LABELING AND DEFINING LITERACY IN 2014
You say to-may-toe, I say to-mah-to. Some say digital literacies, some say digital literacy. As Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, Castek, and Henry stated in New Literacies: A Dual-Level Theory of the Changing Nature of Literacy, Instruction, and Assessment, “to have been literate yesterday, in a world defined primarily by relatively static book technologies, does not ensure that one is fully literate today where we encounter new technologies” (1150). Since “literacy” is a deictic word, or one of those words “whose meanings change rapidly as their context changes” (1150), it’s no surprise that its accepted iteration changes as well. When people say “literacy,” singular, they are referring to the general knowing, understanding, and producing of language, but when people say “literacies,” plural, they are acknowledging that there are multitudinous ways in which one can know, understand, and produce language. For instance, a person may be “literate” in paperback reading, but stare blankly at an iPad, lacking the understanding necessary to swipe between pages or click on hyperlinked text or interact with apps.
In some ways, the things that people point to as “new” about literacy are comparable to the “new” things in literacy when we changed from an oral culture to a written one, or when we shifted from cuneiform to papyrus. I would agree though that the nature of how we interact with text is certainly a “new” component to literacy, and there is a significant difference between what Nicholas Carr calls the “deep dive” of traditional, paper-based reading and the “skimming along the surface” type of reading that the Internet seems to encourage. In addition to practical newness, new social practices are another angle to consider. In Reading comprehension on the Internet:Expanding our understanding of reading comprehension to encompass new literacies, Coiro asks of skills and abilities needed to interact with text on the Internet: “Are these processes extensions of traditional comprehension skills, or do Web-based learning environments demand fundamentally different skills?” (458). I would venture to vote for the latter.
In regard to whether there is any benefit to talking about these processes as online reading comprehension or digital inquiry, I feel like I can reply with some certainty: No, it creates more confusion! Or, at least, any benefit to introducing those terms would be overshadowed by the confusion caused by adding yet more terms to the edu-jargon party. That guest list is really getting out of hand.
The use of uppercase and lowercase ways of thinking about new literacies (as described by Leu et al, 2013) did actually muddy the waters for me until I heard Cassie speaking about it, and then it did actually help to un-muddy, or clarify, the proverbial waters. To succinctly differentiate between the two, I turn again to the Leu, et. al. crew: “Lowercase theories explore a specific area of new literacies and/or a new technology, such as the social communicative transactions occurring with text messaging…. New Literacies, as the broader, more inclusive concept, includes those common findings emerging across multiple, lowercase theories” (1157). If I got to pick, I’d say the fewer minute discrepancies that must be calculated, the better, so even with Leu, et. al’s succinct description and Cassie’s un-muddifying explanation, I’d stick with the lowercase version.
IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHING AND LEARNING
I think the online reading/digital literacy skills, strategies, practices, and mindsets outlined in our readings from Week 4 and 5 are equally, if not more important for today’s students compared to those related to offline reading comprehension, vocabulary, and/or fluency (as discussed in reading from Weeks 1-3). We are preparing students for a world we can’t even fully envision right now, and in order to do that well, it would be criminal to continue to place the sole emphasis on literacy as it relates to traditional print text. That would be tantamount to insisting that everyone write on clay tablets. We cannot pretend that our students will not be asked– and are not already being asked– to interact with language and images online. Therefore, a major implication for the teaching and learning that goes on in my classroom is: Even if I love a good book to have and to hold and to lovingly read with my eyes moving in a predictable, steady rhythm side to side and page by page, I have to put aside my preferences and learn how to teach them what they need to know.