Literacy -> Digital Flow: moving beyond Traditional Literacy.

This post comes from my (ongoing) Ed.D. thesis, which can be read in full over at You’ll find full references and more reading material at my wiki ( 🙂


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Whatever literacy is, it [has] something to do with reading. And reading is always reading something. Furthermore, if one has not understood [made meaning from] what one has read then one has not read it. So reading is always reading something with understanding. (Gee, Hull & Lankshear, 1996:1-2, quoted in Lankshear & Knobel, 2008a:2)

The idea of literacy being ‘reading something with understanding’ is what shall be referred to in the followin as ‘Traditional Literacy’. This conception of literacy is ‘Static’ and ‘Psychological’, being focused on the individual’s relationship, and interaction with, physical objects. The book comprises what Lankshear & Knobel call the ‘text paradigm’ – something over and above the simple act of reading with understanding:

[D]uring the age of print the book… shaped conceptions of layout, it was the pinnacle of textual authority, and it played a central role in organizing practices and routines in major social institutions. The book mediated social relations of control and power… Textual forms and formats were relatively stable and were ‘policed’ to ensure conformity. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:52)

This perpetuation of hegemonic power through Traditional Literacy has complicated debates surrounding, and the evolution of the term, ‘literacy’. Not only is ‘reading with understanding’ bound up with politics, but with religion (due to the actions of the Catholic church) and identity. Literacy is predicated upon a scarcity model, ‘with literacy comprising a key instrumentality for unlocking advantage and status through achievements at levels wilfully preserved for the few’ (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:62). Schools and educational institutions, as Bigum notes, are mainly consumers of knowledge (Bigum, 2002:135, quoted in Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:188). Meaning is made centrally and then disseminated to such institutions and individuals as can access the encoded texts used to convey ideas, thoughts, concepts and processes. These encoded texts consist of, ‘ texts that have been “frozen” or “captured” in ways that free them from their immediate context and origin of production, such that they are “(trans)portable” and exist independently of the presence of human beings as bearers of the text.’ (Lankshear & Knobel, 2008b:257)

Recently, with the dawn of first mass media, and then mass participation with the rise of the internet, conceptions of literacy have had to change. This has put a strain on the Static, Pyschological conceptions implicit in Traditional Literacy. As a result, what ‘literacy’ means (and therefore what it means to be ‘literate’) has changed. As Lanham (1995:198, quoted in Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:21-2) puts it, literacy ‘has extended its semantic reach from meaning ‘the ability to read and write’ to now meaning ‘the ability to understand information however presented.’ There is no doubt that ‘literacy’ has become a fuzzy concept that gives the semblance of being straightforward, but contains layers of complexity. Erstad, for example, comments on this fuzziness, noting that it is apparent ‘especially among those educators and researchers whose professional interests are tied to how literacy is understood’ (Erstad, 2008:181-2).

Given these difficulties, some commentators (such as Sven Birkets in The Gutenberg Elegies) yearn to return to Traditional Literacy, due to the decline in the reading of books, ‘with the attendant effects of the loss of deep thinking, the erosion of language, and the flattening of historical perspective’ (Taylor & Ward, 1998:13). Birkets, like Barton (1994) and Kress (1997) argues that literacy ‘should be confined to the realm of writing (Buckingham, 2008:75). Rejecting the dichotomy, Tyner (1998) sought to reconceptualize the debate in terms of ‘tool literacies’ (the skills necessary to be able to use a technology) and ‘literacies of representation’ (the knowledge required to take advantage of a technology) (cited by Erstad, 2008:183). This middle ground gave space for multiple conceptions of literacy to flourish.

Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, these ‘new literacies’ smacked of old wine in new bottles:

It does not follow from the fact that so-called new technologies are being used in literacy education that new literacies are being engaged with. Still less does it imply that learners are developing, critiquing, analysing, or even become technologically proficient with new literacies. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:54-5)

The problem surrounding new(er) literacies in schools is fourfold. First, there is the very real problem of educators not having grown up in an environment where such digital skills – both Tyner’s ‘tool literacies’ and ‘literacies of representation’ were necessary. The age-old problem of “it was good enough for me when I was at school” applies as much to educators as it does to parents. If a problem cannot be seen it and/or understood then cannot be dealt with effectively. Second, is educators’ willingness to ascribe problems to factors other than their own weakness, ignorance or fear of change. If the mere presence of, for example, an interactive whiteboard in a classroom does not lead to increased examination performance, then the technology is blamed. Following on from this, and third, is what is known as the ‘deep grammar’ of schooling:

School learning is for school; school as it has always been. The burgeoning take-up of new technologies simply gives us our latest ‘fix’ on this phenomenon. It is the ‘truth’ that underpins many current claims that school learning is at odds with authentic ways of learning to be in the world, and with social practice beyond the school gates… It is precisely this ‘deep grammar’ of schooling that cuts schools off from the new (technological) literacies and associated subjectivities that Bill Green and Chris Bigum (1993) say educators are compelled to attend to. (Lankshear & Knobel, 2006:57)

‘School’ then becomes a self-perpetuating institution, cut off from new(er) conceptions and forms of literacy. Given that this is the place where most people (are supposed to) learn, this constitutes a problem.

Finally, there is the problem of ‘knowledgeable peers’ when it comes to new forms of literacies in schools. Top-down, hierarchical, Traditional Literacy is perpetuated within schools because it is so difficult to come up with other models. Students ‘seek to enter new communities… but do not yet have the knowledge necessary to act as “knowledgeable peers” in the community conversation’ (Taylor & Ward, 1998:18). Educators seeking to perpetuate Traditional Literacy often exploit the difference between students ‘tool literacy’ on the one-hand (their technical ability) and their understanding of, and proficiency in ‘literacies of representation’ (making use of these abilities for a purpose). Reference is therefore made to ‘e-safety’, ‘e-learning’ and ‘e-portfolios’, slippery terms that sound important and which serve to reinforce a traditional teacher-led model of education. As Bruffee (1973:644, quoted by Taylor & Ward, 1998:18) points out, ‘pooling the resources that a group of peers brings with them to the task may make accessible the normal discourse of the new community they together hope to enter.’

The barrier, in this case, is the traditional school classroom and the view that Traditional Literacy is a necessary and sufficient conditional requirement for entry into such communities.


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