I have seen it argued recently that the term ‘media literacy’ is already redundant and that media literacy IS literacy. I have some sympathy with that view, given the new media landscape and the infinite possibilities it provides for the creation of narrative, so it seems reasonable to suggest that we need to re-think our definition of ‘literacy’. Imagine if you were to walk down your local main street today and stop the first ten adults you meet. Ask them what they understand by the term ‘literacy’ and I suspect their answers will include – and possibly not extend beyond – notions of reading (print), writing (continuous prose), spelling, punctuation, grammar and handwriting. Of course, no one would argue that all of these skills, or ‘traditional literacies’ as they are often described, would have to be included when we talk about literacy today (and in another age would have been the sole focus of a literacy or English teacher’s efforts) but are they sufficient in themselves to enable a person to live a productive and fulfilled life in the modern world? I suspect not.
According to James Paul Gee,Professor of Literacy Studies at Arizona State University, there are at least two reasons why we should consider literacy in broader terms than the traditional notion of literacy as the ability to read and write. First, in our world today, language is by no means the only communication system available. Many types of visual images and symbols have specific significances, and so ‘visual literacies’ and literacies of other modes are also included in Gee’s concept of new literacies. Second, Gee proposes that reading and writing are not such obvious ideas as they first appear. “After all,” he states, “we never just read or write; rather, we always read or write something in some way”.In other words, even if we are talking about traditional print-based literacy, it should be conceived as being multiple, since we need different types of literacies to read different kinds of texts in ways that meet our particular purposes for reading them. So what must our broader understanding of ‘literacy’ now include? One of the most forward-thinking definitions is to be found in the aims of the Literacy strand of the Australian (ACARA) English curriculum:
“ to develop students’ ability to interpret and create texts with appropriateness, accuracy, confidence, fluency and efficacy for learning in and out of school, and for participating in Australian life more generally. Texts chosen include media texts, everyday texts and workplace texts from increasingly complex and unfamiliar settings, ranging from the everyday language of personal experience to more abstract, specialised and technical language, including the language of schooling and academic study. Students learn to adapt language to meet the demands of more general or more specialised purposes, audiences and contexts. They learn about the different ways in which knowledge and opinion are represented and developed in texts, and about how more or less abstraction and complexity can be shown through language and through multimodal representations. This means that print and digital contexts are included, and that listening, viewing, reading, speaking, writing and creating are all developed systematically and concurrently.”
This shift from traditional literacies to a broader understanding of literacy not only reflects the reality of the digital age, but is an important declaration in the face of opposition from those who would wish to maintain a narrow, rigid curriculum, in which a diet of reading from print-only texts is considered the norm, and superior to all other forms of reading. However, a declaration is one thing, a shift in attitudes quite another. As if to illustrate the scale of the challenge, the Scottish writer, activist and intellectual Pat Kane, describing his ‘manifesto for a different way of living’ in the critically-acclaimed The Play Ethic, suggests that the way literacy is currently taught actually militates against a better understanding of electronic media. Citing the Australian educational thinkers Allen and Carmen Luke, he describes the current public perceptions of literacy, and prevailing attitudes to the study of digital texts:
“This is not to deny traditional literacy as a necessary skill – but it is to reduce its overbearing emphasis in early education. We must decouple early literacy from the neo-Calvinist morality that currently grips it – casting it as a vital ‘inoculation’ against the seductive world of images, dialogue, simulations and all other kinds of semiotic promiscuity. The Lukes note that we have elaborate and useful diagnostic tools for assessing if children are succeeding or failing in their reading, whether in terms of comprehension or critical judgement. But why don’t we similarly identify “failure” at watching films, “poor” or “uncritical” television watching, deficiency at Web surfing and emailing’? Of course, this is exactly the role that media and cultural studies has tried to play in the Western education system over the last twenty-odd years – and never has a subject been more vilified, mostly by the remaining representatives of an industrial-age mindset.”
There is more than a hint of irony here in the fact that media texts, especially in the form of moving image, have been with us for more than a hundred years, yet despite their place in our everyday lives they have generally struggled to find a place in the mainstream of the school curriculum, instead being consigned to specialist subject areas such as media studies, or – at the other end of the scale – regarded as unfit for serious study. Nevertheless, recent attempts to provide a more modern and relevant definition of literacy and of ‘texts’ reflects a trend across most of the developed world, as education authorities struggle to ensure their curricula keep pace with the changes brought about by universal access to the internet and rapidly developing technologies. Not an easy task when you consider that they were designed largely for another age, when a major function of the school system was to prepare young people for a life in the factory or the office.