Modern Literacies

I received an email from a teacher colleague last week and it contained a single sentence–a question: “I wonder if you might give me your definition of modern literacies?”

I was intrigued, not only by the question but also by the reason behind asking it (which she explained in a later email).  In any case, I did have some ideas about this but I never really worked it all out and wrote it all down. After writing back to her, I started to look up other people’s ideas and definitions and found a wide range of explanations. I find the topic of literacy and media, old and new, fascinating.

So here is what I wrote back. (Please comment at the end of this post to discuss. I would love to hear your ideas and thoughts on this.)

When I think of a child who is developing literacy, I think of him/her as developing competencies in both consuming and creating information in different media. By competency, I mean that students are making meaningful connections to their current knowledge and thinking critically about information they are consuming. Likewise, by competency, I also mean that students are communicating clearly when relating their ideas (expression) and effectively considering the needs (and characteristics of) the target audience(s) for the information they are creating.

I think the word literacy could be used to describe competency at different levels. For example, one could say any of these three things:

  1. How well do you use social media to share and learn? (How literate are you with digital media?)
  2. How well do you use Twitter to communicate? (How literate are you with Twitter?)
  3. How well do you use hashtags on Twitter? (How literate in hashtags are you?)

Regarding the idea of modern literacies, I think literacies involving media that are newer (e.g., YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, wikis, blogs, texting, email, etc.) one could discuss the development of literacy in each of these media and each could be considered a modern media, each with a corresponding literacy. There is certainly a fair amount of overlap of competency in each of these but I think there are also medium-specific competencies that are unique.

Additionally, I think the term modern literacies should be considered a relative term–what exactly it means would depend on the period of time or generation you are talking about. TV media would have been a modern literacy in the 1950s and 60s. When I reflect on the importance of media-specific literacies, I often think about a very well known (and well studied) debate that took place between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. It was the first televised debate in the US. You can watch it below.

When watching the video, you can see how relaxed and healthy Kennedy looked, but Nixon looked thin and often very uncomfortable. There’s a good article from TIME called “How the Nixon-Kennedy Debate Changed the World.” This debate is an excellent illustration about how a medium conveys far more information than the raw information contained in the spoken words. People who heard the debate on the radio felt Nixon won. Those who watched it on TV thought Kennedy won. By 1960, 88% of households had TVs. Kennedy ended up winning the US election as we all know.


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