Considering Definitions of Literacy in the Global Context of Media Literacies

Karen C-K


Karen Cadiero-Kaplan
Professor, Dual Language & English Learner Education
San Diego State University


Education is deeply implicated in the politics of culture. The curriculum is never simply a neutral assemblage of knowledge, somehow appearing in the texts and class­ rooms of a nation. It is always part of a selective tradition, someone’s selection, some group’s vision of legitimate knowledge. It is produced out of the cultural, political, and economic tensions and compromises that organize and disorganize a people. (Apple, 1996, p. 22).

Literacy is constructed socially as part of the process of becoming literate and, as such, individuals acquire the norms governing literate behavior within specific personal, social, political and educational contexts. The ways in which written language is taught always reflects a particular ideology about what constitutes appropriate literate behavior. However, when literacy instruction, methods, and texts are focused only on pedagogical and procedural issues, the political and social nature of literacy is never fully revealed. Therefore, any one definition of literacy is at the same time insufficient and complex. Definitions of literacy are always informed and defined within particular historical contexts, which are further influenced and determined by social factors that change over time and with great variation from one discourse com­munity to another (Williams & Capizzi-Snipper, 1990). Further, “practices of literacy instruction are based upon assumptions about the characteristics and development of literate competence, and they correlatively prescribe functions and uses of literacy in a given society.”   (Luke, 1988, p. 17).


I share this reflection today as the federal government has recently reauthorized No ChildLeft Behind (NCLB) as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that focuses less on discrete measures of reading and expands notions of literacy to include orality and writing.  This reflects elements of the Common Core Standards that many states have adopted where literacy is part of learning and California and many states now have adopted the State Seal of Biliteracy, seal of biliteracyacknowledging that being bilingual and biliterate is an ‘asset.” Based on such changes, one might think that education will now be more inclusive of diversity, literacy and languages, and in particular how “media” is part of the milieu of multiliteracies. However, in looking at these current policies, little is mentioned about how literacy is conceived in the age of FacebookYouTube, and Google.  I believe that while political rhetoric has changed, which in fact is not drastic, a cursory look at ESSA, for example, still utilizes “English learner” and never uses the language of “bilingual” or “biliteracy”. Therefore, the actual way in which literacy is enacted and measured will change little unless we consider broader understandings of literacy and what it means to be literate in a multilingual globalized society.

For example, with social media playing a larger role in our lives and the lived realities of children in schools, I am curious how the educational system can, or even if it should, account for such visual literacies that are present in every moment of our daily lives. In this blog, I will now turn to recent media postings that have received hundreds, thousands and, in some cases, millions of views. I encourage readers to now move from text literacy to visual literacy:

singkle story

The Danger of A Single Story



How Being Bilingual Enhances Creativity



Israel and Iran:  A Love Story?


white black babies

I am Not Black, You are Not White


Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 2.37.05 AM

‘Hyper-Reality’ Is a Psychedelic Glimpse of Our Future on Digital Overload

Now these videos are ones that many of the professionals reading this blog may have seen and if not, are ones that resonate with our professional lives, in terms of understanding diversity and multiculturalism. However, the larger point here is to consider how federal and state policies take these forms of literacies into account. While many K-12 students will not have been among the hundreds, thousands or millions that viewed the videos above, they (the K-12 population in our schools) would have viewed other media that is likely not on the radar of us as adults. Thus, if we are truly preparing students for the global society, wouldn’t it seem appropriate that educational policies and curriculum consider these as forms of literacy, and also include these as part of policy and curriculum? Consider also, if our policy and curriculum only consider English and not other languages or other mediums of literacy, how does the system then limit what it means to teach literacy and language in schools?

colorful books and Earth. The film strip

The point of my post here is to begin a dialogue around the following questions:

How does current media cut across languages, cultures and ideologies?

How do educational communities incorporate such variety into our school curriculum, standards and educational policies?

I challenge us to revisit Apple’s quote above and take up the call of Maxine Greene (1996), where there is a “need to recognize that what we single out as most deficient and oppressive is, in part, a  function of perspectives created by our past.”

I also encourage readers to…

  • Post further connections to media that our children and youth are accessing and then,
  • Consider how these are connected to school literacy and curricula.

That is, text, books and reading the word are important aspects of our past, and reading the world continues to be the most important driver of the word. Thus, the past consists of the places where “our subjectivities are embedded, whether we are conscious of it or not.”  Therefore, as Greene states,

We need to recognize that what we single out as most deficient and oppressive is in part a function of perspectives created by our past. It is a past in which our subjectivities are embedded, whether we are conscious of it or not. We have reached a point when that past must be reinterpreted and reincarnated in the light of what we have learned. 

Speech bubbles

It is my hope that this blog will generate a deeper discussion on what it means to be literate in the current age of globalization and technology.

Apple quote from: Apple, M. W. (1996). Cultural politics and education (Vol. 5). Teachers College Press.

Greene quote from: Leistyna, Pepi, Arlie Woodrum, and Stephen A. Sherblom, eds. Break ing free: The transformative power of critical pedagogy. No. 27. Harvard Educational Review Reprint Series, 1996.