Open Menu Close Menu

21st Century Skills

Redefining Literacy in the Digital Age

Technology and digital media are changing the meaning of literacy and creating new challenges for teaching and learning.

digital literacy

The literacy challenge here in the United States has been with us for some time. Several sources indicate that the percentages of adult illiteracy have not changed in 10 years:

While these statistics are powerful, it is important to realize two issues:

  1. There are many challenges that impact illiteracy, not just general education; and
  2. There are currently many different types of literacy and so the scope of the challenge has increased and is not being fully assessed or evaluated.

We hear K–12 teachers say on a regular basis that literacy remains a huge challenge for their students. We also hear college instructors talking about how current students seem to have graduated from high school and cannot read or write well. Often, college classrooms and online groups have to spend time addressing literacy skills as well as content. While there are many economic and educational factors involved, it is clear that a collision of conventional and digital literacy has both challenged and redefined what literacy should be and just how it must be taught in any curriculum.

Literacy Skills: Conventional and Progressive

As we likely all realize, the conventional idea of literacy concerns reading and writing. For generations, we have focused on the reading and writing skills of students through the entire educational process. More recently, though, linguistics has influenced the literature to include listening and speaking as key literacy skills (e.g., see the work of the Hanen Centre, a nonprofit organization focused on extreme literacy issues in children). As linguists (Krashen, 1987, 1988 and others) have made us aware, language skills must include all four of the literacy skills — reading, writing, listening and speaking — in order for adequate language "function" to be achieved. That is, the acquisition of language use is critical over the learning of passive grammar and structure. The accuracy of language is influenced still by reading and writing; however, listening and speaking are essential for fluency. Fluency in a language is influenced by all four skills and, in turn, it influences the overall understanding or meaning. Theorists have provided ample research data to demonstrate that understanding must be reached if language has been appropriately used: The innate reason for language is to exchange meaning (Chomksy, 1957, 1988). Additionally, if listening and speaking have been focused on more than reading and writing, then language accuracy is lacking.

The growing challenge over the last several decades is that new technology and various new media have altered how meaning is constructed — how language is used, and therefore, what literacy involves. Socio-economic differences have also influenced who has access to the tools that are changing these realities. While everyone is experiencing these changes, not everyone has access to the technology that supports the new skills required. This has resulted in the generational and social gaps growing faster — not only between those who have technology and those who do not, but also between literacy and language and, ultimately, the transfer of meaning itself. Along with the conventional generational differences between what is current and what is passed, we now also have a growing difference in the exchange of information and what is understood. Language is to be used appropriately, however, rules of appropriateness and accuracy are changing, and what may seem to be lacking in conventional terms is indeed the "new norm" in many instances. With that is also the reality that those changing rules are continuing to change and at an even faster rate.

Ultimately, if we are trying to evaluate literacy using old rules, old functions and old meaning, we are really not evaluating literacy as it exists now.

Applied Skills

We now have younger students who can decipher meaning from short visual cues, modified text and only when the media are mixed. That is, long scrolls of text are not read, but hotlinks are used to web out the logic and to create an understanding that is not dependent upon conventional literacy skills but a new literacy that exchanges meaning differently and, as such, uses language differently. In addition to various "threads" or logical flow of information, "multi-view" provides a multilayered schema of information that necessarily must be processed simultaneously in order for any kind of understanding to be reached.

In a 2009 article, I discussed the challenges to teachers and students — and thinking or cognition as a way in which some of this growing gap may be closed. Additionally, there is a generational gap that is growing between students and teachers, and learning outcomes are often still based on older uses of literacy rather than current skills. This means that most students disengage and drop out of the learning process, preferring opportunities that suit the skills they have. Unfortunately, those opportunities often still require formal education that depends on conventional literacy skills. Therefore, I would suggest that we do not have true data on literacy as we are essentially "comparing apples and oranges," so to speak.

General Lack of Understanding

What is becoming clear is that increasing numbers of students do not have the skills required to understand conventional information sources and media, and older generations of people do not understand newer informational environments or exchanges. So, when folks are encouraged to "read" websites, that is not happening by individuals on either side of that gap. Books are increasingly of the "e" variety; however, they are still linear and text-based. Most current students do not like to use e-books and prefer conventional textbooks — analogous to how, when visiting a museum, patrons prefer environments within which the antiques are displayed contemporaneously. In other words, what students are really saying is not that they prefer print copy books, but that if the style and flow remains in a conventional style, then please use the conventional tool.

However, current students prefer information in completely new and "mixed" formats, rather than in stylized books of any sort. Each generation has different literacy skills, unable to process information the same way. We're increasingly becoming people who only watch and listen – a characteristic reminiscent of medieval times. Gone is the view that it has to be written or printed in order to be a valued source. Currently, if it is heard or seen, then it has value. A great example of this is the smartphone's increased usage for all life contexts and to capture instances to share with the world.

So what does current or new literacy look like? What does it involve and how can we bridge some of these growing gaps in processing and understanding information?

New Literacy

I do not pretend to provide exhaustive answers in this short article, but I would suggest that we accept the realities before us and create and develop new ways to validate information and to adequately communicate and debate. We must value ways of thinking over linear text and provide ways to evaluate understanding in terms of its innovation and flexibility – even for conventionally "highly regulated" professions. Additionally, as conventional jobs are diminishing and new jobs are emerging, we cannot and should not continue to evaluate literacy and learning as before. New emerging jobs will require new skills, and education should be pushing forward rather than trying to regain something that existed previously.

For example, it is likely that new jobs will not require task-based skills, but rather critical thinking and problem-solving skills — not to solve problems of the past, but to solve new problems emerging from new uses of technology and new realities. Therefore, new literacy should also include innovation and flexible and adaptable solutions. If we continue to validate literacy and understanding using only standardized evaluation based upon current and past knowledge and practices, we will continue to fall short in terms of preparation and actually in literacy skills. Alec Ross (2016) suggests:

Today's youth who will enter tomorrow's workforce will need to be more nimble and more familiar with the broader workings of the world…. Tomorrow's labor market will be increasingly characterized by competition between humans and robots. In tomorrow's workplace, either the human is telling the robot what to do or the robot is telling the human what to do. (p. 247)

Of course, "today" and "tomorrow" are highly generic terms. The gist, however, is that change is happening quickly and we are all trying to make sense of it. While it is a given that technology has completely changed much of society and it is increasingly changing practices and norms, it is not a given that educational content, processes, assessments, applications etc. are changing anywhere near quickly enough to meet societal changes or, as Ross points out, global markets and employment changes.

Rather than focus on illiteracy only, we must evaluate education itself and its view of the kind of world students will have to address. Issues of global poverty, global communication and markets continue to require our attention as well as socio-economic marginalization of communities here in the U.S. I would suggest, however, that if we can rethink the impact of new technology and future technology, we have the potential to include more people in the dialogue if we realize in time that the dialogue has changed: It is not about illiteracy as much now as it is about regression. I encourage all educators everywhere to become learners again and to be willing to redefine and value the skills we all need for the future.


Chomksy, N. (1957). Syntactic Structures. The Hague: Mouton.

Chomksy, N. (1988). Language and the Problem of Knowledge. MIT Press.

Krashen, Stephen D. (1987). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Prentice-Hall International.

Krashen, Stephen D. (1988). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Prentice-Hall International.

Ross, A. (2016). The Industries of the Future. Simon and Schuster. NY, NY.

comments powered by Disqus