Reading and the Evolution of “Literacy”

In their book, The New Learning Commons Where Learners Win! Reinventing School Libraries and Computer Labs (2011), Loertscher et al claim that “[r]eading is still the king of all literacies…” and I have to agree. What’s changed is not so much how we read – that is, the act of decoding and comprehending text with effective fluency – but rather what we read. Fundamentally, anything is a text and therefore can be “read”; texts are created to communicate information. Today, we can access texts through so many means, but to truly understand something, one has to decode the text, which means having tools and strategies to understand the codes and conventions of any given text. Onto that, each person also adds their own socio-cultural schema or background knowledge, providing a reading of a text that includes personal bias. Anyone can become a proficient reader of texts, provided that they are willing to invest the time and energy into decoding and comprehending those texts. Thus, I’d argue that the conversations taking place today aren’t really about reading (the process of decoding and comprehending with some fluency); rather, what we’re really talking about is redefining literacy.

In their book, The New Learning Commons Where Learners Win! Reinventing School Libraries and Computer Labs, Loertscher et al explain this changing definition of literacy:

“Defining literacy is a process of continuous negotiation that is filled by social, economic, and technological changes. To be literate is to have the skills and knowledge to make meaningful connections between what one knows and what one is trying to understand, apply, or communicate. Reading, writing, speaking, listening, and communicating are foundational but the term literacy, however, has matured. An elastic definition of literacy now encompasses textual, digital, visual, media, informational, cultural, and global literacy under this broad learning umbrella. It could be argued that the umbrella term literacy now means learning literacy with all the above nestled together. New literacies will continue to evolve as technologies appear and disappear and as global and societal pressures shift the focus on specific information and learner needs. It isn’t the label that is the critical issue, but the understanding of the need to bring Learning Commons into the 21st century as evolving centres for literacy excellence.” 

(Loertscher et al, 2011, 53)

The chapter, “Learning Literacies and the Learning Commons” explores the need to teach the skills of reading: decoding and comprehending texts, whatever those texts may be. This chapter argues that students need to be “in command of their own learning” (Loertscher et al, 2011, 61) and classroom teachers are teachers of literacy, regardless of content area; this ”whole-school sustained effort” to promote literacy learning means the Library Learning Commons should be at the centre of literacy initiatives (Loertscher et al, 2011, 63). Reading empowers the learner; more texts are at their fingertips today than ever before, at a great variety of reading levels (Loertscher et al, 2011, 58). “In the Learning Commons, student learning experiences are designed to develop skills and strategies for dealing with a wide range of media, ever-changing technologies, and vast amounts of information; … they will master the learning necessary to learn literacies that will help them master the content knowledge they are asked to learn” (Loertscher et al, 2011 ,59). Again, teachers are tasked with helping students access these texts by teaching them how to learn – that is, how to read a text by decoding and comprehending the text. As David Warlick argues, “The best thing we can be teaching our children today is how to teach themselves” (Loertscher et al, 2011, 58).

“We have left the Information Age where data and computer savvy rule, and are now already immersed in a world of knowledge building and big Ideas. Preparing students with learning literacies is now paramount. By knowing how to learn students will be able to take informational content in any form and work it until they have deep understanding. They will know how to evaluate information and analyze it for relationships, discrepancies, perspectives, and they will know how to use information and ideas critically and creatively to build personal knowledge, solve problems, and make decisions. The truly literate of the 21st century will have the know-how to keep on learning, creating, and sharing in spite of, or perhaps because of, the increasing complexity and challenges of information, technologies, and global issues.”

(Loertscher et al, 2011, 57; emphasis mine)

David Loertscher’s and Carol Koechlin’s work to reimagine libraries into learning commons has influenced the Canadian Library Association’s (CLA) and the Ontario School Library Association’s (OSLA) most significant documents. In Together for Learning, the OSLA calls for a rethink and redefinition of literacy, broadening the concept: “Students now need to use a broad range of literacies to achieve their immediate learning objectives and to recognize and develop their own creative possibilities.” The OSLA identifies the following as literacies: traditional, information, media literacy, visual, cultural, digital, and critical (OSLA, 2010, pp 18-20). Similarly, the CLA identifies the following literacies: critical, digital, and cultural in addition to traditional ideas. The CLA also argues that “the school Library Learning Commons has a leading role in assisting learners to hone and apply an expanded notion of literacy as well as fostering an active reading culture” in Leading Learning (CLA 2014, 17). Both of these documents, as the core documents for teacher-librarians in Ontario, clearly promote the expansion of the definition of literacy beyond that of reading and writing; additionally, both of the documents put teacher-librarians at the centre of literacy initiatives in their schools. 

Similarly, other prominent literacy educator groups have also identified the need to expand the definition of literacy. The International Literacy Association defines literacy as “[t]he ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context. Over time, literacy has been applied to a wide range of activities and appears as computer literacy, math literacy, or dietary literacy; in such contexts, it refers to basic knowledge of rather than to anything specific to reading and writing.” (International Literacy Association, 2020). In their policy statement, Definition of Literacy in a Digital Age, The National Council of Teachers of English explains how the definition of literacy has always adapted to the times: 

“Literacy has always been a collection of communicative and sociocultural practices shared among communities. As society and technology change, so does literacy. The world demands that a literate person possess and intentionally apply a wide range of skills, competencies, and dispositions. These literacies are interconnected, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with histories, narratives, life possibilities, and social trajectories of all individuals and groups.”

National Council of Teachers of English, (2019)

A new way of thinking about literacy began around 2005 with the concept of transliteracy. A group of  American teacher-librarians explain transliteracy in the blog, “Libraries and Transliteracy”: “every definition of transliteracy makes reference to a multiplicity of media types, … involves the communication (reading, writing, typing, talking, etc.) of information, … and finally, every definition revolves around the interplay or interaction between multiple literacies and/or media types.” (Newman et al 2012). Transliteracy is inclusive of all literacies and fundamentally sees all texts as equal, attempting to move away from valuing any one format above another. Therefore, with transliteracy, what becomes important is the skill set necessary for interacting with texts. Once again, it is important for all educators to be teachers of literacy; showing students how to access the content knowledge of a particular discipline is the key to learning. 

In a blog entry for ISTE, “Reading Redefined For A Transmedia Universe,” Annette Lamb tells us that   “[r]edefining reading may be the key to nurturing the next generation of readers and promoting lifelong reading practices” (Lamb, 2020). Expanding the definition of text to include a broad range of digital and print texts, Lamb simplifies complex ideas about reading for today’s context: “a book is a published collection of related pages or screens” and “reading is the process of constructing meaning from symbols.” (Lamb, 2020). Lamb provides many different examples of how technology has changed reading, but is also able to “cut through the noise” and focus on what’s important: student learning through deep understanding of the text.  

“Elements that support struggling readers, cue readers to important events, contribute to the mood of the story, clarify difficult concepts, or reinforce key ideas activate thinking and promote comprehension. Yet over-reliance on audio, bells-and-whistles features that distract readers, and ‘eye candy’ unrelated to the story can divert attention, cause readers to lose focus, and adversely affect learning. … And remember that, despite all the new formats and ways to interact with them, the content is still the part of the reading experience that provides value for the learner.”

(Lamb, 2020)

Ultimately, “[r]eading is still the king of all literacies”; students need to be able to decode and comprehend texts with effective fluency. The role of educators is to provide students with the appropriate tools and skills to access the content knowledge of their disciplines; teacher-librarians play a key role in teaching these skills to empower student learning. Alvin Toffler, an American scholar and “futurist”, sums up the central argument of Loertscher et al’s chapter well: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” 

References:

Canadian Library Association (CLA). 2014. Leading Learning: Standards of Practice for School Library Learning Commons in Canada. http://llsop.canadianschoollibraries.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/llsop.pdf 

International Literacy Association. (2020). Literacy Glossary. Retrieved 27 July 2020, from https://www.literacyworldwide.org/get-resources/literacy-glossary 

Lamb. A. (2020).  ISTE Feature: Reading Redefined for a Transmedia Universe. Retrieved 27 July 2020, from https://www.iste.org/node/6650 

Loertscher, D., Koechlin, C., Zwaan, S., & Rosenfeld, E. (2011). Learning Literacies and the Learning Commons. The New Learning Commons Where Learners Win! Reinventing School Libraries and Computer Labs. 2nd Ed. Learning Commons Press. pp 53-75.

Loertscher, D. & Koechlin, C. (2020). learningcommons. Retrieved 27 July 2020, from https://sites.google.com/site/schoollearningcommons/ 

National Council of Teachers of English. (2019). Definition of Literacy in a Digital Age. Retrieved 27 July 2020, from https://ncte.org/statement/nctes-definition-literacy-digital-age/ 

Newman, B., Ipri, T., Molaro, A. Caserotti, G. & Wilkinson, L. (2012). Libraries and Transliteracy. Retrieved 28 July 2020, from https://librariesandtransliteracy.wordpress.com/ 

Ontario School Library Association. (2010). Together for Learning: School Libraries and the Emergence of the Learning Commons. http://www.togetherforlearning.ca/t4l-vision-document/

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