaned from reading. Hence, our previous understanding of literacy- reading and writing- cannot just be applied to online reading, but additional new literacies must be used. This definition of the new literacies perspective of online reading comprehension eloquently describes the framework as:
a problem-based inquiry process involving new skills, strategies, and dispositions on the Internet to generate important questions, then locate, critically evaluate, synthesize, and communicate possible solutions to those problems online (Castek et al, 2015).
I prefer the term new literacies, as it indicates by name that the same old model of reading comprehension instruction cannot be universally applied to all texts. There is some overlap, of course, but teachers need to be aware that new skills must be explicitly taught so students can effectively negotiate new and different online texts.
Implications for Teaching and Learning
I will always advocate for strong, strategic reading comprehension instruction with offline text; skills like making connections, determining importance, visualizing, evaluating, etc. will continue to be relevant despite technological advances. However, I do think that education in the 21st century requires teachers to dedicate an equal amount of instructional time to the new literacies that students encounter online daily. Our society is immersed in digital information: we get our news delivered to our phones, we connect with people around the world through social media platforms, we are bombarded by online text. The problem is, if we are not teaching the youth how to effectively navigate and make meaning from this seemingly unlimited wealth of information, the value of this information is lost. I see this translating to my classroom practice first through explicit modeling of questioning, over-viewing sites, and evaluating for reliability, and later through Internet Reciprocal Teaching, with increased student modeling of skills.
For example, teaching research methods in my classroom looks very different today than it did 17 years ago when I first entered the teaching profession. For three quarters of the year, my class was centered around literary analysis, where we read, questioned, discussed, and wrote about literature. One quarter of the year was devoted to the research paper, where students researched and wrote about a topic seeming separate and apart from all our other units of study. We went to the library, scoured through thick, heavy texts, and synthesized the information to produce our papers. Now, however, I embed online research throughout larger literary units all year; we investigate housing discrimination and redlining when studying A Raisin in the Sun; we seek information about post-traumatic stress disorder and depression when reading Catcher in the Rye; we try to understand draft-dodging and guerrilla warfare as we read The Things They Carried. As we conduct our research, it is incumbent upon me to lead students in this process: show them how I start with my question in mind, quickly skim through and evaluate potential sources of information, illustrating the danger of accepting information as fact because it appears on the screen in front of me. Students need to clearly see the steps of the process before the release of responsibility; hopefully then they will see the connection between our work in class and their consumption of information out of class. They will use that critical lens and their new literacies skills independent of their teacher.
Dr. Mary Kalantzis, renowned author and researcher of literacy and pedagogy, argues that educators must create learning experiences within the classroom that prepare students for an unknown future. If teachers begin by giving students the tools to negotiate the new information that surrounds them, we are on the right path.
Alvermann, D. (2003). Exemplary literacy instruction in grades 7-12: What counts and who’s counting.
Castek, Coiro, Henry, Leu, & Hartman (2015). Research on Instruction and Assessment in the New Literacies of Online Research and Comprehension.
Coiro (2013). Video of online reading comprehension challenges.
Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2008). From ‘reading’ to ‘new literacy studies.