Literacy Status: It’s Complicated


I’m writing this stuff down in an attempt to hash it out in my own head. Feel free to help me find the right path (if there is one) or even decide if this is worth thinking about.

Tool Exposure vs Literacy

What we have going on today in many cases is the illusion of teaching literacy. In reality we’re just exposing students to tools1. I see quotes similar to this one all the time-

The literacy tools of our day, today, include the web, netbooks, cell phones, cameras and recorders, etc. We are responsible for teaching students how to be literate. – source

So essentially, we have to teach kids how to use all these things because that’s what it takes to make it in the world. In the past it was just reading, writing and some math so the only general tools you had to be able to use were a pen/pencil, paper and a book. Now the idea is, we have to teach students (and learn ourselves) how to use all this stuff, to learn which buttons to push on lots of different objects.

Where these comments get messy for me is delineating what really requires different kinds of thought (bigger conceptual framework) and what is just today’s tool which needs only the mastery of the how (which button needs pressing). It seems picky, but I think that matters quite a bit.

There’s a huge difference between being able to read and being able to analyze literature. What’s our real standard for literacy today? I’d say it’s a good deal higher than just being able to translate letters into words, I’m hoping so anyway. If we take that approach, where are we with this concept of so-called modern literacies2?

Are we at the point when simply being able to make a video qualify you as being literate or does it take something more? Do students have to understand the vocabulary inherent in film, the rationale behind camera angles and lighting? I look at things like Animoto and see it as producing video but not contributing to any sort of literacy. I see it as the video equivalent of Madlibs (only without as many teaching opportunities).

What I see claimed as increasing literacy is often just exposure to tools and those two things are very different.

In general, I see communication in its varied forms becoming more important, more ubiquitous, more specialized and, as a result, more sophisticated. So you need to look at communication tools and resultant mediums more closely. For instance-

When does the character limit of Twitter and its semi-synchronous delivery benefit me? When might the speed and limited response hurt my message or the ones I receive? Do I treat information I receive from Twitter differently than I might from other sources? When is that information likely to most relevant and useful3?

I don’t see people addressing these concepts (maybe I’m not looking in the right places). For instance, Twitter is being treated like the newest shiny toy and people are pitching it as a panacea, a magical cure for all your PD, PLN, communication needs. The opposite view, that Twitter is the devil and useless, isn’t any better. Clearly Twitter is filling a niche communication role. It just seems like we need to analyze what needs it’s meeting and how it’s meeting those needs. We need to do this with conceptually different mediums of communication and we need to have the decision of which communication medium we use be an explicit choice based on the strengths of the medium and the needs of the message.

Getting into all this isn’t easy or neat. It’ll be difficult to decide when a particular medium is really different, when it deserves an in depth assessment. How can teachers guide students if they are unaware of the specific technology/medium and its nuances? Do we focus on just the most popular mediums and if so, what responsibility do teachers have to know the intricacies of the mediums?

That’s just looking at the need for more thought on communication and mainly electronic communication at that. I’ve seen all sorts of literacies mentioned- from environmental to architectural. Where do we draw the line? Is it worth worrying about?

To me it seems we need a greater focus on what might be termed communication literacy. That’s a mighty big umbrella, I know. But it seems to encompass a lot of needs that I don’t see being met. It’d require students and teachers to decide which method of communication would be best for their message and then design their message so that it takes advantage of the particular channel or channels. The idea that you’d present certain kinds of information using a slide deck and present other information in document form is one that’d be nice to get across early on.

I’d prefer the focus on communication as opposed to “digital literacy” or “21st century literacy” because those types of labels tend to lose credibility relatively quickly. Think about the term “eLearning.” It’s also easy with the tech centered terms to see them as discrediting or ignoring more traditional techniques and the very applicable history/learning etc. that goes with them.

If information is no longer scarce and it’s easier to find (and getting easier), then beyond our traditional need to figure out validity and bias we have to teach students how to best present this information. That’d have the double benefit of making them far more aware of how media is being used to manipulate them and make the more aware of bias when evaluating their own sources.

I’m not sure how this would all work but it seems like something that should be integrated at a base level and in a cross curricular manner. I do believe there’s a lot of good possible in reexamining how we look at communication in our k12 and higher ed institutions.

I’ll stop now. Knowing I’ve only muddied the water and probably been totally erratic in my use of media, medium and mediums. I’m going to resist my very strong urge to store this with my other 70+ drafts and just let it go. Right or wrong, I’m trying to treat this site as more of a place for thinking and less just a repository of things that I hope would be useful to others. So it’s about me being selfish and messier. I should re-title this “Unsubscribe Now!”

1 Keep all exposure puns to yourself.

2 I realize that analyzing film and images has been long established but the necessity of those literacies for the general populace has become greater because of the proliferation of multimedia both in terms of consumption and creation.

3 I found Twitter to be very valuable not too long ago.

Comments on this post

  1. Mathew said on April 28, 2009 at 12:22 pm


    You bring up some excellent points.

    In terms of the classroom, I don’t think there’s much worth doing if you’re not going to do it right. So, aside from my preference for moviemaking as a medium, I would say, for example, why have your students make a movie unless you’re going to get to higher level thinking and analysis? Very often using these tools is the starting and ending objective of a lesson. I’d agree that it’s not enough. I see low-level classroom thinking discussions replicated in blog form as another example of the tool not really getting at any greater literacy skill.

    As I see it, new literacy is more about evaluating sources for bias and reliability than taking text at its word. You have to know how to choose from among more tools than just your local library and know how to code switch between them for your own communication but that doesn’t eschew traditional literacy skills such as forming sentences, asking questions, and analysis.

  2. Tom said on April 28, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    I’m glad we agree. I don’t think there are that many people doing this. Maybe I’m being overly pessimistic.

    Being picky again, I can’t help but think that most of these things regarding literacy aren’t new but simply have become more important because of technological/social changes. In other words, because publishing has become easier (less vetting, cheaper, etc. etc.) people need to treat data more cautiously. So does that make the literacy new or just increase the importance of something we were supposed to be doing for a long time?

    These concepts aren’t new but they have increased importance and are exercised through different tools (in some cases). I agree we aren’t losing the need for traditional literacy skills but we are gaining the need for additional ones. So, in essence, we aren’t practicing new literacy in most cases but performing old literacy with new tools.

  3. Scott McLeod said on April 28, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Take a look at NCTE’s Writing in the 21st Century:

    Might be helpful to you…

    • Tom said on April 28, 2009 at 2:57 pm

      Appreciate it Scott. It looks good. I’ll have to really sit down and really read it later tonight.

  4. Mike H said on April 28, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    I’m not sure if this is where you are heading, but to me, it seems that you cannot get to literacy until you understand the tools. Think of the people that do Dancing With the Stars. By the end, the last few are pretty good and probably understand the “whole” of dance a lot better than when they first tried. But to get them there meant showing them the specific dance moves and doing drill and kill with one dancing step. So our job is being the instructor to take people from the simple steps to understanding what dance is. But again, you know how bad my analogies can be.

  5. Tom said on April 28, 2009 at 7:46 pm


    For me, that’s overstating it. I believe that teachers and students need to understand the tools, which tools and to what level I’m not sure. There are a lot of tools out there.

    I don’t think “drill and kill” is the way to get there for either group. There’s muscle memory and memorizing a set routine and then there’s a whole different level of understanding something and being able to apply it conceptually in a variety of different circumstances.

    I do think that small things build to greater understandings and that degrees of memorization are important on a variety of levels. How you memorize things, though, is not usually through “drill and kill,” that is, not if if you want long term retention.

  6. Mike H said on April 28, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    By drill in kill in the classroom, I mainly mean that teachers if teachers want their students to understand and practice collaboration better, then they need to have their kids constantly working in Google Docs even when it’s not a collaborative assignment. That way, the kids know it in and out, they know when to use Google Docs and when to use Word, and they can teach it to the other students. That I think will help them understand collaboration better b/c they’ll have the skills to use Google Docs and to be collaborative minded naturally.

  7. Mike H said on April 28, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    ug…just thought of one more thing. Yesterday, a teacher who I’ve worked with before in google docs came to me with 12 excel spreadsheets and didn’t know how to combine it into one. It was a textbook inventory, so she sent the master out via email, everyone filled out their own part, and she had to combine them. I asked her, “why didn’t you use Google docs?” She didn’t even think of it because she doesn’t use it. I really think that if she just used it more often, understood it, then she would have thought about Google Docs in the first place. But b/c she doesn’t choose to use it, the higher level use of Google Docs didn’t enter her mind.

  8. Tom said on April 28, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    I don’t think that using Google Docs in a non-collab way will increase the odds of using it collaboratively (maybe). I don’t believe the technical aspects translate into the conceptual aspects. It’s not that they don’t know how to use Google docs and so they opt not to use it. It’s that they don’t think to use it collaboratively because that’s not how they have conceptualized things. Practicing basic mechanics probably won’t make them think to use it differently.

    Repeatedly using it in valuable collaborative ways will force them to reconsider how this might be used and get them used to the mechanics as well.

    This is different than a skill set that builds on smaller skills. It’s a fundamental conceptual change. I don’t think you get there through mechanics.

  9. Simon Oldaker said on April 29, 2009 at 4:35 am

    Don’t apologise too much for unformed thoughts: it’s a blog, after all.

    This is good stuff, because you’re picking away at some things that are quickly becoming true just because so many people have said them. The truth is ‘digital literacy’ is mostly an empty phrase. Using the internet requires reading skills. Basic literacy, genre awareness, an ability to analyze sources – this stuff isn’t new. Those people who insist digital literacy is fluency with specific new tools lack historical perspective. We have no guarantee that any of these tools will be around in a few years. We do know that the future will be different than the present, so it’s those basic, universal skills that we need to teach, not which button to push on the latest gizmo.

    I’ve omitted non-text visual skills, but the same could be said for them. None of the important skills are in themselves new and the tools that have changed the landscape lately are bound to disappear and be replaced by other stuff.

  10. Tom said on April 29, 2009 at 6:47 am


    I saw a really good presentation yesterday on uStream that hit on a lot of the empty claims behind digital natives. It’s odd how hollow so much of this stuff is. It scares me in a way.

    You hit upon what I think about a lot, the transience of the tools. I think about Taleb’s The Black Swan a lot in relation to this. We simply can’t predict the next tools, nor the possible changes that will occur in technology that render all these tools obsolete.

    I guess what’s hard is getting people to focus on the mental skills w/o the tools as the framework.

  11. Simon Oldaker said on April 29, 2009 at 12:53 pm

    As Dan says, we should teach what doesn’t change .

    It’s not odd that we are so focussed on lots of cheap and shiny tools. Lots of them are pretty cool, at least for five minutes. Some of them are really useful. Almost all of them are new. But we need cool heads. As professionals in the midst of all this, we can neither be fuddy-duddies with our heads in the sand (why are schools so full of them?) nor subscribe to all the gurus who proclaim that we need to make our kids Twitter-literate.

    I’m not sure we need to focus on the mental skills without tools. Writing, for example, always has to happen somewhere, with some kind of tools. As long as the teacher uses a variety of tools and contexts and manages to illuminate the connections between them, I think the kids will do fine.

    • Tom said on April 29, 2009 at 2:07 pm

      Agreed and I was imprecise in my language in the last comment. I meant only that people tend to use the tool as the larger framework rather than something more conceptual. What should be a course focusing on visual communication becomes focused on how to use PhotoShop. I promise I’m not advocating teaching writing without actually writing anywhere.

      I’m all for using whatever tool you want as long as you understand why you’re doing it. Twitter isn’t likely to be a key element in the lives of our students but the ability to communicate concisely will be. If you want to use Twitter to teach that, fine by me. Just don’t teach Twitter “because that’s what they’ll be using when they graduate.”

      But I’m preaching to the choir . . .

  12. Susan WB said on April 30, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    It seems to me that teaching “the new literacies” (or whatever you want to call them) means teaching transferrable skills that will help learners with whatever new tool they encounter. Because inevitably the tools change. If you know how to use Tool A (I’ll be really basic here and say something ordinary like Yahoo email) but can’t generalize that knowledge to other, similar tools (say, Gmail or any other email program) then you’re stuck with what you’ve got and anytime you encounter a new tool you have to start over from scratch. So transferrable skills–the ability to generalize–is the core of the literacy, not mastery of any one tool in itself. Of course, in order to be able to do the generalizing, you have to be exposed to a variety of tools and be able to make comparisons between them. You have to recognize the similar kinds of icons and terms and menus that the tools share. That requires Breadth of exposure – more so than Depth of skill with any specific tool.

    But I also think you have to be explict about teaching the transferrable skills. You have to make a point of it. There’s no substitute for direct instruction. You can’t just teach a bunch of different tools and hope that people will generalize.

    You also have to teach learning strategies-those are literacy skills. “How do I find out what button to push if I don’t know?” is a question that gets at a literacy skill. “What button do I push?” does not.

  13. Tod said on May 1, 2009 at 12:52 am

    Interesting…I’m in the midst of trying to work with a team of teachers who are designing an ITC curriculum for grade 8/9’s.
    The struggle is that the critical thinking pieces tend to get dropped by teachers who aren’t techie focussed.
    We get drawn into teaching skills, but often the more important steps of applying, reflecting, evaluating, critiquing and questioning get lost because they are more fuzzy and difficult to assess.

    Any thoughts on some practical critical thinking projects/experiences involving technology out there?

  14. Tom said on May 4, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    Susan WB – I think you nailed it.

    Tod – What we keep coming back to in these discussions is that it’s about setting up the problem/the question correctly. If you set the restrictions the right way you’ll drive them towards the concepts you want mastered.

    It’s tricky to drive people toward a particular program but, in my mind, that’s usually a mistake anyway.

    If you want to submit a standard to attack with some additional information, I (and a few others hopefully) will give it a shot. We might come up with something that will make for a decent model but I’d need more information before even suggesting anything.

    Submit something here and I’ll make it our next challenge and we’ll see what becomes of it.

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