Three New Literacies for Today’s Classroom

“Now is the time that we need to rethink what we mean by the word ‘literacy’.”

– Professor Michael Wesch, Cultural Anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer

What does “literacy” mean? Traditionally, it’s the ability to read and write, but in today’s interconnected and high-tech world that definition may no longer be valid.  “Traditional definitions of literacy [are] insufficient,” says Professor Donald J. Leu, Director of the New Literacies Research Lab, “if we seek to provide students with the futures they deserve.”

So what are some “new literacies” for the 21st century – and how can we incorporate them in a language classroom? Let’s look at three examples.

Pages from Pathways Reading, Writing, and Critical Thinking, Student Book 1

1. Visual Literacy

Arguably this is not a “new literacy” – after all, cave art was created tens of thousands of years ago, and even photography dates back almost 200 years. But the way we create, share and interpret images has changed greatly in the digital age. Our world is dominated by visuals. Last year, an estimated 1.3 trillion photos were taken worldwide!

Pages from Pathways Reading, Writing, and Critical Thinking, Student Book Foundations

So, what are some benefits to incorporating visual literacy in the language classroom? Let’s start with photography.

What did you think of when you saw the photo above? What questions did ask yourself? An intriguing, authentic photo like this one (showing a real-life wedding taking in Tokyo, Japan) generates vocabulary, stimulates students to ask questions, and inspires curiosity about the topic.

But a good photo can do more than that. It can also promote critical thinking– especially analyzing, evaluating, and justifying skills. For example, why do we like certain photos? National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths suggests there are three main elements to a great photo: Light, Composition, and Moment. Using criteria such as these can help learners explain their reaction to an image.

Notice the composition in this photo, for example, particularly the placement of key elements. Photographers refer to this as the “rule of thirds.”

Image from Pathways Reading, Writing, and Critical Thinking, Student Book 1

Analyzing an image not only generates useful language (adjectives, prepositions of place, phrases for giving opinions), it also helps learners to justify their viewpoint – an essential critical thinking skill.

Increasingly, learners also need to be able to “read” – and critically evaluate – infographics. For example, what’s wrong – or misleading – with the graph below?

Image from Pathways Reading, Writing, and Critical Thinking, Student Book 3

The scale starts at 40, not zero, so Drug A seems more effective than it really is. Plus, the column is green – a color often associated with health. It’s an example of priming, a strategy often used in marketing and advertising to manipulate the viewer.

But graphs such as this are not the only sources of misinformation on the internet – which brings us to: media literacy.

2. Media Literacy

The internet has changed forever how we access information. In our ‘new media age’, says Gunther R. Kress, author of Literacy in the New Media Age, “the screen has replaced the book as the dominant medium of communication.”

But there is a downside.

Consider this story that was shared a couple of years ago through social media. It appears to show a prize-winning photograph of a leaping great white shark.

fake news
“Fake news” story referenced in Pathways Reading, Writing, and Critical Thinking, Student Book Foundations

But the story – and the image – was fake. How can we, as educators, help learners decode what is real and what isn’t? Here’s a 3-step approach:

Question assumptions. Have students think: What do I know about this topic? How certain am I? Does the story seem plausible, based on what I already know?

Analyze the evidence. Look for supporting details and evidence in the text– and in the image. (The spray behind the shark’s head doesn’t look realistic, for example)

Evaluate the source. Where is the information coming from? Is it credible? What’s the original source? (If you search for photographer “Bob Burton” online, you’ll find that he doesn’t exist.)

Today’s students may be digital natives, argues Donald Leu, but many lack critical evaluation skills. “Students may tell you they don’t believe everything they read on the Internet,” he says, “but they do.” In a world of online misinformation, the need for critical media literacy skills is more important than ever.

3. Cultural Literacy

Despite the ease of access to information, it’s easy to live a kind of cultural bubble. Part of our mission at National Geographic Learning is to help students broaden their worldview, and break through that bubble.

A great topic for developing learners’ global awareness – and cultural literacy – is food.

Pages from Pathways Listening, Speaking, and Critical Thinking, Student Book 2

In one unit in Pathways, for example, students read an interview with Sasha Martin, a blogger who set out to cook a different dish from every country on the planet. Just as at NGL we aim to bring the world to classroom, Sasha aimed to bring the world to her kitchen!

what the world eat
Pages from Pathways Reading, Writing, and Critical Thinking, Student Book 1

“I wanted to share recipes that were bridges to other cultures,” says Sasha Martin.

Learning about other cultures is a key aspect of cultural literacy, and so is the ability to express your own culture. In Pathways, after students read about Sasha’s project, they complete an online guided writing task – a paragraph about a dish that’s special to their region, something that a person from another culture might be interested in.

Online workbook activity from Pathways Reading, Writing, and Critical Thinking, Student Book 1

So how is a focus on cultural literacy relevant to language learning? Roughly two billion people speak some level of English, and most interactions are between non-native English speakers. Knowing about American culture or British culture is no longer sufficient for English language learners; what’s important is what one of our authors, Lewis Lansford has termed “cultural agility” – an ability and willingness to communicate and collaborate with people from many different cultures, and to see the world from multiple perspectives.

Another reason for teaching New Literacies? They’re now being assessed! Starting summer 2018, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) will evaluate Global Competence worldwide – and that includes an understanding of other peoples’ views and cultures, and the ability to identify reliable information.

PISA’s move toward recognizing Global Competence reflects our own mission and values at National Geographic Learning.  By incorporating new literacies in our materials, we hope learners not only develop the English language skills they need; they will also be better placed to make a positive contribution as global citizens in the 21st century.

Did you miss Sean’s recent webinar on New Literacies for Today’s Classroom? You can still watch the webinar recording here!

To find out more:

Gunther R. Kress, Literacy in the New Media Age. Routledge, 2003

John Hughes, Visual Literacy in the English Language Classroom:

PISA 2018 Global Competence Framework:

The New Literacies Research Lab:

Author: Sean Bermingham

Sean Bermingham is an Executive Editor for National Geographic Learning. A former English language teacher, Sean has given presentations and workshops at language teaching conferences in Asia and North America. He is currently based in Singapore, where he works on the development of new products for the global ELT market, including coursebooks, digital components, and instructor materials.

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