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What does it Mean to be Literate?

What does it mean to be literate? I am asking myself this question more frequently lately.

Does being literate mean the same for this class?

School Class in 1912- Image licensed under Creative Commons by HistoricBeaverton

Image by Historic Beverton

than for this class?

Graduating Class 1986

or this class?

Class of 2022 ~ Image licensed under Creative Commons by Melanie Holtsman

image by holtsman

The official definition from the dictionary defines “to be literate” as:

able to read and write

There is change in the air though.

Being able to read and write seems to remain as the same definition. What is changing, at a rapid speed though, is the medium we are reading in and writing with.

No longer is reading a handwritten letter or note, a printed sheet of paper, a poster, a telephone book, a newspaper, a magazine or a book the only medium of communicating information. Since having access to the Internet has become mainstream over 10 years ago, being able to find and read a website has expanded the notion of what it means to be “able to read”. New forms of media are being developed and are allowing us to take information in , to be able to “read” in new shapes and forms. With the beginning of web 2.0, the shift from simply consuming (reading) information/content to having the ability of producing (writing) information and content has now expanded the notion of writing as well.

The options, that are available to us humans, to communicate in another form, other than speaking verbally to someone face to face, has exponentially grown in the last 5 years. Being able to expand the reach of our communication has opened up opportunities that have not existed before in history.

So, what does that mean for the initial question of this blog post:

What does it mean to be literate?

I have written often on this blog,  how I see the concept of “Literacy” changing & expanding. I am reminded of the Norwegian video clip about the Medieval Help Desk, when one monk explains to another how to use, this new way of reading text, called a book. The monk had tremendous difficulty in grasping the concept of the book, compared to the scrolls he was used to until then.

What if that monk would have thrown the towel in and refused to become comfortable with the new form of reading and writing? Would he still be considered literate in an era where information and learning is mostly transmitted in a form of a book? What about his job, as a scribe of the church, to write on the scrolls? Would it soon become irrelevant?

As I have been busy in the last few months with workshops about “Blogging with Students“, I am realizing that we can’t just assume that every teacher is web “literate”. Before we start talking about how blogging can support 21st Century skills for your students, we need to step back and make sure that the teachers are literate (enough) to be able to read and write through this medium called a blog!

Blogging- It is not abuot the Tools...It's about the Skills

We need to start out by establishing a common vocabulary base and understanding how printed material differs from digital content. I ask teachers to start reading, reading, reading other blogs before attempting to blog with their own students. Basics, such as knowing how to search for blogs, recognize blog structures, searching within blogs, and experiencing the “mechanics” of how a blog platform operates are important “pre-reading and pre-writing” skills.

Establishing common vocabulary

In addition to establishing common vocabulary, we also need to start a conversation about the importance to go beyond the traditional teaching of the traditional communication methods of reading and writing  (through books and with paper) that still dominates in most of our schools. Otherwise our teachers and students will be like the monk in the movie clip above…being left “illiterate”.

I would like to recommend the following book by Alan November titled Web Literacy for Educators. It is a wonderful resource in the process of  becoming web literate. It goes beyond the basics and talks about being able to “read” and “write” as a researcher, understanding the grammar and being able to decode the structure of the web towards pushing us to being critical thinkers in a an online digital world.

by Alan November

Below you will find my notes as I was reading Alan’s book, taken with iThoughsHD Mindmapping app.

Click to see larger version

Currently there are "19 comments" on this Article:

  1. paul bogush says:

    Is it dangerous to create a definition of literacy? If one is created that everyone agreed on do we pigeon hole kids into a certain type of future?

    I know the person who I envy most in this world is a guy who lives on a very small farm with very few material items. By the “literate” world’s standards he is not very “literate.” But he is happy. Wonder if we are creating definitions of literacy so we can become the inside group, and are therefore can feel happier than the outside group. As I grow older, I have been looking closely at others’ lives in a new perspective. Many people in this world that are considered illiterate, are much happier than the literate. As I become more literate do I become happier?

    I wonder what does becoming literate make you? Does it make you happy?

    Can literate simply be the skills one needs to be happy? Can it be different for everyone? Do we need to standardize it?

    • Langwitches says:

      I liked reading your view about being ” literate”. I agree that being literate does not equal happiness. If we look at literacy as having to do with the ability to communicate with others though, where does the notion of ” happiness” enter? Some will be happy with a solitary life, some will have no need or desire to communicate with others…no need for literacy?
      Thank you for adding your perspective to the question “What does it mean to be literate?

  2. I love this video and Alan’s book is a must read for every educator.

    Literacy has always been about change. NCTE has some great thoughts on this:

    Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable.

    It is important to keep this context and the changing definition of literacy in the forefront of the discussion. Thanks for the GREAT post!

    Also sharing a post I did on “Changing Rules” of the Literacy Club http://bit.ly/9dXYty

  3. Colin Harris says:

    I would argue that core literacy skills as outlined in our board documents have not changed, however the tool set may have. If by digital literacy we’re referring to the use of technology and digital tools then that’s a skill set and not a literacy.

    Aren’t we really talking about critical literacy and ethical use of digital media works?

    If we define a separate literacy set for everything we effectively dilute the importance of our existing definition. Lots of people have invested a lot of time and energy into our existing definition and, I believe, it holds up well, even in an ever-changing digital landscape.

    The advent of the internet and more recently the “Read/Write Web” (aka Web 2.0) has not changed the need for a solid literacy foundation. To point, it has strengthened the need for early fundamental literacy skill set. In fact, “Literacy involves the development of a continuum of skills, knowledge and attitudes that prepare learners for life in a changing world community”. In the current context that directly addresses the changing learning landscape that faces the 21st century learner.

    Quantitatively, access to information has exploded. Critics of the internet have correctly pointed out that there is a proliferation of mis-information floating around. Haven’t we always tried to teach our students to view things critically? Sure there are lots of examples of high profile ruses floating around in cyberspace (can somebody front me $10K so I can help this poor Nigerian businessman with his company’s assets?), this is simply further evidence that we need to continue to be vigilant in our critical consumption of all media.

    “Literacy becomes the ability to understand, think, apply and communicate effectively in all subject and program areas in a variety of ways, and for a variety of purposes”. Is this not what being a digital learner is all about?

    Please don’t misinterpret my message: a text-book only curriculum is laughably anachronistic. I believe that cell phones, GPS devices, iPods, digital cameras, MMORPG’s, laptops, bogs, wikis, and web cams all have a place in a contemporary learning environment. I do, however, believe that upon closer inspection our existing literacy definition works very nicely as a foundation for the development of the literate learner in the digital age. Make no mistake, we still need to be critical evangelists in all that we read, listen to, view and otherwise consume as contemporary learners. However, the processing of information with a critical edge and an ethical foundation around the use of all media works, that currently exists within our literacy framework, I believe will serve us well for some time to come.

  4. Paul Bogush says:

    How about this…if you are a person who can think critically, you become as literate as you need to be to stay happy.

    Just because you choose a solitary life does not mean you are illiterate (I am sticking with the notion that being literate is more than reading or writing). The man I was referring to on the farm has a “day” job in which his ability to communicate with hundreds of people is vital to his organization…and he is very good at it.

    Here is one for you…using what you wrote in your post about what literacy is as the bar for being literate, someone like Martin Luther King would not be considered illiterate. If he came back today and did things the same way, using the same tools he had available to him during his life, do you think he would be as successful?

  5. Thank you for this post. I really enjoyed reading it and have forwarded it to my staff.

    The definition of literacy that I use with my kids is that to be literate means to be able to communicate fully in the world in which you live. As with anything, there are different skill sets required to function in different jobs, relationships, lifestyles, etc. Therefore I do think being literate increases your chance of happiness, because not fully understanding the people you live and work with is frustrating.

    As a teacher, I think it is imperative that we are literate in the communication modes of the students we teach and I thank you for the references provided to help with that.

    Anne De Manser

  6. [...] Langwitches Blog » What does it Mean to be Literate? [...]

  7. Great post! I think our definition of what literacy is absolutely needs to be re-evaluated. I think we are literate upon leaving school, we have the skills we need to flourish in society and in our jobs. It is only natural that the definition of what it means to be literate evolves over time. I guess what it means depends on where in the world you live. Giving one definition to literacy is dangerous and stands to leave out skill sets that are important for certain groups of our population.

  8. I love Shirley Brice Heath’s understanding of “literacies” as people’s ways with spoken and written words. I would urge that a sociocultural perspective be used to inform what we mean by literacies or we will continue to understand “literacy” as reading and writing whether it is on paper or the net. A sociocultural perspective understands that a person’s primary and secondary discourse groups will influence his or her ways with words. As educators understanding that our students may have different ways with words than is privileged in school allows us the opportunity to build associational bridges between the child’s home language and ways with words and the school based practices we privilege. The Internet does not alter this dynamic. Rather, it becomes a new Discourse we need to learn and ensure our youngsters learn as well.

  9. Patrick says:


    Thank you for asking a great question here, one that I have been thinking about and asking publicly for the last year or so. I tend to err on the side of Colin here because I don’t like to think that we are doing anything outrageous to change the skill-set we’ll need; everyone needs a bombproof BS detector these days. That may be the most significant change I can think of due to the amount of text created in our world today.

    If there is one thing that needs to be added to anyone’s definition of literacy it is a term like flexibility or malleability. Reading Laura’s post above, and looking at your graduating class photos makes me realize that the media that we apply our literacy skills to may shape those skills in new ways, and we have to be flexible enough to adapt them.

  10. I too tend to agree with Colin’s definition with his emphasis on critical reading. The skill set really has not changed, but what has changed is the attention span of many readers, younger and older :-) alike. I remember when Harper’s magazine switched from long articles to considerably shorter pieces in the 1980′s. I liked it. The shorter pieces and the excerpts made the magazine more accessible than it was before the switch. Blogs are popular, but long blog entries, unless they are very compelling, tend to bore. Tweets on Twitter, short snippets, a merge of text, visuals, and sounds — these traits, along with critical reading should be included in a 21st century definition of literacy. I wish my students had longer attention spans to sustain their reading over many many pages. I wish I did, too — without interruptions from the electronics around us.

  11. [...] adjust their writing accordingly.  I wonder where audience comes in when we talk about the idea of changing the definition of literacy in today’s day and age.  Regardless, it has to factor as prominent, and if we accept that, to whom are our five-paragraph [...]

  12. [...] blogginlägget ”What does it mean to be literat?” funderar bloggaren kring vad innebär det att vara läs och skrivkunnig i vÃ¥r digitala [...]

  13. New Era says:

    Ever since the beginning of time certain things have been evolving; people start innovating. The era we live in now just happens to be the time where everything is being completed by computers, or even phones. But why is the change in this era any different from earlier eras? Scrolls turned to books, phone decreased in size and became wireless, televisions are to the point where they cannot become any thinner, and now computers are dominating our time. Kids, parents, teachers, everyone needs to adopt this era if they want a job. I hear teachers say, “Oh, I am very terrible with computers; don’t ask me.” The worst part about that is that they aren’t even trying to learn… they just think they “can’t”. That attitude affects their students and holds kids back from getting the correct education they will need to find success in their future.

  14. [...] themes that were running throughout.  The first, which was also discussed in the article, “What does it mean to be Literate,” was that of literacy education in a technological sense.  As the world shifts and moves more [...]

  15. music says:

    thanks for sharing

  16. Chris Hale says:

    Thank you for this interesting post on literacy. My school is currently revising its rules about devices in classes. The key focus has often been safety, but we are beginning to make the shift towards teaching and learning with/about electronic devices for both students and staff. I was rereading parts of Alan’s book just before reading this posting; your thought-tree of Alan’s books is excellent and creates a wonderful visual that can be used to explain the reasons why we need to change our school culture of zero-tolerance for electronic devices in classrooms. Desktop computers are not the only way students will access the internet and teachers/schools need to recognize this evolutionary fact.

  17. […] to reflect on what it means to read and write in the 21st century. The concept of literacy has evolved from basic reading and writing skills, to functional literacy and the much touted phenomenon of […]

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