Saturday, March 1, 2008

What does 21st Century Literacy mean, anyway?

I’ve heard lots of conversations recently about 21st Century Literacies. Are there really new “literacies” evolving in relation to new media and the needs of the workplace, or is the word literacy just being over-applied to the point where it will lose meaning?

Here’s where my thinking is with this so far: traditionally literacy referred to the ability to read and write, those being essential tools to access information in the world. As more and ever-changing avenues for accessing information have developed, the meaning of literacy is expanding beyond the ability to read and write to include the ability to access and learn new information.

I find David Warlick’s recent comment on Weblogg-ed very convincing:

The best thing we could teach kids today is how to teach themselves. It’s my same old rant, that we have to expand our notions of literacy so that it reflects today’s information landscape and then integrate that, instead of trying to integrate technology. If we teach contemporary literacy, then the tech will come because it’s the pencil and paper of our time.

This is the part I’m still making sense of:

But in addition, I would hope that rather than just teaching literacy skills, that we teach literacy habits, and that we teach them as learning literacies, rather than just literacy.

How do we design our curriculum around these literacy habits? I'd love to hear your ideas.

Lesson learned for me about blogging by the way: I knew that I wanted to post something about 21st Century Literacies, but since I’m still figuring this out myself I froze and didn’t post anything for two weeks. But, the process of figuring things out by starting and participating in conversation is sort of the point, isn’t it. So I’m back.


George Nemeth said...

You need a good understanding of the fundamentals before applying them to new tools. There's nothing worse then a poorly written blog (or comment). If you can't organize your thoughts and convey them in a concise manner, new media won't help you.

Abby Kelton said...

Well, if you're saying that students need to learn to read and write before they get online, I'd disagree. I think using tools like blogs can be a great way for students to develop their writing skills while gaining familiarity with new media.

If, on the other hand, you're criticizing me (which, to be honest, is what I thought when I first read your comment) then, well...ouch.

Cee Jay said...

I agree with Warlick's comment that we need to teach kids to teach themselves. I think that credentialing people only through formal education has led to a dependence on others to "teach" us, as if the teacher could somehow open up the heads of students and drop the knowledge into them. Teachers and classrooms are only tools that can be used when learning, not the only tool, and certainly the lack of formal schooling does not precluded learning. We have many outstanding examples of people who led the way in science, art, literature, etc, without the formal education they would be required to have to get even an entry level job in their field of interest today.

There should be other ways of proving one's competence than jumping through classroom hoops. As long as diplomas and degrees are the criteria for entry into careers, there is little incentive to learn on one's own except for personal curiosity and pleasure. We manage to blunt a student's enthusiasm for learning early on by
an age based curriculum that fails to take the individual child's interests and abilities into account. There is little time in a child's day for exploring topics that are of particular interest. The student's day is filled with required activities, projects, and tests. After school, the child is signed up for adult controlled sports, music, tutoring, etc. Learning independently requires the student to be motivated, have extended time alone to explore, research, reflect, and then practice using that knowledge in the real world. I have known many students who were independent learners. Most of them were not getting great grades in the classroom. We are wasting a lot of talent.

Dennis Richards said...

I've been thinking about this topic for awhile and collecting links that speak to the issue because I'm writing an article about it (see for the links under 21st Century Internet Literacies). I do agree with David Warlick, but David Jakes ( and Will Richardson ( have both deepened my understanding of the notion of independent learner with their thoughts about self-directed learning.

There are lots of lists of 21st Century Skills/Literacies that are all directly or indirectly enabled or enhanced by 2.0 pedagogy. One of the better websites enGauge, A Framework for Technology Skills, is going out of business at the end of March so catch it while you can (see

I have concluded there is too much to consider when trying to teach 21st Century Literacies if you try to understand and use the list to guide leraning. One way to manage all that is out there is to us a unifying statement.

The best unifying statement that I think unifies all of the lists of skills under a few descriptive principles is the recently published (Feb. 15, 2008) NCTE Executive Board statement, Toward a Definition of 21st-Century Literacies. (see If a teacher paid attention to those six principle and the associated skills and literacies from the lists, I think it would be feasible to built a curriculum for the 21st Century that was understandable and viable in practice.

Thanks for listening,

Dennis Richards

Hope this helps further the conversation. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Abby Kelton said...

Cee Jay, are you familiar with the curriculum of the Big Picture network of charter schools? From what I understand, their curriculum provides students with a lot of flexibility to pursue topics that they are interested in, with excellent results. I think you might be interested in their approach and I encourage you to check it out: If you are familiar with other schools with similar models, I'd love to hear about them.

Abby Kelton said...

Dennis, thanks for sharing these links. I like the idea you mentioned of a unifying statement to help us manage the concept of literacy.

I recently came across the revised literacy curriculum of Scotland which has an excellent such unifying statement: defining literacy as "the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language, and the range of texts, which society values and finds useful."

The curriculum also has a flexible definition of "texts" that includes traditional as well as new media.

(The link is here: though I think I originally found this on