Literacy in the 21st Century

This week in EC&I 832, we were asked to consider what it means to be literate today.  First, I looked at a few different definitions of literacy:

“Literacy has always been a collection of communicative and sociocultural practices shared among communities. As society and technology change, so does literacy.” – NCTE “Literacy in a Digital Age”

“Digital and media literacy is an expanded conceptualization of literacy.” Renee Hobbs, EdD Interview

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society” (UNESCO, 2004; 2017). UNESCO Defining Literacy

The following is an excerpt from a conversation with a few grades 3 students this week:

Me: “What is literacy?”

Student 1: “Like our literacy time? It’s when we do Daily 5.”

Student 2: “It’s when we practice reading and writing.”

Me: “Do you know what it means to be literate?” 

Student 3: “I think it means we know how to read?”

Student 2: “Yeah, my mom says I have to learn how to read if I want to get a job one day.”

Quite simply, these students have a decent understanding of literacy – learning how to “identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts”, and understand that it is important so they can “participate fully in their community and wider society” (UNESCO).  Learn to read and write so you can get a job one day.  If only it was that easy!

Before digital citizenship, there was just citizenship, and before digital literacy, there was just literacy.  As the world evolves, so does our teaching and learning around literacy.  The NCTE updated the definition of literacy in a digital age in November 2019 in response to the “continued evolution of curriculum, assessment, and teaching practice”.  Furthermore, Renee Hobbs, EdD explains that there are “five inter-related competencies that are now needed to participate in contemporary culture”:

  • Access: understanding how to access information in a digital space
  • Analysis: ability to identity author, purpose, point of view, evaluate credibility
  • Create: be able to brainstorm and generate ideas to create messages with media tools
  • Collaborate: with create, the ability to work together to create messages
  • Reflect & Take Action: ability to apply ethical judgement and social responsibility to online situations
“The world demands that a literate person possess and intentionally apply a wide range of skills, competencies, and dispositions.” NCTE

To be a well-rounded individual in today’s world, Kathy Schrock identified 13 literacies that should be taught across content areas. Her post gives a great overview of all the different resources educators can use to teach the literacies.  A note – the post is routinely updated, and the last update was January 8, 2020 (at the time this post was published).  Here is a link to a slideshow with definitions of all the literacies.

As I think about what it means to literate in a digital world, I consider my ability to interpret, criticize, understand, analyze and create through media and information literacy.  Like many of my classmates (and really, the entire world), I have been glued to social media during the evolving COVID-19 pandemic.  While one might feel anxious and worried about all the fear mongering and misinformation online, I have been practicing my media and information literacy skills.  Before I compose or retweet a tweet, I read laterally and incorporate a few tools to spot real vs fake news.

Screen capture from our EC&I 832 class with Dr. Couros on March 10, 2020

One tool we discussed in our EC&I 832 class was using the CRAAP test to evaluate sources. Dr. Couros highlighted a few of the potential issues with the tool, but it is a starting point for teaching students how to evaluate information.  I think it is important for educators to explain that there is no one tool that is the “be-all-end-all” for evaluating sources online.  The practice of discussing how to evaluate information and media is the first step in changing the future of how news and information is shared online.

Like many of my classmates, Shelby shares how the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to discuss digital literacy and the dangers of misinformation.  Daniel describes the constant questions from students and says, “I’ve come to the conclusion that rather than answering their questions, I should be investing in their literacy skills [and] helping them develop sound information gathering and research skills.”

For example, with my students, we talked about reading laterally and using accurate news sources.  With COVID-19, the information is changing at a rapid pace, so an article from even a few days ago may no longer be relevant.  I think a lot of the panic and hysteria arises when people continue to post and re-post things like “a doctor friend of mine said this:….”.  While the information may be relevant, what is their authority or credentials?  How does it make you feel when you read the post?  Do you feel confident that this information is accurate before sharing?

Let’s be honest. This week has been long for teachers – with uncertainty regarding Sanctions, and the fear and anger regarding schools staying open or closing amid COVID-19.  It is impossible to not talk about what is going on – this is an unprecedented event in our history.  With the mass consumption of information and news taking place online, our job to teach digital literacy to students is more important than ever.

So, what does it mean to be literate today? Going back to Renee Hobbs, EdD, we need to find a way to “connect the dots between accessanalyzecreatereflect and take action“.  This means both in the digital sphere and offline in a way that is socially and ethically responsible.  For example, how are you going to take action during COVID-19?  My goal is to use my digital literacy skills to share accurate information and avoid fear mongering during this panicked time.

Until next time,







8 thoughts on “Literacy in the 21st Century

  1. Catherine,

    Very well-thought out and researched post. Thanks for an engaging read!

    I agree– seeing the opportunity in such a monumental and somewhat panicked time seems like a great place to start talking more about media literacy. We have had conversations in my classroom about lateral reading and that not everything you read is true or still relevant. I love the graphic that you shared about The 13 Literacies for the Digital Age! As times change, so does the way that we should be viewing literacy. Creating well-rounded and critical consumers of information needs to start being at the forefront when planning for literacy instruction. Great insights!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the comment! To be honest, I didn’t know much about media literacy before this class. I used my own fact checking methods, but I didn’t really consider all the different aspects to literacy – especially in our digital world today! Maybe now we will have the time to think about how to incorporate digital literacy across subject areas?


  2. Catherine, thanks for sharing Kathy Schrock’s work, I haven’t seen it for a few years now, but I see she is still very active out there, and continues to be a great resource.

    What a crazy time with the virus going around… the SM frenzy has been insane, with TP selling out in no time for no reason… definitely a great teaching opportunity (while schools are still open). You are correct, everyone is really stressed out and tired from all this, I’ve definitely slowed down… hoping to have some extra time as a result to work on these courses.

    Your final thought of how we need to ““…connect the dots between access, analyze, create, reflect and take action“. This means both in the digital sphere and offline in a way that is socially and ethically responsible.” (Ready, 2020) really got me thinking. What is the best way to connect the dots? I think that is the hard part. We have so many amazing people in our class who are working in isolated pockets and doing amazing things with SM… imagine what could be accomplished if an entire school division, or even an entire school put their minds to the “connecting the dots” problem.

    Thanks for a great read!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Matteo! I was hesitant to use Schrock’s work at first (looking at the original post date), but using my fact checking methods, it appears that it is an updated resource that is still used today! My last comment to (grade 7/8) students before they left school this week was to make sure they get their information from vetted sources, and to try and use social media to spread positive messages during this time.

      I guess now we will have some time to think about “connecting the dots”- looking forward to spending some time thinking about it.


  3. Thanks for the excellent post. As we enter a new era of education and almost total distance education for University and High School students, it will be interesting to see how we will be able to connect those dots. My mind is already racing on how to incorporate media literacy in an online course. Time will tell. One thing is for sure, as of now, learning digital literacy is a must.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the reply, Daniel. I also think about all the educators who feel uncomfortable using digital learning tools – it will be a steep learning curve for all.


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