Coming to Terms with “New Literacies”

            As I went through the first set of readings for class I could not help but notice the different terms used across the pieces to describe the various authors’ notions of improved literacies. Stating that I noticed the different terms used is actually putting it lightly. I focused heavily on trying to draw out any possible definitions I could and when it came time to write my first reflection, I limited myself with fear of using the wrong term in the wrong context. I also struggled to make connections across the pieces because of the distinctions I drew based off the terms. For these reasons, I have decided to write a reflection that revolves around my interactions with the terms so I can become more comfortable with the vocabulary I use when talking and writing about the ideas related to such exciting work.

Personal Entry Point

I have been intrigued with the shifting notions of literacy for a few years prior to taking this course. My involvements with producing and critiquing media texts such as videos and photographs stems back even further. I gained a heightened awareness of the academic research and practice revolving around expanding the concept of literacy when I started working with Cyndy Scheibe and Chris Sperry at Project Look Sharp in Ithaca, NY. Through assisting them with curriculum development, I learnt about media literacy, which in it’s briefest definition, is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and communicate information in a variety of forms (Aufderheide & Firestone, 1993). When I was first introduced to the concept I was fascinated with the idea of thinking about media text in a much broader way and deconstructing the different texts through questions that revolved around authorship, audience, message, meaning, representation and credibility.

My passion for the topic led me to Rhode Island where I worked with Renee Hobbs, a respected figure in the media literacy field. As I worked with Renee I began to learn more about varying academic groups with similar interests and the importance of being able to identify the distinctions among the groups and the correct terminology for each. Renee herself said she was beginning to be leery about using the term media literacy and more recently preferred media education. She also paired the word digital with her terminology in current work to address the present demand for better understanding how to interact with the growing technologies in our society. Julie Coiro was another scholar in Rhode Island who focused on digital literacies and taught me a lot about new literacies through her work with online comprehension, reading and assessment.

When I moved back to NY and spoke with Dr. Miller about my interest in such topics she introduced the concept of multimodality to me. Before diving deeper into the terms raised in the readings for this past week, I want to clarify the lasting impressions the terms I have previously been exposed to have had on me. First and foremost, at this point I still resonate most strongly with ‘media literacy,’ perhaps because it is the frame through which I was introduced to all of this through. Next, I recognize the importance of ‘new literacies’ because I saw firsthand, some of the work Julie Coiro is doing within the field and believe it is necessary. Lastly, from my brief introduction to multimodality, I believe that it takes what I know of media literacy and expands it to include the user of the text more, but I admit I am still somewhat unclear about this term.
Terms Addressed in Reading

            As I encountered the different terms in the articles I read this past week, I was constantly reflecting on how I previously defined various vocabulary and what my present meaning making meant to my understanding of the larger ideas conveyed in the articles I was reading. I hope my initial reflections on the different words I have been digesting help me further grapple with concepts that are trying to be conveyed by all the different authors. Below, I go through some of the main terms addressed in the readings and how I related them to my previous experiences.

New literacies. According to Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear, and Leu, (2008), new literacies involve “knowing how and when to make wise decisions about which technologies and which forms and functions of literacy most support one’s purposes” (p. 4-5). Through their framing of new literacies, there is an emphasis on technology and more specifically the internet. Their perspective believes the internet and communication technologies require new social practices, strategies and skills in order to be effectively used (Coiro et al., 2008, p. 14).

I was against focusing so much on the ‘new’ when I first learnt about ‘new literacies’ because my knowledge in ‘media literacy’ made me believe literacy practices should not shift to accommodate new technologies, but rather consist of a broad skill set that is applicable to varying print and digital texts. I admit, I had asked the rhetorical question Coiro et al. (2008) brought forth in their article, “Was there really anything new to literacy when the tools change and we simple read and write text on a screen instead of on paper?” (p. 2). However, I came to learn more about the specific work Julie Coiro was doing regarding reading and writing on the internet and some of my opinions changed.

One of the most succinct examples that persuaded me to think about the value of the ‘new literacies’ work was the use of online search engines. So often, I pull up Google to find a fact without thinking about what I’m doing. After speaking with Julie, I realized people do need to be taught how to properly use a search engine. What key terms should be typed in the search bar? What website result should be clicked first? What should be done once that website is open? These are just some of the questions that deserve more attention and I believe do require skills that extend beyond traditional print-based literacy practices. I agree with the skills Coiro et al. (2008) have identified for new literacies and believe they provide a strong outline for what internet users should be able to do in order to use the web wisely. According to the authors, someone who is competent in new literacies is able to identify key questions, locate relevant information, evaluate the usefulness of such information, synthesize different texts and communicate learnt knowledge appropriately (p. 11).

Besides my personal realization of how important these skills are, Coiro and her colleagues reiterate the significance of ‘new literacies’ by showing the exponential growth rate of internet use globally according to Internet World Statistics. The authors go so far as to state, “no previous technology for literacy has provided access to so much information that is so useful, to so many people, in the history of the world” (p. 3). Carr (2011) adds to the gravity of such work in his book The Shallows, by exploring ways the internet has actually impacted how we read and navigate texts, comprehend information, engage with messages and memorize facts.

Multimodality and New Literacy Studies. According to Street, Pahl, and Rowsell (2009), multimodality incorporates multimodal texts that are filled with intention and culturally shaped (p. 194). From what I know, multimodal texts can involve visual, audio and written components whose distinct meanings work together to create a larger message. I want to learn more about multimodality because I still feel like it is unclear to me. Street et al.’s article examined the overlay between multimodality and New Literacy Studies, but did not go deep into the definitions of each term. From what I got out of the article, multimodality places more emphasis on the text while New Literacy Studies looks at the larger social setting the text is used within.

In reference to his previous work, Street emphasizes the importance of including multimodality in schools by pointing out that print literacies are rapidly being surpassed by contemporary communication, which is embedded within screen-based technologies. He takes this point and ties it to ‘new literacies’ and ‘multiliteracies’ by claiming ‘multiliteracies’ involve a ‘multimodal’ perspective (p. 195). I appreciated the connections he drew between the terms because it has helped me better formulate my thoughts on such relations.

Multiliteracies. Second to media literacy, I think I most closely align with multiliteracies. Like multimodality, I believe I still need to better understand the whole proposed concept, but I like how inclusive it is. Similar to New Literacy studies, I agree with multiliteracies that literacy practices are situated within a socially embedded context. Literacy does not just occur in the classroom. This notion is also explored further through Gee’s work with discourse in which big ‘D’ discourse covers the dialect that occurs in everyday life and integrates “words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes and social identities as well as gestures, glances, body positions and clothes” (p. 196). Recognizing that literacy occurs outside of school helps educators bring popular culture texts into school. From my teaching experiences with disinterested learners, I have come to realize how important it is to engage learners by drawing upon their interests and knowledge.

The New London Group (1996) described the pedagogy of ‘multiliteracies’ around the concept of Design in which it is believed that individuals are both inheritors of meaning and active designers of meaning. This is especially relevant today where people are both consumers and producers of multiple media messages. One thing I want to try advocating through my work is the power of production. From my personal projects and teaching moments, I have experienced the many benefits of creating media texts and hope I will be able to better convey such benefits as I move forward. One brief result that ties to my last point is the cultural connection. If a student creates a video and screens it to an audience, I think they are more likely to comprehend the significance of their work in comparison to handing in a paper for one teacher to read. While this is a comparison, I do want to make clear that I still value traditional reading and writing practices as well, but believe they should be expanded upon. I will not digress any further on this point however.

Conclusion

While the readings have allowed me to further explore terms related to literacy skills required of individuals today, I acknowledge I still do not fully comprehend the complexity of each term and I am looking forward to advancing my vocabulary as the semester continues. I also understand the importance of being able to find commonalities across terms. Now that I have been able to better distinguish what each term means to me, I think I will be able to speak more fluidly about the concepts from here on out.

I did have a difficult time initially finding similarities across the readings for the first week because I thought ‘new literacies’ was separate from ‘multiliteracie’ and so forth, but I was able to find a few common threads. A value in multiplicity and extracting meaning from multimodal texts seemed to be present when each term was used along with an emphasis on context. All of the authors agreed that the texts people engage with are not isolated and exist within larger cultural and social settings. All articles also emphasized the importance of applying the literacy skills they proposed by making larger ties to societal and even global situations and challenges people currently face.

As discussed in our second class, I think ‘multiliteracies’ is a better umbrella term than ‘new literacies’ in regards to the interests of this course because it encompasses more beyond the boundaries of technology. ‘New Literacy Studies’ and ‘multimodality’ are both terms I would like to explore further. At this point, I believe ‘New Literacy Studies’ almost aligns parallel with ‘multiliteracies’ and its main contribution for me is the idea that literacy practices are socially situated in various environments. I think ‘multimodality’ falls within each term by placing an emphasis on the multiplicity of texts. Lastly, the term ‘new literacies’ should not be ignored because it does have significance for certain implications, especially when it come to responsible internet use, but I am not going to interchangeably use this term for contexts it is not meant to be applied to.

I am making such an effort to clarify all of these terms because I am interested in academia and the potential of publication in the future. I acknowledge that specific terms relate to specific ideologies, practices and people. With such awareness, little words become gateways into different dialogues and play a role in my identity as a knowledgeable scholar. I am still trying to figure out exactly how I want to position myself and know the words I use will play a key role in how I come to terms with the work I plan to do.

References

Aufderheide. P., & Firestone, C. (1993).  Media literacy: A report of the national leadership conference on media literacy. Queenstown, MD: Aspen Institute.

Carr, N. (2011). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. WW Norton & Company.

Coiro, J., Knobel, M., Lankshear, C., & Leu, D. J. (2008). Central issues in new literacies and new literacies research. In J. Coiro, M. Knobel, C. Lankshear & D. J. Leu (Eds.), Handbook of research on new literacies (pp. 1-22). New York: Taylor & Francis.

New London Group (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social features. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

Street, B., Pahl, K., & Rowsell, J. (2009). Multimodality and New Literacy Studies. In C. Jewitt (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of multimodal analysis (pp. 191-200). New York: Routledge.

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