The Great Literacy Debate by Ryan Bretag

Literacy has been the topic of much debate recently within various edtech communities: the definition of literacy, the new literacies, the 21st Century and literacy, and more. While debates of this sort surrounding literacy are nothing new and often purely a semantic exercise (reason I've previously avoided it), the reality is that valued recent works, national educational organizations, and conferences are using literacy to frame the argument for shifting instructional practices into a context more relevant to today.

Because of this and the possibility of engaging in these discussions within the context of our own schools, it is important for educators to engage in these debates or at the very least discussions on defining and contextualizing literacy in a framework that leads to action that could potentially improve teaching and learning. This is exactly why I recently shared my rough definition on literacy: Literacy is a group of evolving skills and knowledge needed for thoughtful, meaningful, and effective communication in socially relevant contexts.

Deconstructing this Rough Definition

For me, it is important to see literacy in a social context, to take into account that it is socially constructed. As Freire (1987) noted, "literacy had to be viewed as a social construction that is always implicated in organizing one's view of history, the present, and the future" (p.2). For me, literacy is situated in the cultural understandings of effective communication and communication needs and those skills are deictic.

This means seeing the skills and skill sets that make up a literate person as organic and rooted in what is happening socially, politically, and even economically. In fact, Barton would say literacy is "a phenomenon [that] requires for its explanation the attention of at least 8 academic disciplines: physiology, psychology, sociology, economics, technology, political science, history, and anthropology".

In other words, given that literacy "is inescapably a social phenomenon", the rapid pace of technological advancement is the target for literacy becoming a deictic term (Holme, 2005, p. 3). But that is for people like Doug Belshaw whose study of digital literacies is a must follow if the concept of digital literacies is of interest.

21st Century Literacy ?

I like it.

Honestly, I like it a lot. Not for the fact that some feel the 21st Century has brought with it new literacies. No, I like it as a means of contextualizing the discussion of literacy and new skills and skill sets that literacy has in the 21st Century. Eventually, the 21st Century will be dropped if and when society comes to accept the skills that constitute a literate person as the norm. Right now, the discussion of 21st Century Literacy or literacies might seem repetitive and it probably is for many educational technologists who have accepted and maybe even have embraced these new skill sets. However, outside of those ed techs, the context of literacy may still be situated in a 20th Century skill set.

However, because as Heath (1980) states, "the concept of literacy covers a multiplicity of meanings, and definitions of literacy carry implicit but generally unrecognized views of its function and its use" there lies a need to define our scope of discussion if we are to convince someone of a need to evolve or expand their scope (p.123). For me, this is most readily done by stating 21st Century. For others, it is New Literacy, digital literacies, media literacy, literacies, and so on.

I'm Not a Social-Linguistic or Literacy Expert but I did Stay at a Holiday Inn Express

As I said, I have struggled a bit with the relevance of the conversation mostly because of its deictic nature or as Barton states, "Literacy is an ideological approach meaning the definition varies from situation to situation and is dependent on ideology." I also struggle with it because I question where we are grounding our beliefs and where we are drawing our beliefs. I'm not an expert in literacy nor am I a social linguistic. It doesn't mean I shouldn't engage in the conversation but I try to keep some perspective on how much I can, and maybe should, contribute especially if it is purely opinion that isn't grounded in some foundational thinkers on the topic such as the following:

  • Paulo Freire
  • David Barton
  • Shirley Brice Heath
  • James Paul Gee
  • Henry Jenkins
  • Alvin Toffler
  • Howard Gardner
  • Harvey Graff
  • Michael Fullan
  • Deborah Brandt
  • Howard Rheingold

However, while it may be looked at as merely a semantic exercise, the value in defining terms is critical to moving any discourse forward. Hence, it is my sincere hope that defining and contextualizing literacy leads to discussion about what it means to be well-educated in the 21st Century, how schools can best foster the growth and development of literacies identified as critical, and finally what does it mean to educate and foster learning opportunities that assist in the development of well-educated, global citizens!