Growing up I heard the words literate and illiterate. I knew that people who were literate could read and write, and people who were illiterate could not. I remember trying to imagine what it would be like to navigate the world as an illiterate person. How would you get from place to place if you couldn’t read street signs? How could you cook if you couldn’t read a recipe? How would you know if it was safe to take a particular medication if you couldn’t read the label? These were some of the myriad questions that occupied my mind as a child.

Now, as an educator and parent, I find myself revisiting this question of what it means to be literate. The definition of literacy is changing. Literacy means something different today than it did 10, 20, or 30 years ago.

I equate literacy with access to information and opportunities. In the past, people who could read and write could pick up a paper and read the news, pursue a career in almost any field, or attend college.

Technology is changing what it means to be literate. Literacy is quickly evolving to encompass skills that extend beyond reading and writing with pen and paper. Students today must be able to navigate the online space to successfully access information and opportunities.

My husband teaches an AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) support class for first-generation college-bound students. Last year, his AVID seniors were applying to college and every step of the application process was online. Students who needed financial aid had to submit those forms online too. If those students had never been asked to create an email address, use a search engine, or work online, could they access the information they need to get ahead in an increasingly competitive and digital world? No. For many, they can’t even apply to college without basic technology skills.

When faced with the prospect of using technology with students, I’ve heard several teachers say, “What I do works for me.” Some resist the move to integrate technology because it’s unfamiliar and scary. There are phenomenal teachers who have been teaching for decades with pen and paper, but I’m concerned that teaching exclusively with pen and paper is not enough anymore. It will not adequately prepare our students for the jobs that await them after high school.

Technology is increasingly woven into the fabric of our lives. It must also be woven into the fabric of education to help students hone the skills they need to be truly literate in today’s society.

School leaders and administrators should engage teachers in a conversation about literacy. It creates more teacher buy-in when it comes to technology integration.

During my trainings and workshops, I ask teachers to brainstorm their thoughts in relation to these two questions: What does it mean to be a literate person in the 21st century? What skills do students need to be successful? The answers, usually, provide a strong case for the role of technology in education and the need to develop, not just traditional literacy, but also technology and media literacy.

This is a conversation worth having…

11 Responses

  1. I agree that the definition of a literate person today is vastly different than it was even 10 years ago. I wish every teacher could see it that way and continue to invest time in teaching the necessary digital literacy skills so important for our kids today. How can we make that a priority when so much of our standardized testing involves standard literacy skills needed in order to graduate? That continues to be the focus of most teachers. Evaluate data, improve test scores, get kids to graduate. Everything else is gravy to some. Had a talk this morning with a teacher who refused to spend any time on Twitter (while promoting CEM) to have these conversations and share/collaborate resources and ideas to get her kids reading better . . .

    It’s a struggle.

    • Great points, Michelle.

      I wonder if the shift to Common Core and the new adaptive computerized testing being developed to assess the Common Core will change some of this. I’m not a fan of standardized exams, but the Smarter Balance and PARCC assessments are computerized, which means students will need to have digital reading and writing stamina. They will need experience interacting with digital texts–transferring those classic active reading and annotation strategies online. They will also be composing their writing using a computer instead of using traditional pen and paper, which takes practice.

      To ensure students feel confident taking this type of exam, they will need to opportunities to read and write online. That may be an incentive for some to get their kids online.

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment!

  2. You make some very good points!! I definitely think that literacy has changed now that technology is so important in our lives. Is a person illiterate if they can’t navigate around a website? What if he/she can’t type very quickly? I kind of think it’s a little sad how our literacy can be judged by technology now instead of how well we read and write. Like you said, it’s certainly a congestion worth having.

  3. […] Digital Head image retrieved from, Numeracy: The New Literacy for a Data-Drenched Society, Lynn Arthur Steen, 1999, Goos, M., Dole, S., & Geiger, V. (2012). Numeracy across the Curriculum.pdf Australian Mathematics Teacher, 68(1), 3-7. 30130616_1/courses/2018_19_EDSC1006_V1_L125_A1_EXT_650343/2018_19_EDSC1006_V1_L125_A1_EXT_650343_ImportedContent_20180411081716/Goos%2C%20Dole%20and%20Geiger%2C%20Numeracy%20across%20the%20Curriculum.pdf New Literacy in the Web 2.0 world, Dr Daniel Churchill, June 12, 2009, New Literacies and 21st Centuries technologies, 2009, The Definition of Literacy is Changing, October 6, 2014 by Catlin Tucker, […]

  4. As a current (and future) educator, I see more benefits coming from having and using technology in the classroom. Pen and paper teachers cannot prepare today’s generations to compete in a global economy.

  5. I can identify! After teaching for many years, and now returning to college for more classes I quickly learned that in technological literacy I was behind most if not all of my classmates! I was a pen and paper instructor who like the educational system became slowly aware of the impact computers and knowledge of their contributions could drastically change our definition of literacy!! And I was fortunate to be involved with the growth for many years! Now, I realize technology kept moving forward in literacy and I did not. So, if students don’t have the advantages that I do now and are expected to be at some “level” of technological proficiency I understand better how to meet their needs. And I am excited.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience, Carol! As technology changes the way we access, engage with and share information, the definition of literacy must evolve. It’s an exciting time in education, but it does demand that educators continue learning and growing to keep pace with many of these changes.


  6. The definition of literacy has been changing and evolving for many years now since the advent of the Internet. I have heard arguments about the pros and cons of technology use in education. We definitely need a balance in our schools, because the explosion of access to read and write in the various electronic platforms and formats make digital literacy an essential component of the definition of literacy in the 21st century. We have more choices now for how we can express ourselves thoughtfully and clearly. That’s not a bad thing because we think and respond differently as learners and that is not a new concept. It is one that we need to be mindful or and embrace for all of our learners.

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