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What if I told you that reading isn’t cutting it anymore?
For too long, schools have emphasized an information hierarchy, with reading at the top, and other critical skills at the bottom (if they’re lucky). But conventional literacy, in which students primarily learn to read and write, no longer prepares students to thrive lives in the 21st century.
In a school that recognizes conventional literacy, a literate person can extract information from reading and communicate effectively through writing. In the 21st century, however, reading and writing (also called textual literacy) are not the only types of literacy that young people need to know. Textual literacy is no longer sufficient for our technology-driven world. Other types of literacy have come into play.
As we move further into the 21st century, conventional literacy maintains a stronghold on school systems despite the fact that reading and writing no longer make a person wholly literate in the modern world. Young people need an education that tackles multiple types of literacy in the 21st century.
Limitations of Conventional Literacy
There are many limitations of conventional literacy that hinder young people from cultivating a robust skillset.
- The first limitation of conventional literacy is that it is restrictive. Conventional literacy is restricted to print and written forms of language. In the 21st century, people acquire information from many other sources beyond print and written forms.
- Conventional literacy follows the standard form of the national language, so other forms of the language like dialects are considered incorrect. Because it only reflects the dominant language and culture, conventional literacy creates otherness. This is why multiliteracy is the approach for schools that value global education.
- Conventional literacy also fails to include new technologies and developments. It reinforces the idea that reading is a superior way to consume information over other forms of literacy. Students who do not learn how to extract and evaluate information from multiple modes of literacy are ill-prepared for life in the 21st century.
- Lastly, conventional literacy teaches Literacy (also called English, Literature, Reading, or Writing) as a singular subject rather than a tool for lifelong learning. Literacy is framed as knowledge rather than a skill. Knowledge is consumed once, whereas skills are reapplied for future use.
The Benefits of Multiliteracy
Multiliteracies, or many types of literacy, address the many shortcomings of traditional literacy. There are many benefits to teaching many types of literacy, like:
- Multiliteracy extends beyond conventional literacy to include multiple types of literacy, including digital, technological, audio, spatial, gestural, and multimodal literacies.
- Multiliteracy incorporates multiple languages, dialects, and nondominant forms of the national language to address the diverse makeup of the population.
- It also prepares students to adapt to changes in literacy after they have finished school. Multiliteracy prepares students for a life of learning. Knowledge quickly goes out of date, but skills help young people keep up with the fast-changing demands of the world.
- Lastly, multiliteracy responds to the rapidly changing world and includes new forms of literacy that don’t yet exist. It doesn’t only address what is happening in the present moment of history, but anticipates the changes yet to come, and prepares young people to tackle them.
Types of Literacy in the 21st Century
Linguistic Literacy refers to a person’s ability to understand how languages work. In an education that prioritizes linguistic literacy, students learn to view languages from various perspectives.
In order for students to cultivate linguistic literacy, schools must expect and promote the learning of multiple languages. Students should understand what characterizes a language and how languages are used as communication tools. Students should also understand that languages are not restricted to written or spoken forms, but also signed forms.
A linguistically literate student understands that language is a flexible tool. No language is superior or inferior.
Action Step: Rather than teaching that ‘English’ and ‘Foreign Languages’ are separate subjects, frame English as a language just like any other. During English class, your students are simply learning advanced forms of the language. English is not the norm, so be aware of how you talk about English versus other languages.
Visual Literacy refers to how a person understands and evaluates information presented through images like pictures, photographs, symbols, graphics, infographics, and videos.
In a school that promotes visual literacy, students learn to extract information from images. Visual elements like photographs and videos are viewed as valuable means to consume information. Teachers use visuals regularly in their lessons.
A visually literate student can extract information from images and videos, and can also effectively communicate to an audience through images.
Action Step: Teach students how to create infographics or convey information through graphics.
Digital Literacy refers to an individual’s ability to locate information through digital sources like websites, phones, and games, and evaluate them for credibility. A key part of digital literacy is developing the ability to critically evaluate sources to determine their credibility and determine the author’s intent and bias.
Schools that promote digital literacy help students recognize forms of digital media, like feature writing, op-ed writing, satire writing, and more.
A digitally literate student can navigate digital media and accurately evaluate and interpret digital information.
Action Step: Find multiple articles on the same topic that include news articles with different biases, op-eds, and satire. Have your students identify how different articles convey thoughts on the same subject.
When a person develops their Audio Literacy, they can listen and comprehend information through audio like podcasts, speech, and radio.
Schools that prioritize Audio Literacy know how helpful audio can be for students with language-based learning disabilities, ADHD, or students who simply don’t like reading. But audio literacy is for everyone. Many studies point to the fact that building audio literacy makes students better listeners and learners.
A student who is audio literate can extract information from audio.
Action Step: Incorporate podcasts into your lessons. Assign a project in which students make a short podcast.
Technological Literacy refers to how people use technologies appropriately, responsibly, and ethically. Individuals understand how to apply strategies from one technology to another.
Technological Literacy differs from Digital Literacy because Technological Literacy refers to the use of technologies (including social media, gaming, eLearning tools, and messaging) while Digital Literacy refers to obtaining information in digital forms.
A technologically literate student can navigate a variety of digital devices in a safe way and knows how to obey privacy and copyright laws.
Action Step: Ask your students to evaluate the ethics of certain internet practices. Your students should understand that laws pertaining to technology are evolving as technology evolves.
Spatial Literacy is the ability to use spatial thinking to address problems in daily life and to recognize spatial patterns along the 3 dimensions of space: Life Space, Physical Space, and Intellectual Space.
- Life Space is the relationship between the self and objects in the physical environment. For example, students learn how to use maps to navigate.
- Physical Space is the nature, structure, and function of the physical world. For example, students learn how an earthquake causes a tsunami.
- Intellectual Space refers to the nature of the space as defined by the particular problem. For example, students might learn about a territorial dispute between two ethnic groups.
Spatial Literacy helps students envision new perspectives of space and infer knowledge based on prior concepts of space.
Students who are spatially literate can visualize spatial objects, reason about properties of and relationships between spatial objects, and communicate and receive information about spatial data.
Action Step: Integrate observation-based learning into your lessons in which students explore spatial schemes (patterns and shapes).
Bonus: Gestural Literacy
Gestural Literacy is an essential component of cultural competence. It is the ability to understand, evaluate, and use facial expressions, hand gestures, body language, and interactions between people using all gestural modes.
Because gestures vary from culture to culture, developing gestural literacy helps students navigate new social situations with grace.
The conventional approach to literacy, where teachers drill reading and writing, is no longer applicable to 21st-century learners. Today, literacy is now understood as a means of identifying, understanding and interpreting multiple modes of information in an increasingly digital, information-rich, and rapidly-changing world.
The days of a 5-subject education are behind us. Ahead, educators and educational leaders look toward a skill-based education in which students learn how to consume information in an ethical and educated way that responds to their needs as students of the 21st century.