The Great Literacy Debate

There continues to be an interesting discussion regarding the definition of literacy, the question of literacy being literacies, and the idea of literacy in the 21st Century. Of late, I’ve stayed on the fringes of the conversation and even directly avoided it to deal with questions I found better suited for educational change.

That all changed this evening as I tweeted my rough definition of literacy: Literacy is a group of evolving skills, habits, and dispositions as well as a form of knowledge needed for thoughtful, meaningful, and effective communication (in socially relevant contexts) and learning.

For me, it is important to see literacy in a social context, to take into account that it is socially constructed. As Freire (1987) noted, “literacy had to be viewed as a social construction that is always implicated in organizing one’s view of history, the present, and the future” (p.2). For me, literacy is situated in the cultural understandings of effective communication and communication needs and those skills are deictic.

This means seeing the skills and skill sets that make up a literate person as organic and rooted in what is happening socially, politically, and even economically. In fact, Barton would say literacy is “a phenomenon [that] requires for its explanation the attention of at least 8 academic disciplines: physiology, psychology, sociology, economics, technology, political science, history, and anthropology”.

In other words, that is one heck of a phenomenological and ethnographic study whereby the rapid pace of technological advancement is the target for literacy becoming a deictic term: “literacy is inescapably a social phenomenon” (Holme, 2005, p. 3).  But that is for people like Doug Belshaw whose study of digital literacies is a must follow if this post is of interest to you.

21st Century Literacy ?

I like it.

Honestly, I like it a lot. Not for the fact that some feel the 21st Century has brought with it new literacies. No, I like it as a means of contextualizing the discussion of literacy and new skills and skill sets that literacy has in the 21st Century. Eventually, the 21st Century will be dropped if and when society comes to accept the skills that constitute a literate person as the norm. Right now, the discussion of 21st Century Literacy or literacies might seem repetitive and it probably is for many educational technologists who have accepted and maybe even have embraced these new skill sets. However, outside of those ed techs, the context of literacy may still be situated in a 20th Century skill set.

However, because as Heath (1980) states, “the concept of literacy covers a multiplicity of meanings, and definitions of literacy carry implicit but generally unrecognized views of its function  and its use” there lies a need to define our scope of discussion if we are to convince someone of a need to evolve or expand their scope (p.123). For me, this is most readily done by stating 21st Century. For others, it is New Literacy, digital literacies, media literacy, literacies, and so on.

That is not to say that I like how The Partnership for 21st Century Skills drives literacy by throwing every possible term in front of it: global, financial, informational, etc.. I simply like the context of the discussion, at this point, created by stating 21st Century (probably the same reason the Partnership throws everything in front of it).

I’m Not a Social-Linguistic or Literacy Expert but I did Stay at a Holiday Inn Express

While I do struggle a bit with the relevance of the conversation mostly because of its deictic nature or as Barton states, “Literacy is an ideological approach meaning the definition varies from situation to situation and is dependent on ideology.” But, I also struggle with it because I question where we are grounding our beliefs and where we are drawing our beliefs.

I’m not an expert in literacy nor am I a social linguistic. It doesn’t mean I can’t engage in the conversation but I try to keep some perspective on how much I can, and maybe should, contribute.

Which is why I suspect I have avoided this conversation in favor of one that discusses what it means to be well-educated in the 21st Century and thereby what does it mean to educate and create learning opportunities for such a person.

However, the value in defining terms is critical to rhetorical discourse, and it is my sincere hope that defining and contextualizing literacy leads to something higher. I, for one, look forward to the day where schools are fostering literacies to help create well-educated, global citizens!


Barton, D. (2006). Literacy: An introduction to the ecology of written language. WileyBlackwell.

Freire, P. (1987). Literacy: Reading the world and the world. Routledge.

Gee, J.P. (1996) Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. London and NY: Longman (never directly referenced but a lot drawn from including deictic and semiotic domains)

Heath, S. (1980). The function and uses of literacy. Journal of Communication.

Holme, R (2005). Literacy: An Introduction. Edinburgh University Press

[Tags] literacy, 21stcenturyskills, literacies, ncte, digitalliteracy, newmedialiteracy, literacyconversation [/Tags]


  1. To be honest, I am not so interested in this debate, but, I want to commend you for your references. Not so much what they are, specifically, but rather the fact that you have them. So much of what is written in the blogosphere is purely opinion and/or idea. Often we seem to operate with this notion that what seems intuitively correct must be actually correct. Thank you for actually showing your references and in fact, standing on the shoulders of giants.


  2. Ryan,
    I find the 21 century label still necessary as many teachers I work with believe that students just need to be able to read and write. We need to get beyond that notion. To me literacy is much broader then that. Literacy means to be to able to communicate – no matter what the media. Media has moved beyond text and various media must be included when we speak about literacy skills. I also believe literacy includes critical and analytical thinking. The tools to facilitate this has changed in the world of the read and write web, and the need for this is even greater now. No matter what we call it, how we communicate is changing and therefor how we teach literacy and critical and analytical teaching needs to change as well.

  3. Good Morning, Ryan,

    Thank you for a practical and cogent summary of the current landscape as we continue the 21st century literacy discussion. You might read my recent post “21st Century Questions” for a longitudinal perspective on the evolution of the term “21st century skills.” My intent was to add to the robust context of this evolving discussion by creating a meaningful context for including “21st century skills” a component of the conversation.

    I thought you might also appreciate this informed post “Literacy in Context” by Karen Work Richardson, which also advances the focus of the conversation.

    Karen’s post inspired my response below. Karen and I attempt to establish Barton’s important observation, “Literacy …varies from situation to situation.” I see literacy as a term that denotes an evolving “concept.” Literacy relates to discourse – regardless of the communication medium. As I think you suggest, the dynamic nature of literacy in a rapidly changing world somewhat defies a discrete, “timeless” definition.

    Beth Holmes said to Karen,
    in January 3rd, 2009 at 6:29 am

    Hi, Karen,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts related to recent Twitter discussions on 21st century literacy. You’ve managed to illuminate the concept of “discourse” in this piece. You’ve also called attention to the variances in types and styles of communications that enrich contexts by appealing to the various target audiences. Clearly, you describe “literacy” without limiting the *concept* of literacy by reducing it to a discrete definition.

    What I like most about your message is the acknowledgment that the communication “medium” influences the message (Marshall McLuhan). In the 21st century, the medium is increasingly technological and web-based. There can be no doubt that the influence of such a powerful new medium will extend the description of literacy. It is my highest hope that educators will see this “new medium” as an emerging form of discourse rather than a new definition of literacy.

    Thank you for an important post, Ryan!

  4. I feel like as an elementary teacher, I avoided the conversation for a while too. I saw lots of things happening with technology that went against what I knew about early literacy learning and literacy learning in general. But over the past year or two, I’ve been interested in the conversation and am jumping in and I have found lots of people like you who are making sense to me when it comes to 21st Century Literacy. People who have a grounding in learning theory and who understand that technology is changing things. I think the most exciting thing that is happening is that lots of different groups of people are networking and putting their various expertise together to think through all of this. A conversation I am excited about now. Like following all of the thinking.

  5. Hi Ryan,

    There’s something ‘out there’ towards which we’re all grasping in an attempt to define it. I’m actually in the library now, as it happens, doing some work on my Ed.D. Thought this may interest you and fellow readers:

    “Consider an inquirer who hopes to benefit veritistically from the messages of others, who hopes to find answers to one or more of her questions. Does the existing message infosphere contain any stored documents with clear and reliable answers, or at least evidence that is relevant, to her questions? If so, can the inquirer find these documents? Is the message infosphere so organized that there is a good probability that relevant documents will be identified and retrieved? Alternatively, can the learner direct a query to a pertinent source, and thereby elicit a newly constructed message that gives an answer or provides relevant evidence? This is not just a matter of technology, but of informational organization. The research library traditionally performed some of these functions for the world of scholarship, but for a variety of reasons the message infosphere is an increasingly complex and changing affair, which can no longer be handled exclusively by the traditional print-dominated library.”
    (A.I. Goldman, Knowledge in a Social World, Oxford, 1999) p.163

    Perhaps these literacies involve an element of librarianship? 🙂



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