How do you define literacy?


Is literacy just about knowing how to read and write?  (photo courtesy of Flickr user JustGrimes)


Because I am very much a believer in the old saying “everything happens for a reason,” and possess a modicum of belief in fate/destiny/whatever-you-want-to-call-it, today’s events particularly resonated with me. So, let me share a story with you.

I teach “Legends and Fantasy Literature,” a genre studies course for seniors that studies the evolution of fantasy writing from King Arthur to the present. Right now, my students are researching topics of interest for their term papers, and have been using a popular educational website to aid them in the creation of their bibliographies and notecards. As I was walking around the room, I was pleased to see one of my students helping a classmate set up an account on this website, and demonstrating how to use the site’s myriad features. I went to see if another student needed help, but before I could, I overheard something like this:

Student A: “So now your account is set up, and this is how you use the notecard function, but let me show you something.”

Student B: “What’s up?”

Student A: “There’s a little glitch in the programming that makes it difficult to type all of your information into a notecard without having to scroll, so you’re going to want to open up the code on here and delete the ribbon on the top of the notecard window.”

Student B: “How do I do this?”

(Student A tinkers on his friend’s computer and opens up a window, and then points to a line of code.)

Student A: Just hit delete on that line.

Student B (after deleting the line): OH! Okay, thanks!

Needless to say, I was blown away by this conversation. There was so much happening here that I did not expect, and by the end of it, I found myself smiling like a goofball. Let’s forget for a minute that I witnessed a student demonstrating problem-solving ability on his own. Let’s also forget that this student was sharing his workaround with another student, and facilitating learning in a way that was completely student-centered and did not require my intervention. I was absolutely impressed by both of these things. But, the thing that stuck out for me was that here was a student who possessed a kind of literacy that I am completely devoid of, and yet, it was wholly necessary in his English class in order to accomplish a task.

Tonight, I had the opportunity to moderate #njed on the topic of “Reading Across Content Areas,” which is why I think today’s lesson was so serendipitous. But, all of this has me thinking, what can we do, as teachers, to replicate and foster moments like the one I described?

Marc Prensky wrote for Edutopia in 2008 (a whopping 8 years ago) that “programming is the new literacy:” 

“I believe the single skill that will, above all others, distinguish a literate person is programming literacy, the ability to make digital technology do whatever, within the possible one wants it to do — to bend digital technology to one’s needs, purposes, and will, just as in the present we bend words and images. Some call this skill human-machine interaction; some call it procedural literacy. Others just call it programming.”

In many ways, my experience today was this idea coming to fruition, and I would love to see more of this kind of thing, but there still remains the one caveat—I have absolutely no background in coding.

However, I do think that what we can do is become facilitators of the kind of intellectual curiosity that already exists in students like the one I described. If there are multiple literacies, a teacher’s role can be engaging with students and encouraging them to use these literacies to work out a problem independently and maybe even teach a peer (or his teacher, which my student was kind enough to show me, today).

One thought on “How do you define literacy?

  1. Very cool when students help each other like this and we in the process learn something. Definitely something to be said for letting students “play around” and problem solve for themselves. I wish I could let loose of control more often! Perhaps that will be my New Year’s resolution.


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