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The "New" Literacy

In the 20th Century, literacy meant proficiency in reading, writing and arithmetic. The web demands a "new" literacy that challenges the priorities of schools.

Educators, parents and policy makers have asked for decades the question, “What do our children/students need to be productive and successful adults?”. The globalization of the world, along with the exponential growth in technology, has essentially turned on its head much of what we thought in the last century. 

There are at least two major questions confronting educators, parents and policy makers today – What should (authentic, student-centered, technology enhanced) learning look like for students of today, and what is the role of the school? These questions are being addressed with passion and thought among some of the most innovative educators and thinkers today. Much of this conversation can, in fact, be captured on the web.   

In past blogs, we have examined the changes taking place in how math is taught based on changing assumptions of what students need in the 21st century and how students learn. Similar conversations are taking place in the area of literacy. Literacy always meant knowing how to read books, understand what is being read and the ability to write. When we went to school literacy came down to the “three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic.” Today, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has a very different view of literacy:

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. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities, and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Twenty-first century readers and writers need to Develop proficiency with the tools of technology:

  • Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  • Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments


Today’s literacy is much more complex and extends well beyond reading books and writing essays. In a global world, technology in general and the web in particular are driving the new literacy, and it is critical that today’s students become proficient. The web has changed our world, and those who embrace and master its potential will, in fact, inherit the future. Beyond reading digital texts and participating in online classes, the literate person will be able to engage in video production, web design, audio creation, multimedia editing, web publishing, scripting, social networking, and more.

While many parents and policy makers across the country agonize over and debate about what level of math one needs to master in order to be successful, the irony is that most math educators acknowledge that only a small percentage of the population will ever need or use the most advanced math. On the other hand, the literacy described above will be critical for nearly every individual in the global world.

Interestingly, as Pam King, Hillel Day School's 5-8 Math Coordinator points out, "It is interesting that many of the goals of literacy are the same goals as mathematics - build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively; manage, analyze, synthesize information; and create, critique, analyze and evaluate. These same goals are also part of a vigorous math curriculum but might look differently based on the context." 

While trigonometry and calculus are valued skills for some in our society, all of our children will need strong communication skills; everything from speaking and writing, to the new literacies of this century. As educators and parents we must embrace these literacies and create a learning environment that enables our children to acquire the literacies of the 21st century.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Roz Keith February 23, 2012 at 02:13 AM
What can parents do to encourage this type of learning at home?

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