L is for…Lots of Literacies

In a recent blog post, notable scholar Howard Gardner poses the question, “Who’s smarter? A cuttlefish, a dog, or a song bird?” 

The answer to the question is actually moot, since Gardner posits that each animal embodies and enacts its own intelligences relative to its environment; take any animal out of its element, and its intelligence in one setting suddenly seems irrelevant. In making his case, Gardner expands this argument to us humans, stating that intelligence is personal and contextual:

Rather, we should examine the various ways in which human beings can succeed at a wide range of tasks. And then we should give each person credit for the kinds of problem solving, pattern recognition, or creativity that draws on that form of intelligence.

Despite the criticism Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences has received since first publishing his ideas, I’ve gravitated towards this framework, intrigued and actually validated by the premise that each of us possess a working network of intelligences, some of which are more pronounced, developed, and actualized, depending on when, where, and how we tap into them. So then, it doesn’t make me dumb for not being good at math! What a relief!

In thinking about what being literate means today, specifically in light of new literacies, even comparing one person’s literacy level to another could be seen as not only unfair, but actually as nonsensical as comparing a cuttlefish’s intelligence to a dog’s or song bird’s. 

Everything New is New…Again…and Again…

What I have learned through reading about new literacies today is that NEW is not a trending adjective, but rather a fixed constant. New literacies means that “literacy is not just new today; it becomes new every day of our lives” (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, Castek, & Henry, 2013). 

Like a cuttlefish practicing delayed gratification in hopes of a tastier snack, you might be asking in the hopes of discovering, “How is it even possible to be literate today, let alone tomorrow?”

Me too. 

Thanks in big part to the Internet, new literacies are multiple, multimodal, and multifaceted (Castek, Coiro, Henry, Leu, & Hartman, 2015). Within these new literacies also live others that populate our contemporary stream of understanding, like digital, media, news, data, and more. 

What has been the most significant insight in reframing what literacy means now is that, like Gardner’s cuttlefish-dog-song bird example, “literacy is neither context nor content free; instead, it is always socially and culturally situated,” and that “ways of being literate change depending on the cultural practice one is engaged in” (Hammerberg, 2004). 

So, just like a cuttlefish in or out of water, my identity as a literate—or non-literate—person can change depending on where I am, what I am doing, as well as who I am and what I can do. From this sociocultural perspective, looking at literacy as simply the practice of reading/writing is an outmoded psychological view, albeit one that still persists in most schools. 

Although literacy is not just a reading/writing issue anymore, in regards to these new literacies, the Internet is in actuality a reading/writing issue rather than a technology issue (Coiro, 2013).

Today’s new literacies are also full of “ethos stuff”: participatory, collaborative, and distributed (Lankshear & Knobel, 2008). With this in mind, it makes sense that the way we engage (and teach learners how to engage) with digital information likewise must shift away from passive consumption to critical invention (Mirra, Morrell, & Filipiak, 2018), with a refreshed take on “critical.” What I found particularly inspiring is the idea of reframing learners as citizens and creators rather than simply students, guiding them from critically evaluating to designing technologies for change, inspired by equity and justice. So in this sense, being literate is not only a means to an end, but a way forward and beyond to reshaping an ever-evolving “future, today” deictic.

Offline to Online

From a new literacies perspective, thinking of my own teacher-librarian practices of developing critical media literacy and online reading/digital literacy skills among middle school learners, it is very validating to see that the ability to read well online really is as crucial as it is offline; in particular, I was struck by the active description of online reading “as a problem-based inquiry process involving new skills, strategies, and dispositions on the Internet to generate important questions, then locate, critically evaluate, synthesize, and communicate possible solutions to those problems online” (Castek, Coiro, Henry, Leu, & Hartman, 2015). The Internet’s got my librarian back as well as cut my work out for me! YESSSS!

The fact that there is no direct correlation between offline and online reading comprehension skills (Coiro, 2013) is likewise fascinating and galvanizing, a potentially potent leveraging tool towards forging collaborative inroads with teachers to explore online reading strategies in tandem with their current reading comprehension practices, starting with Internet Reciprocal Teaching. 

In looking at the assumptions and pedagogical implications that new literacies present, the shift from HOW to teach seems much more important now than what to teach (Wood cited in Coiro, 2003) especially considering the additional sociocultural veil of COVID layered over our “discourses” of school, home, work, and life. 

In the same way online reading demands a different disposition of the reader, so does the teaching of this interwoven set of skills. As teachers, we have to recognize the embodied literacy students bring with them, while also becoming more self-aware of our own online reading habits, applying that awareness when guiding the exploration and empowerment of literacy for social change, rather than simply literacy for literacy’s sake (or for external measures such as standardized tests). 

Partnering approaches together that embed Internet Reciprocal Teaching might be a powerful pedagogical remix to try, like Connected Learning (Ito), Personal Digital Inquiry (Coiro, Dobler & Pelekis, 2019) and a New Critical Theory/Practice of Multiliteracies (Mirra, Morrell & Filipak, 2018) along with relative oldies but goodies, like PBL, maker-based learning and Design Thinking.

Literacy for…What?

The most resonant idea to me is a question asked literally by Hammerberg (2004) but woven throughout the other readings:

Literacy for…what?

This question digs into both the why and the how as well:

Why we should be adopting a socioculturally relevant approach and how to go about it.

The idea that being literate has a purpose beyond simply preparing you for the next step in life, and in actuality is so you can make and shape the world rather than merely inhabiting it is profoundly mind blowing to me.

An offshoot wondering is then:

Where does literacy LIVE in a classroom? 

In the text, the student, the context? Adopting a multiliteracies approach opens so many possibilities to ask more questions with many more possible answers, just like the ways in which various hyperlinks create new texts and multiple perspectives create new interpretations.

Another lingering question I have deals with the concept of “critical” when teaching critical media consumption. In an unabashedly protectionist state like Texas, where culturally responsive teaching (and likewise any semblance of Critical Race Theory) has a target on its back, how can we teach media literacy in a critical way? Is the answer to be as subversive as the coded media we are trying to deconstruct and destruct?

Lastly, from a more pragmatic, “point, read, click, think” perch:

How can we foster qualities like resilience and perseverance through teaching online/digital reading strategies from a new literacies angle?

Reader’s Note: This reflective post is part of the required coursework for EDU 532 ~ Seminar in Digital Literacy and Learning


Castek, Coiro, Henry, Leu, & Hartman (2015). Research on Instruction and Assessment in the New Literacies of Online Research and Comprehension.

Coiro (2003). Expanding our understanding of reading comprehension to encompass new literacies.

Coiro (2013). Video of online reading comprehension challenges.

Hammerberg, D. (2004). Comprehension instruction for sociocultural diverse classrooms: A review of what we know.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2008). From ‘reading’ to ‘new literacy studies.

Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, Castek, & Henry (2013). New Literacies: A dual level theory of the changing nature of literacy, instruction, and assessment.

Mirra N, Morrell, E. & Filipiak, D. (2018). Digital Consumption to Digital Invention: Toward a New Critical Theory and Practice of Multiliteracies, Theory Into Practice, 57:1, 12-19.

Images from Pexels.com

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