As English/Language Arts teachers, we are responsible for the literacy of our students. Historically, literacy has meant the ability to read and write, but in today’s digital world, literacy means a lot more. Today to be literate, students must know how to meaningfully interact with multiple modes of communication, both in digital and traditional modes. In this essay, I’ll look at the work of teachers and educational researchers to inform my Action Learning Project, in which I’ll use nonfiction photojournalism to teach 21st century literacies.
The “Digital Turn”
In the field of literacy studies, there has been a significant shift that scholars have named, “the digital turn” (Mills 2010). There is increased attention given to new literacies in a multiple of social contexts, including education. In fact, there is much disagreement among literacy scholars about the definition of literacy in the 21st century. For example, Scribner and Cole define literacies as “socially organized practices that make use of a symbol system and a technology for producing and disseminating it” (Scribner & Cole 1981). In contrast, Street defines literacies more specifically and traditionally as “particular ways of thinking about and doing reading and writing in cultural contexts” (Mills 2010). What I can deduce from this disagreement about what literacy actually is, along with the shift in scholarly attention to these “new literacies,” is that the conception of literacy is in the process of a fundamental shift. What it meant to be literate in the 20th century is entirely different than what it means now, or will mean in the near future. We as educators, taking the knowledge of this shift of scholarly attention into account, have a responsibility to decide what literacies are important for our students to learn in the 21st century.
Nurturing “New Literacies” in the Classroom
While the definition of literacy remains obscure, I found Cathleen Rafferty’s categories of literacy in the digital age convincing. She suggests that there are three types of interconnected literacies that our students need to have to be successful in the 21st century. First, she specifies the most well-known type of literacy—text-based literacy. Obviously, our students need to learn to read and write. Also included in this type of literacy, however, is document literacy, or the “ability to interpret and use information from different kinds of nonprose formats, such as forms, charts, graphs, maps, and other visual displays” (Rafferty). This type of text-based literacy is not addressed as often in English language arts classes, and students tend to do poorer on state exams that test this type of textual literacy.
The second type of literacy that teachers are responsible for addressing is representational literacy. This type of literacy is characterized by understanding and interpreting visual and multimedia texts. To nurture this type of literacy, teachers must introduce their students to a wide variety of modes of communication, such as photographs, films, websites, commercials, etc.
The third type of literacy is called tool literacy, which involves learning how to create work with 21st century tools, such as Web 2.0 or software tools. This is the type of literacy that is least addressed in the classroom, but is crucial to student success in the digital age. Interestingly, our students are most likely already engaging in multiple 21st century tools. For some reason though, many educators thus far have decided that there should be a distinct barrier between the digital tools kids use at home and those which they should use at school. If teachers can harness kids’ knowledge and excitement about digital tools they use on their own, and begin to use and further develop those skills in the classroom, they are more likely to effectively teach tool literacy. All of these three types of literacy, text-based, representational, and tool literacy are crucial parts of a complete 21st century education.
William Kist offers us five characteristics of a classroom that is designed to teach new literacies. First, he suggests, teachers must both expose their students and ask them to product multiple forms of representation. He suggests that the classroom should begin to resemble a studio and an art gallery rather than a lecture hall. There must also be explicit discussions of symbol usage, and students would use this knowledge in the creation of their own work. Students must be given choice in the form of representation that would best communicate their message, though teachers should teach design conventions. There should also be a balance of individual and collaborative activities in the classroom.
Visual Literacy as a 21st Century Skill
Visual or graphic literacy involves “the ability to understand, produce, and use culturally significant images, objects, and visible actions” (Felten 2008). According to Glenda Rakes, visual texts have begun to dominate the information accessible through the digital media. Even traditionally text-based modes of communication, like books, rely more and more on visual images. Visual literacy skills do not necessarily come naturally in students, even those who are “digital natives,” and should be taught in conjunction with traditional textual literacy in the classroom.
Research studying the physical processes of visual perception supports the explicit teaching of visual literacy by demonstrating that seeing is not simply a “process of passive reception of stimuli but also involves active construction of meaning” (Felton 2008). If even the physical process is active, then the act of interpreting visual texts certainly must require active participation.
Not only is the interpretation of images crucial to visual literacy, but so too is the creation of visual texts. Someone who can only read is not literate; they must also be able to write. For this reason, visual literacy requires the highest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy: Creation. With the access we have to so many digital and Web 2.0 tools, digital visual images can be created in with ease the classroom.
Implications for Action Learning Project
For my Action Learning Project, I will construct a lesson that seeks to foster 21st century literacies in the classroom. With an awareness that what it means to be literate is evolving, I will try to address at least two types of literacy for this project: representational literacy and tool literacy. To develop representational literacy, specifically visual literacy, we will look at the photographs and journals of Dan Eldon, and first work to actively interpret the visual images. We’ll do this as a group so as to socially construct meaning. We’ll explicitly discuss symbols present in the work. I chose to use Eldon’s work because he seams together words, drawings, clippings, and photos to construct meaning. I view this multimedia form of representation as a snapshot of today’s many modes of communication, and I think that it would be a great way to engage many different types of learners. I especially chose this particular artist because his work combines memoir, journalism, and social commentary, and he was a very young man. He died when he was 22 years old, so most of his work took place when he was a teenager. I think his work would feel relevant to many high school students.
Just as textual literacy has two components, visual literacy consists of both interpretation and creation, so the next step of the Action Learning Project will ask students to create their own visual texts inspired by Eldon’s. They will do this independently, in line with Kist’s suggestion to create a balance of group and individual work. Eldon’s work will provide an example and scaffolding that the students can follow, but their style of photojournalism will be guided only by their creativity. I will offer suggestions of ways to construct the journal page, either digitally or on paper.
The final phase of the project will try to improve tool literacy by asking them to use a Web 2.0 tool, Voicethread. In this phase, they will comment on their work as well as provide a response to the project in general. Using this tool will provide them with literacy in a digital mode of expression. It will also provide a medium for publication of student work, which is essential to their developing understanding of audience. My Action Learning Project is constructed with the goal of teaching the 21st century literacies that these scholars and teachers describe. These kinds of literacies are the ones that will provide students access to success in our new digital society. bookhenge.
Ash, Katie. (2011, June). Language arts educators balance text-only tactics with multimedia skills. Education Week
Butler, R.P. (2008). Focus on visual literacy. Knowledge Quest, 36(3)
Felten, P. (2008). Visual literacy. Change, 40(6), 60-64.
Hammer, J. (1997, November 24). Lest the pictures fade. Newsweek, 130(21)
Kist, W. (2000). Beginning to create the new literacy classroom: what does the new literacy look like?. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 43(8),
Mills, K.A. (2010). A review of the “digital turn” in the new literacy studies. Review of Educational Research, 80(2)
Rafferty, C.D. (1999). Literacy in the information age. Educational Leadership, 57(2)
Rakes, G. Teaching visual literacy in a multimedia age. Techtrends, 43(4), 14-18.
Scribner, S., & Cole, M. (1981). The psychology of literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.