Reflections on the Language and Practice of Digital Literacy and New Literacies

The terms in which we use to discuss the evolving literacy skills required for students to fully participate in today’s global society are varied and, in my opinion, serve just as varied purposes, but are all threads of the same fabric. I interpret their meanings to reflect the time and purpose of the context in which they are applied. In my interpretation, digital literacy, singular, and digital literacies, plural, reflect a shift from the internet viewed as a closed space for consumption to the movement towards participatory culture. In consumer culture, we could become digitally literate through consumption practices. Gilster (1997, as cited in Lankshear & Knobel, 2008) defines four key concepts of digital literacy (singular) as “knowledge assembly, evaluating information content, searching the internet, and navigating hypertext” (p. 22). However, in a participatory and content creation culture, we need to possess multiple digital literacy practices to fully interact and engage with digital spaces. This is only my view and opinion, and so as a disclaimer, is open to evolution and transformation with further understanding and research. To note, I find myself switching back and forth between these terms depending on the message I’m trying to convey or the relation of the term to something else I’m writing or discussing.

Literacy is, without doubt, changing in its representation as a verb. To practice literacy within modern context requires new skills. What stands out to me in this area is the concept of reading and literacy as it relates to and reflects student identity. Hammerberg (2004) discusses the “expanding notion of what it means to read” (p. 649). The act of reading and interacting with text or media is changing in response to the fluidity of available technology. In turn, student identity development, especially literate identity, is becoming fluid within this space (Hammerberg, 2004). I recently happened upon an article by Alvermann (2011) discussing the intersection of popular culture and literacy. Alvermann presents several examples of children and young adults using digital spaces to cultivate and develop literacy identities that are not otherwise recognized within the more formal learning contexts of school. Students use these identities formed in their informal digital practices to acquire cultural and social capital (Bourdieu, 1991/1982, as cited in Alvermann, 2011). It is here that I identify “new” characteristics of literacy. Mackey (2003, as cited in Alvermann, 2011) refers to these as “mutating literacies”; literacies that are constantly changing as what we identify as new becomes the norm and a new “new” emerges.

I often have the opportunity to discuss these changing concepts of literacy with in-service teachers as part of my job/context. In these conversations, I find it helpful to have a “touchstone” for teachers to relate back to as we begin exploring the concept of digital literacies and spaces. Online reading comprehension is a term I often use now to create a parallel foundation in our mutual language. From there, I diverge into conversations on Internet Reciprocal Teaching (Castek, Coiro, Henry, Leu, & Hartman, 2015) and digital inquiry as process which support online reading comprehension and digital literacies development. I believe using these terms helps teachers assimilate new thinking into their current practices and provides scaffolding for practical applications in the classroom. When working with teachers, I often say, “I’m not trying to move mountains in one day, but if I can move a pebble, we’ve made progress.” These terms are the pebbles that ignite a spark of interest in digital literacy with teachers.

As for my own foundational understanding and clarity on the subject of digital literacy, I find the concept of New Literacies and new literacies (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, & Cammack, 2013) provides not only clarity as I accumulate new research understandings on the topic, but also a framework for positioning and discussing new literacies as a set of concepts that are interdependent upon each other in their application and development. New literacies do not stand alone, just as digital literacy does not stand independent from traditional literacy. As I interpret it, New Literacies allows for the cohesion of new literacies, which can only aid in the ever evolving research base of these areas.

Personally, I find myself using the term ‘new literacies’ more often that digital literacies as I talk with colleagues and educational practitioners. To someone not as well read in the research, I believe ‘new literacies’ removes the fear of digital tools from the equation and frames the skills and strategies needed to navigate, participate, and engage in these spaces as new in relation to traditional literacy and offline reading comprehension.


Teaching practices must reflect and be relevant to the lives of students. Alvermann (2011) describes constructs not as containers but as sieves. Formal and informal constructs are permeable to influences from sociocultural contexts, and this leaves me to question implications for teaching and learning under the perspective of new literacies (or New Literacies). Why are we trying to make classrooms relevant to life, but not life relevant to classrooms? As clearly demonstrated by most of my writing and discussion, I strongly lean towards a sociocultural theory of literacy development as it applies to both traditional literacy and digital literacy. It is because of this view I believe the skills, strategies, practices, and mindsets outlined by new literacy scholars are just as important as offline reading comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency skills. I even go as far to say that in some contexts, these new literacy skills are more important. Students are entering classrooms as the most technologically experienced generation in history (Blanchard & Farstrup, 2011). As mentioned above, they use digital spaces to develop identities as readers and writers that aren’t otherwise developed in formal school settings. If we want children and young adults to become critical consumers of media and text, we must embrace the digital communities and identities to which they belong and support them in developing the skills and strategies to navigate these spaces.

While I constantly grapple with my thinking about digital literacy, offline vs online reading comprehension, new literacies, sociocultural perspectives, and critical literacy, I continue to work with teachers every day on these concepts. It is because of this constant position of influence that I am trying to become more purposeful and precise in my language and approach with the instructional practices of digital literacy and/or online reading comprehension. As I develop professional learning and coaching materials for teachers, I go back to the three knowledge domains as presented by Ellis and Smith (2017): Content knowledge and skills, Cultural and social capital, and Personal-social identity. These domains exist whether in an offline or online space. I try to draw these parallels as I work with teachers to model how we’re still working towards the same goal: supporting students in the development of skills and strategies that allow them to fully participate in cultural communities and develop literate identities. The ways in which we approach these spaces must be different because the media and print are different; there is no denying this fact. I find my role at this moment is not so much convincing teachers of the distinction between these literacy practices, but more in calming their fears, anxieties, and predispositions about opening their classrooms to the worlds of their students and breaking down the constraints of formal educational practices.


Alvermann, D. E. (2011). Popular culture and literacy practices. In M. L. Kamil, P. D. Pearson, E. B. Moje, & P. P. Afflerbach (Eds.), Handbook of reading research, Volume IV (541-560). New York: Routledge.

Blanchard, J. S. & Farstrup, A. E. (2011). Technologies, digital media, and reading instruction. In S. J. Samuels & A. E. Farstrup (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction, (4th ed., pp. 51-93). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Castek, J., Coiro, J., Henry, L. A., Leu, D. J., & Hartman, D. K. (2015). Research on instruction and assessment in the new literacies of online research and comprehension. In S. R. Parris & K. Headley (Eds.), Comprehension instruction: Research-based best practices, (3rd ed., pp. 324-344). New York: The Guilford Press.

Ellis, S., & Smith, V. (2017). Assessment, Teacher Education and the Emergence of Professional Expertise. Literacy, 51(2), 84-93

Hammerberg, D. (2004). Comprehension instruction for sociocultural diverse classrooms: A review of what we know. The Reading Teacher, 57(7), 648-656.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2008). From ‘reading’ to ‘new literacy studies. In C. Lankshear & M. Knobel, New literacies: Everyday practices and classroom learning. Berkshire, England: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill Education.

Leu, D. J., Kinzer, C. K., Coiro, J., & Cammack, D. (2013). Toward a theory of new literacies emerging from the Internet and other ICTR. In Ruddell & N. Unrau (Eds.) Theoretical models and processes of reading (5th ed.) Newark, DE: International Reading Association


James Paul Gee – Discourse, Situated Language, and New Literacies

My first introduction to Gee was through my involvement with the University of South Florida’s Cambridge Schools Experience. There I sat, nodding in half-comprehension of the conversation around me, when I heard a name fly over my head to the person across the room, “Gee!” …. Who?…. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was experiencing apprenticeship into what Gee refers to as a Discourse (big “D”) community (Gee, 2013). This was a Discourse of academia, and I was still (am still!) approximating the language.

James Paul Gee – Source

Discourse and discourse

Gee tells us that we are part of many different Discourses (big “D”) over the course of our lives. These are like “identity kits”. They include ways of talking, listening, writing, reading, acting, interacting, believing, valuing, and feeling (Gee, 2013, p. 143). However, we also use discourse (little “d”).  Gee defines discourse (little “d”) as “language in use” (Gee, 2013, p. 143). So right now, I’m using discourse to communicate with my Discourse community of language, literacy, and new literacies readers! 

Futurama Fry - not sure if big d discourse or little d discourse

Situated Language

Ok, so I belong to a Discourse community. What does this have to do with teaching? This is where context comes into play. To understand Gee’s position on situated language, we first have to explore primary and secondary discourses (Gee, 2008). Your primary discourse is typically developed at home, around family; it is being a part of something and your foundation to identity. Secondary discourses, of which we may have many over our lives, are developed through institutions such as school, work, religion, etc. These are often influenced by our primary discourse. For example, a child who developed a primary discourse as part of a low socioeconomic-status family may have difficulty developing a secondary discourse in school because these two Discourses do not align well with each other. Confused? Here’s a fun video to explain, as long as you don’t mind the 1980’s video game background music (I think Gee would approve of the use of gaming music however. You’ll see why shortly!):


But back to situated language. Gee proposes that language is never neutral. All language has specific meaning when situated within context. Our many Discourses, both primary and secondary, affect these contexts. Here’s an example from Gee (2013):

“The coffee spilled, go get the mop.”
“The coffee spilled, go get the broom.”

What did you see? Depending on the context, we’re either going to be frustrated with the wrong tool (broom for wet coffee?) or understanding of the language (maybe it was coffee beans!). How does this relate to literacy development? Well, if language is always situated within context, then there must be more to reading than repetitive, behavioral processes that only rely on letters and words. The meaning of language, according to Gee (2013) depends on sociocultural factors of Discourse communities.

New Literacies

Gee brings his work with situated language and how we, ourselves, come to be part of Discourses that both shape and reflect our identity, into the conversation of new literacies. To list the expansive collection of publications Gee has on this subject would be impossible in a single blog post, so I’ll steer you towards his website which houses a plethora of resources should you find yourself with an inquisitive mind and an empty “to-do” list:

Literacy is always situated in context according to Gee (2003). He ties in sociocultural theories of reading development with his focus on multiple literacies to argue that the type of literacy we use depends on the media we’re interacting with in addition to our perspective, which is derived from our identity and Discourse communities.

Gee also focuses on how gaming culture can be applied to learning situations (2003). He argues that a good video game provides the framework for developing student motivation, perseverance, and success. I’m not going to do his work with video games justice, so I encourage you to watch this 5-minute video and hear it from the scholar himself (you’ve made it this far, don’t give up on me now!):

What I’ve learned about Gee (that I didn’t know before!):
  1.  While familiar with his linguistic work, I had no idea Gee was so influential in new literacies!
  2. I will never challenge him in a video game.
  3. He wrote a book of poetry. Seriously. Check it out here: Blowing Out the Candles  He also keeps an active poetry blog:
  4. Not feeling the academic language of Gee? Then bookmark THIS page and keep up with his regular blogging.
  5. He is an academic inspiration to me. Seriously. As a grad student who’s ultimate fear is being pigeonholed into a field or area of study, Gee inspires me to continue diversifying my interests. Yes, he is trained in linguistics, but his research has spanned numerous fields, intertwining the literature, and I think, making education all the better for it.
  6. I could never cover the vast number of topics on which Gee has researched and published in a single blog post.
  7. I bet he’s a great person to grab a drink with.
Gee, J. P. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy [electronic resource]. New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Gee, J. P. (2008). Social linguistics and literacies. [electronic resource] : ideology in discourses. New York : Routledge.
Gee,​ ​J.P.​ ​(2013).​ ​​ ​Reading​ ​as​ ​a​ ​situated​ ​language:​ ​A​ ​sociocognitive​ ​perspective.​ ​In​ ​D.​ ​E.  
Alverman,​ ​N.​ ​J.​ ​Unrau​ ​&​ ​R.​ ​B.​ ​Ruddell​ ​(Eds.),​ ​​Theoretical​ ​models​ ​and​ ​processes​ ​of 
reading​​ ​(pp.​ ​136-151).​ ​Newark,​ ​DE:​ ​International​ ​Reading​ ​Association,​ ​Newark,​ ​DE.
New Literacies Institute. (2010, October 11). James Paul Gee [Video File]. Retrieved from
Scott, J. [John Scott]. (2014, November 10). Gee: What is discourse
[Video file]. Retrieved from