Discovering the New Literacy

I just read a blog series by Kathy Schrock on “literacies in the digital age,” and I’ve adapted it for use at our faculty fall professional development meeting. This is one of the most useful summaries of digital literacies that I’ve seen to date. I want the teachers to read about these literacies to see where and how they already incorporate them into the curriculum and to speculate on where and how they can add guidance for students to learn about them, when it’s meaningful and appropriate. Here’s my adaptation/abridgement:

Kathy Schrock’s Discovery Education Blog (Katch of the Month) on Literacies for the Digital Age. (excerpts from September 14-June 15;

(Ms. Schrock writes a monthly blog on educational topics for Discovery Education. She did a series last year to identify and help define “literacies for the digital age.” Her choices are interesting, and each blog contains a plethora of useful information on how to teach that specific literacy. I highly recommend the series! Mary)


  1. Economic/financial literacy

Economic literacy, often called financial literacy, according to Atomic Learning, “targets the importance of making appropriate economic choices on a personal level, and understanding the connection personal, business, and governmental decisions have on individuals, society, and the economy”. The report of the NASBE Commission on Financial and Investor Literacy also offers a useful definition: “Financial literacy is defined as the ability to read, analyze, manage and communicate about the personal financial conditions that affect material well-being. It includes the ability to discern financial choices, discuss money and financial issues without (or despite) discomfort, plan for the future and respond competently to life events that affect everyday financial decisions, including events in the general economy”.

  1. Visual literacy

Visual literacy, as defined by the Association of College and Research Libraries, “is a set of abilities that enables an individual to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, use, and create images and visual media. Visual literacy skills equip a learner to understand and analyze the contextual, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, intellectual, and technical components involved in the production and use of visual materials. A visually literate individual is both a critical consumer of visual media and a competent contributor to a body of shared knowledge and culture.”

  1. Media literacy

There are many areas of media literacy.  Media Literacy Project has a wonderful document that presents the components of media literacy in a straightforward fashion and includes useful lists of the various concepts of this literacy. Their definition of media literacy is “the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media messages of all kinds.” They go on to state that media literacy skills can help students–

  • Understand how media messages create meaning
  • Identify who created a particular media message
  • Recognize what the media maker wants us to believe or do
  • Name the “tools of persuasion” used
  • Recognize bias, spin, misinformation and lies
  • Discover the part of the story that’s not being told
  • Evaluate media messages based on our own experiences, beliefs and values
  • Create and distribute our own media messages
  • Become advocates for change in our media system

The modern study of media literacy is not new. The Museum of Hoaxes site includes timelines of historical media hoaxes from as early as 1874 and photography hoaxes from 1861 and everything in-between! The ability to make a viewer or reader believe a fabricated story still exists today. And, as technology evolves. there are many more ways to fool the viewer with mash-ups, video and audio editing, and fabrication of images.

  1. Historical literacy

The Hyperhistory site from the National Centre for History Education in Australia is a wonderful site for learning about all aspects of history education, including historical literacy. They have a teacher’s guide which contains information about the nature of historical learning, historical literacy, history education and ICT, and more. Their overview of the key elements of historical literacy include:

  • Events of the past: knowing and understanding historical events
  • Narratives of the past: having time to think about how the past can be explained through a variety of perspectives
  • Research skills; gathering, analyzing, and using artifacts, documents, and graphics
  • The language of history: interpreting words in history
  • Historical concepts: understanding the cause and motivation of historical events and to understand events from the point of view of participants
  • ICT understandings: how to identify bias, authority, and reliability in online information
  • Making connections: thinking about the present and the past
  • Contention and contestability: understanding about debate and discourse in a historical perspective
  • Representative expression: understanding history through art and media of the past (and visual media literacies are important here)
  • Moral judgements in history: dealing with the moral and ethical components of historical events
  • Applied science in history: facial reconstruction, computer imaging, DNA testing, forensic science, satellite mapping, etc.
  • Historical explanation: the ability to reason historically based on a foundation of evidence
  1. Numeracy

Numeracy is the ability to reason and to apply simple numerical concepts. This includes, among other things, mastering of basic math, number sense, computation, measurement, and statistics

The document entitled “Standards for Mathematical Practice” provides an extensive overview of the “varieties of expertise that mathematics educators at all levels should seek to develop in their students”. These standards “describe ways in which developing student practitioners of the discipline of mathematics increasingly ought to engage with the subject matter as they grow in mathematical maturity and expertise throughout the elementary, middle and high school years”. It is about being able to take their mathematical skill set and use higher order thinking skills to evaluate, experiment, and reason. The Standards for Mathematical Process are:

  • Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them: students analyze, conjecture, monitor and evaluate, transform, and conceptualize
  • Reason abstractly and quantitatively: students decontextualize and contextualize as well as creating a representation of the problem
  • Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others: students can justify, reason inductively, and compare and defend
  • Model with mathematics: students use their math skills to solve problems in everyday life
  • Use appropriate tools strategically: students can pick the appropriate tool to help them
  • Attend to precision: students label and present their mathematics in a way that make it understandable to others
  • Look for and make use of structure: students can recognize mathematical patterns
  • Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning: students notice when calculations are repeated and use that information

In order to develop these levels of expertise in students, educators need to be able to connect the mathematical practices to the mathematical content in mathematics instructions. There are various ways to help this happen. There are the commercial textbooks and online products that can support student mathematical understanding. There are online mathematics informational sites to provide students with another “voice” to help them understand the basics a bit better and there are stand-alone software programs and apps to provide additional practice.

  1. Data literacy

According to Dr. Milo A. Schield, students must be able to read, interpret and evaluate information. They must also be able to analyze, interpret and evaluate statistics. And they must be able to gather, assess, process, manipulate, summarize, and communicate data. These three skills collectively comprise data literacy.

One way to have students gain data literacy skills is the student creation of an infographic as a creative assessment. This assessment process includes practice with the information, visual, and computer tool literacies, too. An infographic is a visual representation of data that allows the viewer to understand a topic, get another view, or persuade them to research further. Infographics fall naturally into categories such as statistical infographics, timeline infographics, process infographics, and research-based infographics.

In the Newspaper Designer’s Handbook, a McGraw-Hill publication by Tim Harrower and Julie Elman, they provide some thoughts on why one might use an infographic.

  • To complete the “story” for those who are interested
  • To draw in viewers from those who might skip reading the information
  • To pull out salient numbers, details, and comparisons
  • To clarify with statistics, geographical detail, or trends
  • To help insure the viewer “gets it”
  1. Information literacy

Information literacy forms the foundation for all of the other literacies. Students need to know how to state their information need, search for it effectively, evaluate what they find for validity, and utilize the information they find.

There are many information literacy models available and many include a component of the best ways to conduct research on the Web. Let’s look at one of these processes.

In order to begin their research, students need be able to ask the right question. Of course, the overall context of the research will be determined by the unit being studied in class, but there are some standard information literacy steps students can use to develop the query they will research in order to gather their information.

  • Students should create a list of keywords about the topic
  • They should then create a question that is not too broad or too narrow.
  • Students should list the places for gathering their information. This may include the Web, subscription databases, or experts in the field.
  • They should conduct some cursory research to make sure there will be information available for their topic.
  • If necessary, they should re-work their question.
  • Once they begin the research in earnest, students need to become familiar with the critical evaluation of information in order to determine the credibility, validity, and authority of the information they locate.
  • Students also need to gather their assets and remember to cite their sources.
  • NoodleTools has a wonderful flowchart-like, hyperlinked page, Choose the Best Search for Your Information Need, which allows students to consider the type of thing they are looking for (i.e. controversial topic, background information, primary sources, etc.) and leads them to specialized search engines and directories to use.


The development of the essential question that will guide the student through the research process is also an information literacy skill. How do you engage students with questions and, at the same time, encourage them to think about using this technique when determining their information need?

Grant Wiggins describes what an essential question entails in an article on his Authentic Education site. Wiggins states essential questions…

  • cause genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas and core content
  • provoke deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding as well as more questions
  • require students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support their ideas, and justify their answers
  • stimulate vital, on-going rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, and prior lessons
  • spark meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experiences
  • naturally recur, creating opportunities for transfer to other situations and subjects

Teaching students how to develop an essential question to articulate their information need can help.  ASCD offers a chapter from the McTighe and Wiggins book, Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding, on their site, which provides a practical way for teachers to learn the best ways to create these questions, and can help you explain the process to students.

Having students look at samples of essential questions can be useful, too.  Here are some resources to help.

  • Each day, the Essential Questionssite presents visitors with a random list of twenty-five essential questions.
  • The TeachThought blog has a giant list of essential questions by broad subject area, such as social justice, adversity, conflict, and utopia/dystopia.
  • Check out for lots of questions on nonfiction topics.
  1. Tool literacy

Tool literacy, the ability to manage and create information, is all about using software tools to help support the other literacies. This is sometimes called computer literacy or technology literacy.

Managing information using online tools in a digital space is an important skill. Here are some quick tips that can help students (and you) manage their information overload using Web clipping tools, curation tools, RSS and newsreaders, and synchronous communication and backchannel tools.

  1. Civic literacy

Civic literacy incorporates the use of 21st century skills for staying informed about local, regional, and worldwide events in order to be able to participate and make informed decisions. As with any current news and information, students must be on the lookout for bias and omission of relevant information. These skills can be practiced as outlined in the Information and Digital Literacy blog post in this series.

10. Global literacy

Global literacy, according to a professional development publication by Atomic Learning, “incorporates the use of 21st century skills and tools for understanding and addressing issues that have global impact. This includes raising awareness about cultural differences, demonstrating tolerance and respect for differing opinions, religions, and lifestyles, and learning to work collaboratively with others.”

   11. Health literacy

The World Health Organization’s motto is “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” And, according to UNESCO, infusing “health learning in subjects across the curriculum should not be a substitute for a comprehensive, sequential course of health education, but doing so can significantly support the learning that takes place in a health class.”

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