Literacy as “Comprehending and Creating”

In my presentations, I often use a hashtag for people to share their thoughts during the time I am speaking, and also asking them to use my twitter handle (@gcouros) if they have any questions.  This is a great way to be able to keep up with the audience while I speak, and to encourage them to connect with me after if they need help.  Any time I show a video during my presentation, I usually go to the hashtag and see what the audience is sharing, and it gives me an insight into what they are thinking, or what they are challenging.  Sometimes it helps me to decide to re-emphasize a point or clarify something when I am speaking.  This is an incredible opportunity as a speaker to not only work with the audience during the conversation, but also for them to learn from one another.  I really believe that if you are only learning from me when I am speaking, that you are missing a great opportunity.

The one thing that I do mention when I speak is that if you don’t know what a “hashtag” or a “handle” is, in this world today, you are becoming illiterate.  It is a statement that is meant to challenge more than anything, but it does raise some eyebrows.  Some people disagree, and some people adamantly agree, but it is more to push thinking and start conversation than anything.  I do however go on to say that in the room, everyone at one point had no idea how to use the Internet, and then figured it out, as well as email.  These are things that were not the norm in our world, yet they became extremely important in our work.

So what is literacy? The “traditional definition” is the ability to read and write, but you will see that definition is a little different according to some sources.  The definition of literacy has changed over time, and there are many different perspectives on the topic.  In this article on the “Definitions of Literacy”, the author shares some differing perspectives that go beyond simply “reading and writing:

“…we acknowledge that the word literacy itself has come to mean competence, knowledge and skills (Dubin). Take, for example, common expressions such as ‘computer literacy,’ “civic literacy,’ ‘health literacy,’ and a score of other usages in which literacy stands for know-how and awareness of the first word in the expression.” Dubin and Kuhlman (1992)

Or this thinking from Langer in 1991:

“It is the culturally appropriate way of thinking, not the act of reading or writing, that is most important in the development of literacy. Literacy thinking manifests itself in different ways in oral and written language in different societies, and educators need to understand these ways of thinking if they are to build bridges and facilitate transitions among ways of thinking.”

(Read the entire article…there is lot to think about in what is shared on the “definitions” of literacy.)

When groups say that students are “excelling” at literacy, they often mean reading and writing scores, not necessarily anything beyond.  One of the definitions that has really pushed my thinking is this one from the  National Council of Teachers of English who define 21st century literacies as the following:

  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;
  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes;
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information;
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts;
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.

What would our “scores” be in this area for our students and for ourselves?  There are areas that I would be considered “illiterate”, but I do know that I could learn them.  This is crucial to this mindset.

When I think about literacy in the traditional sense of “reading and writing”, I think that we would lose out on a ton in our world if we couldn’t do either.  Yong Zhao once said, “reading and writing should be the floor, not the ceiling.”  This is a minimum. But the less we know (from anything to coding or hashtags), the more opportunity we lose, and that could lead to more opportunities being lost by our students.

Do we have to know everything in our world today?  Absolutely not.  But we also can’t just dismiss things as “insignificant” because of our lack of knowledge when we know they provide opportunity for others in our world, especially when those “others” are our students.  Literacy is more about the ability to comprehend and create today in many different faces of learning, than it is simply about reading and writing.  As our understanding of literacy develops, so should our understanding and practice of teaching and learning.

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