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


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