On the important differences between literacies, skills and competencies.

Literacies, skills and competencies

I’ve currently knee-deep in web literacies stuff for Mozilla.

Or should that be web skills?

Or perhaps web competencies?

It’s a complex, contested, and nuanced area. The differences between literacies, skills and competencies shouldn’t merely be glossed over and ignored. These differences are important.

Let me explain.


Literacy is the ability to read and write. Traditionally, this has meant the ability to read and write using paper as the mediating technology. However, we now have many and varied technologies requiring us to ‘read’ and ‘write’ in different ways. As a result we need multiple literacies.

Because literacy depends upon context and particular mediating technologies there is, to my mind, no one literacy to ‘rule them all’. Literacy is a condition, not a threshold.


A skill is a controlled activity (such as a physical action) that an individual has learned to perform. There are general skills (often called transferable skills) as well as domain-specific skills.

Skills are subject to objective thresholds. So, for example, badges awarded by Scouting organisations signify the reaching of a pre-determined level of skill in a particular field.


A competence is a collection of skills for a pre-defined purpose. Often the individual with the bundle of skills being observed or assessed has not defined the criteria by which he or she is deemed to be ‘competent’.

Competencies have the semblance of objectivity but are dependent upon subjective judgements by another human being (or beings) who observe knowledge, skills and behaviours.


The important point to make here is that whilst competencies can be seen as ‘bundles of skills’, literacies cannot. You cannot become literate merely through skill acquisition – there are meta-level processes also required. To be literate requires an awareness that you are, indeed, literate.

That sounds a little weird, but it makes sense if you think it through. You may be unexpectedly competent in a given situation (because you have disparate skills you have pulled together for the first time). But I’m yet to be convinced that you could be unexpectedly literate in a given situation.

And, finally, a skill is different to a literacy in the sense that the latter is always conditional. An individual is always literate for a purpose whereas a skill is not necessarily purpose-driven and can be well-defined and bounded.

Does this resonate with you?


Why e-safety isn’t part of digital literacy (and never will be).

Increasingly, I’m realising that there are unsaid words that precede almost any statement involving a connotative element. What are those words?

Let me tell you a story…

Given the potential for almost any word in any language to be used metaphorically, storytelling is happening pretty much most of the time.

So here’s my story.

Digital literacy, despite the heated debate going on behind the relevant page at Wikipedia isn’t computer literacy. It isn’t media literacy either. And it’s certainly not e-safety.

Including e-safety as an input, as a constituent part of, digital literacy makes no sense at all. It’s like defining traditional (print) literacy by describing behaviour in libraries (or what you can do with a book). What lies behind this approach is the assumption that a collection of competencies makes a literacy, which isn’t true: a collection of competencies is a skillset. And one only has to refer to Searle’s Chinese Room argument to see the fallacy behind equating a skillset with any form of understanding.

No, e-safety is an output of digital literacy, something that flows out of it once an individual is fluent. Fluency is the top end of the literacy scale – and fluency is the result of practice. To divorce e-safety from practice, to conceive it as something that can be taught in isolation is ill-advised and, ultimately, futile.

So stop building your creepy treehouses, and start thinking holistically about literacy and education more generally. Avoid digital Taylorism, and start debating about what it is we’re trying to do here. If we’re truly trying to protect and educate our young people we need to know what it is we’re protecting them from, why we’re doing it, and the best ways of going about it.

Scaring people with statistics and horror stories perpetuates the wrong type of responses (e.g. blocking) and avoids the problem. Let’s tackle it head-on. Let’s start focusing on digital literacy.

Update: Fixed incorrect link.