The Importance of New Literacy Skills in the 21st Century Classroom

      As an English teacher, when I say the word literacy to my non-English teaching colleagues, their eyes glaze over. They’re no doubt thinking about reading a textbook and answering questions, and they’re bored by the thought of it. But in today’s world, the definition of literacy has changed. It is no longer acceptable to only teach students what I’ll call classic literacy skills. Of course, these are important, but if we as teachers focus solely on these, we are leaving out a large chunk of literacy skills that are necessary in today’s society, the so-called new literacies. But, what are new literacies? The National Council of Teachers of English (2013) defines 21st Century literacies as the ability to:

●      Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology;

●      Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;

●      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. (NCTE, 2013)

With this definition in mind, it becomes clear that in today’s ever-evolving, technological society, having new literacy skills is not an option – it’s a must. Thanks to technology, the world is getting smaller, and we are communicating with people globally on a regular basis. In order to be successful in today’s society, one must be prepared to learn, adapt to, and use new literacies. Since many of these new literacies are tied to proper use of technology, regular instruction and practice in how to use technology platforms is paramount. As such, teachers in all content areas must focus on teaching new literacy skills in their classrooms. Not only does this prepare students for their life after high school, it helps to close the digital divide that currently exists between students from high socioeconomic households and those from low socioeconomic households.

            The argument I hear most often from teachers who do not want to use technology in their classroom is that students don’t need it. They’re on their phones all the time, why should I give them even more time to be distracted? Students love their phones. While this is certainly true, sending snapchats all day long does not make a student literate in using technology productively. I was shocked my first year teaching when I had to walk students through how to save a document in Microsoft Word. I assumed that if they knew how to send a text message then surely they could save a Word document! I was totally wrong. As Julie Nicholson (2013) discovered in her self-study on using Twitter in her college course, many students struggled when asked to use technology to synthesize information and collaborate with their peers – two essential new literacy skills. “Many of the struggles that the students reported were a result of not having developed sufficient knowledge and skill related to these new literacies” (Nicholson & Galguera, 2013, p. 21). While this study was conducted with college students, it stands to further prove the need for the incorporation of new literacy skills into the K-12 classroom. We can reasonably assume that the students in Nicholson’s college class were literate in reading printed text, however, without having the skillset needed to effectively engage in new literacies, they were unsuccessful in their use of a collaborative technology platform.

As educators, our job is to prepare our students for the future. Without teaching students new literacy skills, we are not preparing our students for their futures. Nicholson and Galguera (2013) suggest five skills that must be taught to address the gap in students’ new literacy skills. These skills include:

 (a) the ability to identify questions and frame problems to guide reading on the internet,
(b) the capacity to identify information that is relevant to one’s needs, (c) competence
with critically evaluating online information, (d) facility with reading and synthesizing
information from multiple multimedia sources, and (e) understanding how to
communicate with others in contexts where information is learned about and shared
collectively. (Nicholson & Galguera, 2013, p. 21)

Students can’t learn these skills on their own. Just as with any other skill, students need guidance from their teacher and an opportunity to practice these skills in a safe and collaborative environment.

            Despite the importance of teaching new literacy skills to our students, schools have very little incentive to focus on new literacies. With the focus on state-mandated testing and funding often being tied to a school’s performance on these state tests, it’s hard to make the argument that a failing school should focus on anything but improving test scores.

Economically challenged districts have little incentive to include online reading skills in
the instruction program because they face pressure to raise reading test scores on
assessments that have nothing to do with the online comprehension.
(Miners & Pascopella, 2007)

When states place so much emphasis on testing, it forces teachers to “teach to the test” especially when their jobs are on the line. With this in mind, it’s no wonder new literacy skills get pushed to the back burner. Instead of becoming the focus of instruction, they become something a teacher will try when there is some extra time.

As teachers, time is one of our scarcest resources, and incorporating technology into a lesson can seem like an overwhelming waste of time. What happens if something doesn’t work? What if students need to be taught how to use the program? How am I going to monitor every single student’s computer screen? Wouldn’t it just be easier to use a pen and paper activity for this? These are all legitimate questions – all questions I’ve been asked before when I’ve suggested using an activity that would incorporate technology and new literacy skills. But to these questions, I respond with this question posed by William Kist (2013) in his article New Literacies and the Common Core, “How can we hope to prepare our young people to thrive in today’s society – in which people are connected 24 hours a day by media… without giving them some practice with new media at school?”  Kist raises a point that can not be ignored. Students will need to know how to use new literacies in their lives beyond high school. How can we prepare them without focusing on these new literacies?

            In his 2001 article, Education for the New Millennium, Douglas Kellner argues that educators need to “restructure schooling to respond constructively and progressively to the technological and social changes that we are now experiencing,” (p. 67). Unfortunately, fifteen years after the publication of Kellner’s article, we still have not adequately restructured our educational approach to address the new demands that technology has put on our students. Perhaps Kellner was ahead of his time, or, more accurately, perhaps it’s well past time for a change in our educational approach. The skillset needed to use, interpret, and communicate with technology can no longer fall under the term new literacies. Rather, they have become literacy skills, and every student needs them.

Unfortunately, there is a digital divide that still exists today that puts certain students at a disadvantage, and by not emphasizing these new literacies in schools, the divide only increases. In his article, The New Literacies of Online Reading Comprehension: Expanding the Literacy and Learning Curriculum, Leu et. al. (2011) argue that:

            Individuals, groups, and societies who can identify the most important problems, locate
useful information the fastest, critically evaluate information most effectively, synthesize
information most appropriately to develop the best solutions, and then communicate
these solutions to other most clearly will succeed in the challenging times that await us.
(p. 5)

In other words, the more skilled in new literacies one is, the more successful one will be. However, there exists a real and significant gap between students who have access to and use technology regularly and those who do not. According to Leu et. al. (2014), there is a significant disparity between the percentage of students from low-income households that have access to internet versus students from high-income households that have access to the internet at home, with significantly less students from low income households having regular access to internet (p. 41). Additionally, “the poorest schools are also under the greatest pressure to raise scores on state assessments that have nothing to do with online reading comprehension,” (Leu et. al. 2011, p. 10-11). Therefore, these schools are forced to focus on preparing their students for a state standardized test that does not test new literacy skills – leaving these kids at a great disadvantage. In order to close this gap, students need to be taught in school the new literacy skills that will be vital to their future success. Otherwise, we can not guarantee that students are being adequately prepared for life post-high school. Public education is supposed to give all students an equal opportunity in life, however, by not preparing students for the demands they will face after high school, we are not giving them an equal playing field.

            It is no secret that new literacy skills are essential to success in a student’s life. Whether that student attends college or immediately enters the workforce, they will need new literacy skills. They will need to know how to communicate and collaborate with people who might work in the cubicle next door, or in Hong Kong. They will need to interpret and synthesize a wealth of information, much of which will come to them digitally. Most importantly, they will need to do this in an ethical and professional manner – both in their personal and professional lives. To not teach these skills to students puts them at a huge disadvantage. As a teacher, the regular incorporation of new literacies and technology into my classroom is a must. The purpose of education is to prepare students for their future. Without regularly incorporating new literacy skills into their daily instruction, we are failing our students.


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