Open Thinkering


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?

17 thoughts on “On the important differences between literacies, skills and competencies.

  1. As I get more involved with a lot of this stuff, I go through the same kinds of thoughts. I am a huge supporter of a more open definition of being literate. I think the concept of multiliteracies is an important change. But, I think that literacy is an always changing, moving target throughout history. Literacy today is not literacy 50 years ago and will again be different 50 years lfrom now. Is having the skills to do some coding, accessing, evaluating and curating information different from “regular” literacy or is it all one part of the same package of what being literate means? A never ending argument. I’m glad to see you’re doing this work with Mozilla. I think it is an important initiative.

    1. Thanks Clarence! What you mention about the changing nature of literac(ies) is why I don’t want there to be an overall ‘web literacy’ badge from Mozilla. It would suggest an end to the process that doesn’t, to my mind at least, exist.

  2. I agree with you, Doug. Something I’ve been wrestling with in terms of digital literacy for our staff- though I’ve adopted the term ‘Digital Practice’ to make it accessible for non-academic staff. I like Rhonda Sharpe’s and Helen Beetham’s framework, which articulates some of what you’re discussing in terms of skills, practice and creative appropriation. My thoughts are when one has reached the level of competency that means you are digitally literate (in a particular context) and are constructing your own learning contexts, it becomes easier to identify and learn new skills as appropriate in a different context.

    1. Thanks Elaine. 🙂

      Good link to Beetham & Sharpe’s work. In fact, I’m including that in a mapping exercise I’m currently doing for the web literacies grid!

  3. Doug, you write “A competence is a collection of skills for a pre-defined purpose.” and that “whilst competencies can be seen as ‘bundles of skills’, literacies cannot.” If you look into it a bit deeper, I think you’ll come to recognise it isn’t as simple as that — perhaps you have already!

    First, you may be confusing “competence” with “competency”, though “competences” (plural) seems often to be used in the same sense as “competencies”. The EQF is by no means the last word on this, but it is instructive to consider their definitions carefully, as many people have undoubtedly sweated over these definitions. The definitive text is as follows:

    “(f) ‘learning outcomes’ means statements of what a learner knows, understands and is able to do on completion of a learning process, which are defined in terms of knowledge, skills and competence;(g) ‘knowledge’ means the outcome of the assimilation of information through learning. Knowledge is the body of facts, principles, theories and practices that is related to a field of work or study. In the context of the European Qualifications Framework, knowledge is described as theoretical and/or factual;(h) ‘skills’ means the ability to apply knowledge and use know-how to complete tasks and solve problems. In the context of the European Qualifications Framework, skills are described as cognitive (involving the use of logical, intuitive and creative thinking) or practical (involving manual dexterity and the use of methods, materials, tools and instruments);(i) ‘competence’ means the proven ability to use knowledge, skills and personal, social and/or methodological abilities, in work or study situations and in professional and personal development. In the context of the European Qualifications Framework, competence is described in terms of responsibility and autonomy.”

    I suspect you can no more reduce competence to a mere bundle of skills than you can reduce literacy to a bundle of skills. But in neither cases is there any reason for supposing that you simply cannot analyse a particular competence or a particular literacy. After all, presumably we have some idea of what we mean, thus we can assess the applicability of each concept to a person in some way. The fact that it is not easy to analyse does not at all mean that it is in principle unable to be analysed. It does mean that we have to be bold and creative in setting out what it is that is needed.

    Maybe, just maybe, it might be useful to say that part of the concept of literacy involves being able to discuss the key concepts in the domain of literacy in a literate way, which would involve the kind of meta-knowledge that perhaps you are talking about. However, I guess there are very many areas of competence where this is the same.

    There is a distinction to be drawn, and I find it helpful to locate this as the same as the distinction between “skill” and “competence”, between context-free abilities in which there is little or no unprogrammed decision-making to be made, and context-sensitive abilities where there are potentially several options open for courses of action, and part of competence is choosing an appropriate one.I’ve written more than enough here, but if you want to get deeper into this, and to be really helpful to the way people think about literacies, skills and competence, without alienating others who have also thought deeply about these matters, I’d be happy to collaborate.

    1. Thanks Simon – especially for the reference to the EQF. 🙂

      The prompt for this post was the assumption that skills can be ‘rolled up’ into literacies. My brevity may have lacked some nuance.

  4. Hello, just have come upon on the topic.
    Everything is skills.
    For me literacy covers the first three stages og Bloom’s taxonomy, while competency is on the upper three. Literacy is far beyond reading and writing, there is also literacy in every domain and means you know about it, you understand it and you can apply it. Analysis, synthesis, evaluation and creation are the skills of a competent person in a particular domain.

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