‘Literacy’

As I’ve neither the time nor the amount of energy needed to get published in an academic journal for the first time, this blog will continue to serve as a repository for slightly more formal blog posts (or less formal journal articles, however you want to think of them…) 😉

I’m aiming to investigate the concept of ‘digital literacy’ and issues surrounding it in my Ed.D. thesis. You can read my proposal at digitalliteracies.edublogs.org.

Everybody knows what literacy is. It’s the ability ‘read and write.’ But read and write what, and to what standard, and for what purpose? An even more important question might be ‘to read and write with which technology? For, as Tuman (1992:2) notes, notions of ‘reading and ‘writing’ are unstable as meanings shift along with technological change. We can no longer take it for granted that someone’s remark that they ‘read’ something means that they had to hand physical paper marked in a decipherable way by ink. By ‘writing’ we can no longer assume authorship using a pen or pencil. The digital world has turned literacy on it’s head.

Although people do write for an audience of only themselves in diaries, journals and suchlike, the usual purpose of writing is to communicate something – an idea or an emotion, for example. As new methods of communication become available, so new sub-literacies come into being surrounding them. As Kellner (2002:163 – my emphasis) puts it:

As technological convergence develops apace, individuals need to combine the skills of critical media literacy with traditional print literacy and new forms of multiple literacies to access and navigate the new multimedia environments. Literacy in this conception involves the abilities to engage effectively in socially constructed forms of communication and representation. Reading and interpreting print was the appropriate mode of literacy for books, while critical media literacy entails reading and interpreting discourse, images, spectacle, narratives, and the forms and genres of media culture.

Literacy, as alluded to above, it always reading and writing for a purpose. We would hesitate to call someone ‘literate’ who could read words and write them, but could not meaningfully communicate in written form with other people. Literacy is a ‘set of socially organised practices’ (Rodríguez Illera, 2002:51) or a ‘social technology’ (Tuman, 1992:vii) and, as such.

…involves gaining the skills and knowledge to read and interpret the text of the world and to successfully navigate and negotiate its challenges, conflicts, and crises. Literacy is thus a necessary condition to equip people to participate in the local, national and global economy, culture, and polity. (Kellner, 2002:157)

Without culture and society, there is no literacy. It is the practical application of historically-situated (Barton & Hamilton, 2000:13) sets of codes and signifiers that allow meaningful discourse within domains of various sizes. The activities within these domains are neither accidental nor random and are structured by these literate practices. (Barton & Hamilton, 2000:11-12) ‘Literacy’ has traditionally been pointed towards ‘high culture’ – which is actually a minority culture. (Beavis, 1998:240) The democratization of literate practices through technologies such as the Internet and the blog upon which I write this serve to illustrate this. Niche groups, with literate practices of their own, flourish. Take l33t, for example.

Schools, institutions that are perhaps the most conservative and preservative of the status quo in a society, perpetuate this link between literacy and ‘high culture’. As Alan Luke (2003) puts it,

Literate practice is situated, constructed, and intrapsychologically negotiated through an (artificial) social field called school, with rules of exchange denoted in scaffolded social activities around particular selected texts. (Eyman, no date:20)

Whilst there need to be some ‘rules to the game’ for there to be meaningful discourse, it would appear that schools are the enemy of evolving literate practices. Teachers have, almost necessarily, been successful at ‘working’ the existing system. They are at least reasonably successful within the bounds of traditional literate practices. There is therefore, somewhat understandably, a fear by some teachers that new technologies and literacies may somehow supplant those which they hold dear. As Illayna Snyder comments, however, such a sharp demarcation and transition is unlikely to occur:

New introduction of a new technology of writing does not automatically render older ones obsolete. For example, even though printing completely replaced handwriting in book production, it did not spell the end for handwriting. Rather, the boundaries between the two writing technologies blurred… The future of writing is not a linear progression in which new technologies usurp earlier ones. A more likely scenario is that a number of technologies will continue to co-exist, interact, even complement each other.

So just as we have both printed and online versions of newspapers, printed and electronic scholarly journals, and a variety of ways of accessing information we need for our day-to-day lives, so literacies can co-exist. Realising this, we need to embrace new technologies rather than fear them, finding ways to transform our world, and responding to the challenges we face by discovering new literacies (Kellner, 2002:154). 

Ultimately, decisions about literate practices are not ones we can avoid as educators by ‘sitting on the fence’. As William James put it, ‘…our thoughts determine our acts, and our actions redetermine the previous nature of the world.’ (Bredo, 2006:21). For us to be able to act, and interact, with others in a meaningful way given the nature of the technologies that surround us, we must develop new literacies, new pedagogies and new stories.

References

  • Barton, D. & Hamilton, M. (2000) ‘Literacy Practices’ (in Barton, D., Hamilton, M. & Ivanic, R. (eds.), Situated Literacies: reading and writing in context
  • Beavis, C. (1998) ‘Computer games, culture and curriculum’ (in I. Snyder, Page to Screen)
  • Bredo, E. (2006) ‘Philosophies of Educational Research’ (in Green, J.L., et al, Handbook of Complementary Methods of Education Research)
  • Eyman, D. (no date) ‘Digital Literac(ies), Digital Discourses, and Communities of Practice: Literacy Practices in Virtual Environments’ (Cultural Practices of Literacy Study, Working Paper #12)
  • Kellner, D.M., (2002) ‘Technological Revolution, Multiple Literacies, and the Restructuring of Education’ (in I. Snyder (ed.), Silicon Literacies: communication, innovation and education in the electronic age)
  • Rodríguez Illera, J.L. (2004) ‘Digital Literacies’ (Interactive Educational Multimedia, number 9, pp. 48-62)
  • Tuman, M. (1992) Word Perfect: literacy in the computer age
(image adapted from an original by Pink Sherbert Photography @ Flickr)

8 Comments

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  1. You wrote: “For, as Tuman (1992:2) notes, notions of ‘reading and ‘writing’ are unstable as meanings shift along with technological change. We can no longer take it for granted that someone’s remark that they ‘read’ something means that they had to hand physical paper marked in a decipherable way by ink. ”

    The second sentence does not support the argument in the first one. Is what Tuman writes true? Does the concept of “reading” change just because we’re reading text on a screen instead of text on a page?

    “By ‘writing’ we can no longer assume authorship using a pen or pencil. The digital world has turned literacy on it’s head.” The first sentence does not support the statement in the second.

    “The digital world has turned literacy on it’s head.” This is perhaps intended to mean that literacy ain’t wot it used to be, but at face value it implies that with the advent of the digital world, literates are now illiterate and vice-versa.

    • Thanks for the comment, Marc.

      “…at face value it implies that with the advent of the digital world, literates are now illiterate and vice-versa.”

      That’s what I *am* implying! I don’t (yet) know how far I want to push the issue, though, especially as I’m beginning to think that ‘digital literacy’ is perhaps the wrong way to describe what I’m getting at. Perhaps ‘digital competence’ or similar?

      Regarding the Tuman quotation, I’m taking his point that notions of ‘reading’ and ‘writing’ change along with technology. *Therefore* when someone says they ‘read’ something (past tense) we can’t necessarily assume there’s paper involved. That’s all. :-)

  2. You wrote: "For, as Tuman (1992:2) notes, notions of ‘reading and ‘writing’ are unstable as meanings shift along with technological change. We can no longer take it for granted that someone’s remark that they ‘read’ something means that they had to hand physical paper marked in a decipherable way by ink. "The second sentence does not support the argument in the first one. Is what Tuman writes true? Does the concept of "reading" change just because we're reading text on a screen instead of text on a page? "By ‘writing’ we can no longer assume authorship using a pen or pencil. The digital world has turned literacy on it’s head." The first sentence does not support the statement in the second. "The digital world has turned literacy on it’s head." This is perhaps intended to mean that literacy ain't wot it used to be, but at face value it implies that with the advent of the digital world, literates are now illiterate and vice-versa.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Marc."…at face value it implies that with the advent of the digital world, literates are now illiterate and vice-versa."That's what I *am* implying! I don't (yet) know how far I want to push the issue, though, especially as I'm beginning to think that 'digital literacy' is perhaps the wrong way to describe what I'm getting at. Perhaps 'digital competence' or similar?Regarding the Tuman quotation, I'm taking his point that notions of 'reading' and 'writing' change along with technology. *Therefore* when someone says they 'read' something (past tense) we can't necessarily assume there's paper involved. That's all. :-)

  4. I mull over this from time to time, too. I posted on it twice in quick succession a couple of years back – see links below. I agree with you on the subject of function and context. I don’t consider literacy a fixed concept – a person who is literate in one context may not be in another.

    For example, when my step-grandfather first arrived in South Africa just before WW2, he was perfectly literate in his native tongue and could speak an approximation of English well enough to get by.

    He was stopped for speeding and the traffic cop asked for his name. Since it was unusual, the cop asked him to spell it. Oupa was stumped – he had no idea what the English names were for the letters of his name. The cop was hugely scathing of “illiterate foreigners” (sound familiar, anyone?)

    The changing face of literacy
    More on the changing face of literacy

  5. I mull over this from time to time, too. I posted on it twice in quick succession a couple of years back – see links below. I agree with you on the subject of function and context. I don't consider literacy a fixed concept – a person who is literate in one context may not be in another.For example, when my step-grandfather first arrived in South Africa just before WW2, he was perfectly literate in his native tongue and could speak an approximation of English well enough to get by. He was stopped for speeding and the traffic cop asked for his name. Since it was unusual, the cop asked him to spell it. Oupa was stumped – he had no idea what the English names were for the letters of his name. The cop was hugely scathing of "illiterate foreigners" (sound familiar, anyone?)The changing face of literacyMore on the changing face of literacy

  6. “When what we watch is constantly redefining itself, shouldn’t how we watch it do the same?” From a recent Toshiba ad that uses bullet-time photography. (The ad won’t help you define literacy, because the message of the ad is the ad itself, surprise, surprise).

  7. “When what we watch is constantly redefining itself, shouldn't how we watch it do the same?” From a recent Toshiba ad that uses bullet-time photography. (The ad won't help you define literacy, because the message of the ad is the ad itself, surprise, surprise).

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