Whether in class or in the real world, we have all heard terms such as “digital literacy”, “financial literacy” or even more. Alberta Education defines literacy as “the ability, confidence and willingness to engage with language to acquire, construct and communicate meaning in all aspects of daily living”. In this definition, we see how the idea of literacy has expanded beyond just the act of writing.
Literacy has become shorthand for being able to navigate the complex systems that surround us. While in schools we still emphasize reading and writing the most, it is well documented that we need many literacies to become socially engaged citizens. As seen in Scribner and Cole’s “Literacy without schooling: Testing for intellectual effects”, literacy has long been entwined with schooling and therefore cognitive development. Researchers such as Scribner and Cole have pushed back on this, but in the modern American education system, one needs literacy to pursue education.
So what does the extrapolation of the term literacy say about how we culturally view the act of literacy? First, it emphasizes the connection between literacy and schooling. The idea one has to be “financially literate” in order to grow your financial resources is just one parallel to this theory. With this new definition and new terms, we see an even greater conflation of literacy and schooling. To be literate in a topic is to be educated on it as well as being able to navigate complex situations surrounding a given form of literacy.
Second, we see an increase in the divides between traditionally literate and non-literate persons. As many of these types of literacies still need reading and writing skills to learn and use, one has to be traditionally literate to pursue many of these new types of literacy, especially those lower in socioeconomic status. Digital literacy can be economically uplifting, but one has to pursue knowledge via already established literacy skills, such as reading tutorials or blog posts. With the internet, we see a greater challenge for non-literate people to overcome.
What does this mean for students? Does this evolving definition mean that students who are being taught literacy have more on their plate? In my opinion, I think this rather shows people opening up the “right to literacy” to more skillsets. We all need a complex understanding to navigate our increasingly complex world, and everyone has a right to learn these other types of literacies as well. This is why we see iPad tutorials for elderly populations, or financial advice nonprofits. Like traditional literacy, arming people with these skills allow them to transcend the barriers that keep them down, and become politically and socially aware of the world around them. People have a right to knowledge of the systems around them, and the expansion of the term literacy is just one example of that growing belief.