Literacy in the 21st century

The definition of literacy in the Australian Curriculum is informed by a social view of language that considers how language works to construct meaning in different social and cultural contexts. This view builds on the work of Vygotsky (1976), Brice Heath (1983), Halliday and Hasan (1985), Freebody and Luke (1990), Gee (1991, 2008), and Christie and Derewianka (2008), who have articulated the intrinsic and interdependent relationship between social context, meaning and language.

This view is concerned with how language use varies according to the context and situation in which it is used. There are important considerations for curriculum area learning stemming from this view because, as students engage with subject-based content, they must learn to access and use language and visual elements in the particular and specific ways that are the distinctive and valued modes of communication in each learning area. They need to learn how diverse texts build knowledge in different curriculum areas, and how language and visual information work together in distinctive ways to present this knowledge.  (ACARA, 2015)

A common misconception I believe that many people have, is that literacy is just about reading and writing and understanding text.  However, it is much more than this.  As the above states, literacy is about the relationships between context, meaning and language. Therefore, each of these must be understood as a unique dimension of the broader topic of literacy.  When it comes to 21st literacies, the word takes on even more dimensions than the three above as the context is not only physical but also virtual, and the meaning is very ambiguous depending on the context and people in it.

Ernest Morrell (2012) unpacks 21st literacies in some detail in his youth literacy column. He terms it as ‘critical media pedagogy’ in the conclusions he makes that whilst our students are considered digital natives, they are limited in their understanding of the constraints of and affordances provided by the vast technologies available to them. Literacy is the marriage of context, meaning and language , however, 21st century students have invented their own language in many contexts, and it is not consistently implemented across all contexts.  Digital natives have gradually invented a SMS and screen language that is shorter than short-hand, however, when they speak to each other face to face, they don’t use the same terms as much.  It is a very weird culture sometimes that technology has become the catalyst for.

I have been contemplating for a number of years now, the role of a 21st library and librarian in developing literacy in an era of such diversity.  Morrell (2012) has inspired me to think about 21st literacies in more depth, as encompassing more of the following:

  • interpreting and developing an understanding of all text types, e.g. written, imagery, audio, web-based and so much more.
  • decoding and analysing texts, e.g. “television, film, music, the Internet, print media, magazines, murals, posters, t-shirts, billboards, social networking sites, and mobile media content” (Morrell, 2013).
  • producing and reproducing knowledge in multimedia formats
  • creating digital information sources
  • discerning validity of digital information sources

And so much more…


Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) (2015). ‘Literacy – Background – The Australian Curriculum V7.3’. Retrieved 9 March, 2015 from

Morrell, E. (2012). 21st‐Century Literacies, Critical Media Pedagogies, and Language Arts. The Reading Teacher, 66(4), 300-302.