What Does it Mean to Be Literate?

Asking this question years ago people would have answered with being able to read and write. A quick google search shows the Oxford dictionary states that literacy is the ability to read and write, but also competence or knowledge in a specified area. This question made me think about how this idea of literacy is reflected in some of the teaching resources that are used. In the most recent version of Marvelous Minilessons for Teaching Intermediate Writing Grades 3-8 by Lori Jamison Rog, opens with:

Welcome to the “writingest” generation in history! Where writing was once the domain of the few and reading the domain of the many, today everyone is a writer. Your students are more likely to interact with their friends by text message than by phone or even in person. They blog, tweet, follow, friend, chat, and poke. For today’s young people, literacy is no longer a private world of a reader and a book; it is a social world of texting, blogging, and tweeting.

I was pleased to see this updated idea of what literacy is, however it is still defining it in terms of reading and writing. In the resource 100 Minutes Making Every Minute Count in the Literacy Block by Lisa Donohue there is an entire chapter called “Building in New Literacies”. Under the title Integrating Digital Technology and Media Literacy, Donohue states:

Digital tools are not a new element in teaching; in reality, they are no longer even considered optional. We need to use these tools as a way of teaching our students how to interpret material they find online, how to create and share content in responsible ways. We need to teach them responsible digital citizenship and how to be critically literate of the information they encounter. We need to help them learn cyber-safety and teach them how to locate, evaluate, and analyze online information. By integrating digital tools into our classrooms, we allow our students to apply their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in authentic learning situations. These tools are valuable when we teach students to connect, communicate, create, collaborate, consolidate, and critically analyze.

I thought it was interesting to see the 5Cs listed above are very similar to the discussions we have had in class on the attributes and characteristics we believe students should posses. In Daniel’s suggested reading Media Literacy for the 21st Century: Interview with Renee Hobbs she states, “there is a constellation of five inter-related competencies that are now needed to participate in contemporary culture. Both students and teachers need these competencies, which are acquired as part of a lifelong learning process”. These include: access, analysis, create and collaborate, reflect and take action. While everyone may not agree on the exact same skills one thing is clear, regardless of the area or subject, being literate requires more than being able to read or write. It requires you to possess skills that allow you to become knowledgeable or competent.

Media literacy is one type of literacy that needs more attention and focus on in our classrooms. In the article These Students Are Learning About Fake News and How to Spot It shared by Shelby and Brad, media literacy is defined as how to critically understand, analyze and evaluate online content, images and stories. While critically understanding, analyzing, and evaluating are all skills we have taught our students before, media demands using these skills in slightly different ways. The article also states that “research has shown that an inability to judge content leads to two equally unfortunate outcomes: people believe everything that suits their preconceived notions, or they cynically disbelieve everything”. These words could not be truer than what we are facing right now. Countless articles are being shared and liked on social media right now based either on fear or on disbelief. It is clear we have a long way to go in order to have a media literate society. Teaching skills such as lateral reading and fact checking are essential to develop media literate students.


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