New Armchairs and New Literacies: Reflections on the Nature of Literacy Today

LABELING AND DEFINING LITERACY IN 2020

As I reflect on the nature of literacy today, I find myself thinking about the armchair that my husband and I recently carried up three flights of stairs to our small home office. Both are, as it turns out, deceptively large and hard to get your arms around. Culturally, I think we tend towards an oversimplified conception of literacy; we get stuck in an understanding of literacy as the ability to read and write print text and imagine that to be fairly straightforward. In reality, both reading and writing involve complex cognitive and social practices, surrounding an ever-growing variety of texts. And, from a sociocultural perspective, literacy itself is flexible and plural, changing across contexts, among individuals, and even over time (Hammerberg 2004, Lankshear and Knobel 2008). 

This large and ‘multi’ nature of literacy is reflected in the many terms we have to discuss and define it. In ideas like information literacy, media literacy, visual literacy, or digital literacy, I think we see an impulse to apply literacy to a particular context. In a sense, these differing takes on literacy ask: what are the literacy practices necessary for interpreting and creating information, media, visual, or digital kinds of texts? To extend Coiro’s (2003) point, these are fundamentally reading and writing questions. And while each of these literacies offers nuance and specificity to our understanding of literacy, I think that they are too often siloed from each other and from literacy studies as a whole. As a librarian who initially came to literacy conversations through an information focus, I am continuing to learn so much from other perspectives. 

The move towards a pluralized terminology for literacy—new literacies, digital literacies, multiliteracies—has the potential to unite some of these differing takes on literacy. In these pluralized terms, I think we see a sociocultural understanding of literacy itself as multilayered and changing (Hammerberg 2004, Lankshear and Knobel 2008). While a part of me does wonder if each of these terms still functions to carve out its own literacy territory, I do think that a plural understanding is helpful and potentially unifying. In this vein, I appreciate the framing of “new literacies of online research and comprehension,” which I take as a way to articulate online research comprehension within new literacies, rather than it’s own distinct thing (Castek et al., 2015). 

New, digital, and multi-literacies reflect an evolution in how we think about literacy. Lankshear and Knobel (2006) discuss this newness in terms of both technology and ethos. Technology has ushered in “new and changing ways of producing, distributing, exchanging and receiving texts by electronic means” as well as new social practices around those options (Lankshear and Knobel 2006, p. 25). And meanwhile, the ethos of our culture has shifted, reflecting social values towards participation, collaboration, and distribution (Lankshear and Knobel 2006, p. 25). While not all aspects of new literacies are digital (e.g. the rise of participatory fan culture, fanfiction, and zines), they are certainly intertwined with the values we associate with digital culture. 

For me, digital literacy/ies have been a gateway to a more interdisciplinary understanding of literacy. It is in pursuit of understanding digital literacy/ies that I have learned from reading specialists, media professionals, social studies teachers, school librarians, instructional designers, and so many more. And it is in pursuit of partnering with other educators to teach digital literacies that I have continued to make new connections in my own context. For those collaborative and interdisciplinary reasons, digital literacy/ies are my favorite flavor of literacy (I do align with the plural, digital literacies, though I sometimes find it harder to implement grammatically). That said, I have also really enjoyed what I’ve read from new literacies or multiliteracies lenses and I think these both offer a useful step back from technology, which may be overemphasized in digital literacies. 

IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHING AND LEARNING

As important as I believe that digital literacies are for today’s learners, I do not think that they can replace offline reading comprehension. Instead, we can understand online and offline reading comprehension practices as symbiotic and I generally think they should be given equal weight across education. First, online reading comprehension does involve some aspects of traditional reading comprehension skills; Coiro has found that offline reading comprehension skills account for 35% of online reading comprehension (Castek et al. 2015, Coiro 2013). And second, thinking more broadly about the role of lifelong literacies, I think that the more focused, immersive reading that we tend to associate with offline reading is a useful balance point against the quicker, more networked nature of online reading. Both together offer us opportunities to engage with new ideas in different ways, for the whole of our lives. 

All of that said, I want to be careful not to conflate the distinction between online and offline reading comprehension with the relationship between traditional print literacy and new literacies. Because digital technology is at least a piece of what is ‘new’ about literacies today, it’s easy to align online reading comprehension, digital literacies, and new literacies. However, I think that a new literacies view, particularly its sociocultural and critical aspects, can and should influence how we teach offline reading as well. I tend to take a ‘both and’ view: both cognitive and sociocultural perspectives bring useful understandings and practices to literacy education, both online and offline. 

With all of this informing how I currently understand digital literacies, here are some of the key questions for my teaching:

  • How can I continue to resist “deficit-oriented and protectionist views” and embrace “critical models of analysis and production” for digital literacy? (Mirra et al. 2018)
  • Where do I make assumptions about progress that students should make before moving forward in their literacy learning? (Hammerberg 2004)
  • How can I balance strategy-modeling with discussions about the power dynamics and equity issues at play in texts and systems? (Lankshear and Knobel 2008)
  • What opportunities do I have to bring other kinds of texts into the classroom, beyond scholarly research articles? How can I more effectively invite multiple interpretations of these texts? (Hammerberg 2004)

Like my new office armchair, literacy is a place where I am happy to sit and reflect. 

References

Castek, Coiro, Henry, Leu, & Hartman (2015). Research on Instruction and Assessment in the New Literacies of Online Research and Comprehension.

Coiro (2003). Expanding our understanding of reading comprehension to encompass new literacies.

Coiro (2013). Video of online reading comprehension challenges. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wsWDEr2fKxA

Hammerberg, D. (2004). Comprehension instruction for sociocultural diverse classrooms: A review of what we know.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2008). From ‘reading’ to ‘new literacy studies.

Mirra N, Morrell, E. & Filipiak, D. (2018). Digital Consumption to Digital Invention: Toward a New Critical Theory and Practice of Multiliteracies, Theory Into Practice, 57:1, 12-19,