What does it mean to be literate today?

During this week’s class we discussed what being “literate” in the 21st century truly means.

In his presentation Daniel started off by referencing a traditional definition of literacy, which for me is the one that most often comes to mind when I hear the word “literate”.

Daniel says that according to UNESCO literacy “Is the ability understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts”. I took time to stop his video and jot down this definition because to me it seemed that was a fitting definition for many types of literacy if you removed the ending.

“Literacy is the ability understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts”.

It seems to me you could add “any form of communication” to the end to reference media literacy, or “mathematical equations” here for mathematical literacy, and the definition still works.

It’s worth noting that on their website UNESCO has since updated their definition of literacy to add “Beyond its conventional concept as a set of reading, writing and counting skills, literacy is now understood as a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world” (USESCO, 2019).

This was an idea that was elaborated on by, Shelby and Brad in their video where they went on to discuss literacy specifically through the lens of media literacy. They in turn borrowed a definition from the National Association for Media Literacy “Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. Media literacy builds upon the foundation of traditional literacy and offers new forms of reading and writing” (NAMLE, 2020).

Therefore, if I have learned anything it is that there are many definitions of literacy in today’s world, and all of them seem to revolve around the ability to comprehend and create information.

Image via Medium

In this understanding of literacy it makes sense why most would equate being literate in the 21st century to having sensible, responsible and and fluent digital skills. After all the 21st century is marked by it’s innovations in technology and they way they have impacted our daily life therefore a mastery of the technical and cognitive skills necessary to understand, evaluate and create digital media are increasingly valued in our new definitions of what it means to be literate.

While I have decided Digital and Media Literacy is important for literacy today, of all the definitions I have explored this week it is perhaps the most simple one I came across that I prefer. The Oxford Dictionary (2018) states that literacy is both, “The ability to read and write, but also competence or knowledge in a specified area”. I prefer this definition because it suggests that there are many areas a person can be literate in, either fully or partially. This seems more true to my own experiences, and abilities as well as those of my students.

What do you think it means to be literate in today’s world?


One thought on “What does it mean to be literate today?”

  1. I think you are right that there are many areas to be literate (partially or fully). That’s what life long learning is so important and just like digital literacy things constantly change. I liked Trevor’s blog post (just read before yours) that balance is key in these areas and that physical literacy is just as important as many of the ‘established’ ones. Great post.


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