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Masters in Educational Practice: Literacy


Literacy in a digital age


The future of teaching oracy, reading and writing

The long-term skills to be developed in each learner include the following.The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.

Alvin Toffler

The teaching of the traditional skills of literacy needs to change with the increasing onset of multi-media.  Traditional skills are still essential in that oracy, reading and writing form the essential basis of inter-personal communication, but the ways in which they are taught needs to reflect a twenty-first century pedagogy. For example, reading is no longer located in the traditional linear text but incorporates hypertext, blogs, wikis and a range of social networking sites. Similarly, writing is not limited to communicating with pen and paper but now includes many different modes and formats (including text language). The skills of oracy need to include being able to problem-solve, debate and communicate through video and visual imagery. As teachers, we need to think about what are the essential skills of traditional literacy and how best are they taught and learnt in a digital age.

McCain and Jukes (2009) identified five skill categories that demonstrate the move towards a rapidly changing society. You may like to consider these skills and reflect on how your views on teaching literacy relate to these suggestions.

Activity 2.1

The five skill categories
 Obsolete  Traditional skills that were once valued but are no longer so important for most people. These include expertise in certain crafts, for example shoeing horses. There is nothing wrong with having these skills but they are more likely to apply to a niche market for a small minority of people.
 Traditional  These are skills which still have value but can more easily be accomplished with new technologies. For example, handwriting is a necessary skill in primary school because it promotes cognitive development. As the learner progresses, it is necessary as a skill for personal note-taking but in the working world few employers would send a handwritten letter to a client or customer.
 Traditional literacy skills  This set of skills includes reading, writing and oracy and maintains its importance in the twenty-first century curriculum. This is because it is the means through which interpersonal communication is developed. However, it is the way that these skills are taught and learnt which may need to be reconsidered.
 Traditional skills with increased or differentiated emphasis  These are the skills that are receiving more emphasis with the increase of the media age. They include information processing, critical thinking, problem solving and video and sound production. These are not new skills but have an increased emphasis because the majority rather than the minority of employees will now need to be fluent in these kinds of working practices.
 Skills unique to the twenty-first century   These are skills that were not necessary some 10 years ago and have emerged with the rapid advance of digital technologies. They include competence with social networking sites, online communications and determining the credibility of texts when using the web as a research tool.

Source: Churches, A., Crockett, L, and Jukes, I. (2011) Literacy is not Enough, 21st Century Fluency Project

This activity seeks to demonstrate that the twenty-first century curriculum requires a set of skills to be learnt rather than primarily aiming to deliver knowledge and to standardise that knowledge through testing.  

When stakeholders in education are asked about the skills all learners will need to be successful in the twenty-first century, there are some very consistent answers. It is important to note that the skills found in this suggested list are 'long-term' skills and are not necessarily developed through a series of unrelated short-term plans.

Thinking about twenty-first century skills and aspects of the National Literacy and Numeracy Framework (LNF)

In recent years, curriculum design in Wales has sought to be skill based rather than content driven. However, the lack of statutory status of the Skills framework for 3 to 19-year-old learners in Wales (Welsh Assembly Government, 2008) may have meant that practice in schools has become inconsistent with some adopting a purely skills-based curriculum and others a mixture of skills and content. The introduction of the LNF (with a statutory status) means that curriculum design will again come under scrutiny.

In relation to literacy for the twenty-first century, the most effective curriculum will be one which meets the requirements of the LNF and also focuses on developing skills that are especially pertinent to the digital age. In the following activity, you may like to consider an aspect of the LNF in relation to the category of skill and how it might be developed through a curriculum which focuses on securing long-term skills. As a reminder, the skill categories are as follows.

Figure 1: Skill categories
Figure 1: Skill categories

The long-term skills to be developed in each learner include the following.

  • Problem solving.
  • Creativity to find useful solutions.
  • Analytic thinking - making evidence based judgements.
  • Collaboration.
  • Communication.
  • Ethics, action and accountability - personal responsibility.

Activity 2.2

Select an aspect of the LNF which is pertinent to your practice. Decide what category of skill the aspect exhibits and how you would best meet this aspect through the development of long-term skills.

This example response (external link) may prove helpful.

After you have completed this activity you may like to reflect on the following questions.

  • Are there any additional literacy skills that you think learners will need in the digital workplace?
  • How does your current practice relate to the teaching of longer-term skills?
  • How does your personal view of literacy in a digital age potentially affect the ways in which you teach literacy?

The pedagogy of literacy in the digital age

There are further questions to be considered about teaching literacy in the future. Primarily, the pedagogy of literacy in a digital age can depend on your philosophy as a teacher. For example, consider the following  statements.

  • I believe that ICT, for example using tablets, is a way of capturing the learners' attention. It's my 'ticket' into engaging learners with literacy and then we can learn the more traditional stuff.
  • I believe that you need to know the basics first (reading and writing) and then you can have a go using ICT.
  • I believe that you really need to understand what you are teaching and then choose the right tool for the job. They all love using tablets but are they learning literacy?

All of these statements raise legitimate points but can lead to a variation in practice stemming from different philosophical viewpoints. Using the skills-based approach is one way to help eliminate some of this inconsistency and support teachers in constructing a clearer approach to learning and teaching literacy in the twenty-first century.

However, even if it is agreed that a skills driven curriculum is the most appropriate vehicle for delivering literacy in a digital age, some form of content is still needed to contextualise the skill. At present the curriculum focuses on oracy, reading and writing as the content for the literacy curriculum and there is no real suggestion that these strands cannot continue into a future curriculum; they seem timeless. Yet, there are questions about content which may need to be considered if literacy is to remain a flourishing and contemporary subject area.

  • What will be the language heritage and the content of the canon of literature in future years?
  • Given that English is the global language of business, will there be a canon/heritage of spoken texts together with written texts? 
  • What core aspects of language should all learners be taught? What might the traditional literacy skills include?
  • Should drafting and revising written texts be exclusively taught using ICT given that few people would currently undergo the editing process by hand?

Activity 2.3

It has always been a part of our education system that learners should study a core range of texts that are considered to be the literacy canon.

What might this canon look like as the twenty-first century progresses?

What texts might you be using in your learning environment in 2020?

It is important to start thinking about how you will embrace this new pedagogy that will allow learners to secure traditional literacy skills together with those unique to the digital age. No longer will it be acceptable for teachers to say 'I don't do ICT'; we will all have to do ICT to give learners the best chance possible of success


In this sub-topic you have considered the development of a literacy curriculum fit for the digital age. In particular, the five skill categories suggested by McCain and Jukes (2009) have been used as a working model and have been related to the aspects identified in the LNF. Furthermore, a consideration has been given to the content of the literacy curriculum with a particular focus on the future characteristics of our literacy heritage. If you would like to undertake some further reading on literacy for the twenty-first age, the following links serve as a useful starting point.

Activity 2.4


In this topic you have considered that literacy in a digital age consists of both fast-paced change and more traditional elements of literacy. Sometimes, it is the pedagogy of literacy that has become digitalized and not the skill. For example, editing and word-processing written text is made easier through technology but the more traditional skills of composition are still relevant.

As teachers, it can be difficult to keep pace with ever-changing technology and a more effective approach might be to consider the ways in which literacy skills can be taught. There is always going to be a need for the traditional aspects of oracy, reading and writing as these are the building blocks of social interaction. However, the ways in which these skills are learnt and utilised in communication will always be in a state of flux; it is this that keeps language alive and dynamic.

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