21st Century Literacies

Originally Published here  http://arcjohn.blog.com/21st-century-literacies/

2nd April 2014


Effective literacy approaches involve an informed blending and theorised matching of program decisions, rather than from an adherence to any one particular prescribed method or approach

(Education Queensland,2000 p.69).


Within today’s modernizing environment, ‘curriculum literacies’ (Unsworth 2001), have become the most significant role of educators, stressing the notion that all teachers are teachers of literacy (Queensland Government 2006). Unfortunately, no single approach conforms to all student needs (Henderson 2012) and as such necessitates the valuation and acknowledgment of literacies acquired through homes and communities (Henderson 2004). But what are literacies? And how can educators better teach them to enable students to become literate learners? Literacy is, after all, core to student potentials of learning and success (Queensland Government 2006).

Literacies notions remain problematic, since learning and teaching are interconnected social processes without delineated means of success (Unsworth 2001). Lankshear (2000 cited Unsworth 2001) notes the ‘critical dimension’ of literate practice involves an awareness of their social construction. This means literacies are an anthology of sociocultural communicative practices shared between collective individuals. Prior to 1990, most educators regarded literacy as cognitive accomplishments, devoid of context (Lander 2010). As time, society and technology change, so do conceptions of literacy, such that today literacy includes technical acts that expand across contexts (Lander 2010). Literacies therefore, is an amalgamation of language, and thinking that shapes meaning from a multitude of contexts, for a variety of purposes and audiences.With this understanding, requirements of contemporary educators necessitate the planning of literacies learning into curriculums and lesson plans which utilize broad repertoires of learning strategies. They must identify and develop understandings of student literacy levels, and contribute toward the development of individual’s literacy practices, using differential teaching methods and skills development.

Twenty-first century literacy is further complicated by the abundance and intensity of information, which enables student knowledge develop through the comprehension of divergent text formats, new vocabulary, reading to learn in subjects with alternate presentations of ideas and content, and sharing their ideas (Kamil 2008). Because literacies refers to broad ranges of practice which provide developmental means of accessingmaterialenrichment, societal development and interaction, and workplace participation, literacies educators must acknowledge emergent technologies that facilitate thought, speech, action, reading and writing, thus encouraging ‘student active involvement’ in learning (Henderson 2012). Contemporary educators idealistically require a coherent and practical framework, which reinforces the foundations of traditional literacies pedagogy, while encompassing the multiliteracies required to negotiate the contemporary (Unsworth 2001).

Henderson (2012) expounds the probability that pre-service teachers might not consider literacies learning as a responsibility of all teachers. The New London Group (1996) addressed this, proposing a reconceptualization attentive to increased cultural and linguistic diversity, and the changes in communicative technologies resulting in a greater abundance of information and access to multimodal texts. Byreexamining the “what” of literacies pedagogy and the “how” of literacies teaching, they concluded that reconsiderations of literacies required, adjusting thoughts of literacy acquisition as a global mental process to a conceptualisation of literacy as “a repertoire of changing practices for communicating purposefully” in various sociocultural contexts (Mills 2010p.247 cited Sandretto 2013p.3). This view promotes broader understandings of literacies, supportive of student decoding, comprehension, use, and critical analyse, for multiple texts and purposes in diverse discourse (Freebody, 1999)


Table 1. Multiliteracies pedagogy (Henderson, 2012:23-24, New London Group 1996:63)

Situated practice

Draws on the experience of meaning-making in life-worlds, the public realm, and workplaces. Students have an opportunity to demonstrate their existing knowledge and experience new learning. Teachers can use student interest’s needs and knowledge to make them contributors of new knowledge. Situated Practice, must be supplemented by several other components (77)

Overt instruction

Through which students develop an explicit meta-language of design to identify and explain differences between texts, and relate these to the contexts of culture and situation in which they seem to work (72). Teachers identify specific learning needs for subject and instruct students in theories, concepts, generalizations, technical language and meta-language (‘jargon’)

Critical framing

Interprets the social context and purpose of Designs of meaning to help students learn to understand perspectives, and infer and interpret relationships, interests and perspectives. Students analyze the subject by interrogating interests, motives for information highlighted or omitted in a particular way

Transformed practice

In which students, as meaning-makers, become Designers of social futures. Students apply knowledge appropriately in typical and new ways, can apply theory to practice and display higher order thinking and problem solving using real life situations


In terms of practical application of the Multiliteracies Model (Table1) toward senior ancient history, this unit plan addresses the majority of components by encompassing and encouraging, skills and activities that allow students to undertake instruction, critically engage, analyse, and digest materials, to build on personal foundational knowledge’s. As a final requirement, learning is demonstrated through presentation development, rather than simple factual recall.

Using the Multiliteracies model or ‘how’, situated practice, the weakest component of this plan, makes assumptions concerning student knowledge. Little information is introduced, indicating student have either ‘zero’ background knowledge or that they are well versed in the material. ‘Zero’ knowledge assumptions, while perhaps traditionally acceptable, have become unrealistic following expanded access to digital means that increase probabilities of students maintaining general understandings of specific histories. Lessons needs to direct this knowledge, by identifying media portrayals of that period and promoting student recall of specific aspects. Historical accuracy is unimportant at this stage, since they will develop skills to address this for themselves.

Little utilisation of the function of Overt Instruction has been made in this plan. While not intended to ‘tell’, it does attempt to “empower students … [to] develop a meta-language that accounts for design differences” (New London Group 1996p.80). Insufficient instruction potentially creates confusion. Direction to suitable texts and media sources, alongside key aspect clarification would assist students in thoroughly comprehending materials.

This plan shows a strong affinity toward Critical Framing, or the linking of design differences to alternate cultural aspects. Students are encouraged to understand multiple perspectives of the knowledge’s encountered, alongside an expectation of developing deeper understandings of the existent relationships between sources, and an evaluation of their historical worth prior to making their own informed decisions. While not a ‘student friendly’ task, the provision of scaffolded, differential learning would be beneficial in ensuring the success of students.

Similarly Transformed Practice is addressed using multiple means. Firstly through a research journal which details factual information, personal progress and resource evaluation, and secondly through debate participation. Debates create real and practical contexts for the dissemination of materials uncovered during the initial phases. Such discussions should provide, a means to express personal experience and knowledge, enhance breadth of though, promote understanding beyond the literal comprehension, and emphasis deeper critically contextual understandings (Lander 2010).

TheFour Resource Model (table2), the ‘what’ or means of understanding literacies resources of classroom programs (Henderson 2012), posits four necessary, but not independently sufficient, ‘roles’.Sandretto (2013) advises that multiliteracies researchers recommend educators map literacies programs against this model to ensure deliverance of a balanced program is maintained. This unit attends to this notion.


Table 2. Four Resources Model (Henderson, 2012:25; Bull & Anstey 2010 in Sandretto & Tilson 2013)

Code BreakingHow do I crack the code of this text? Being able to recognize, use and break codes and symbols used in oral, print and multimodal texts of semiotic systems such as linguistic, auditory visual, gestural or spatial.
Text ParticipationWhat does this text mean to me? The use of resources to make meaning of a text by either learning a new meaning from an external source or drawing on internalized prior experiences.
Text UseWhat do I do to use this text purposefully? To understand social purpose of texts and context in which the text occurs, and how to use and create texts for various purposes and audiences.
Text AnalysisHow might I be shaped through engagement with this text? To critically review texts and understand texts as social constructs, relative to the authors ideal and times, and to understand that these are not neutral but rather represent particular view points and ideologies.


Students, as Freebody (1992) notes, need to “successfully engage the technology of the written script, the nature of the relationship[s] …, and the contents of that relationship”. This unit presents an expectation to decode significant texts from the onset. While perplexing in a composite class, it provides greater opportunities for peer supported learning and interaction. Alternative methods, like the adoption of prereading exercises’ for focal material, and later utilisation during independent research, may aid in achieving greater success.

In history, Text Participation, engaging with the physical text, its meaning, and structure, commonly entails the genre ‘recount and explain’. This unit is no different. The derivation of meaning from the interplay, between topical and textual knowledge, by either learning new meanings from external sources or drawing on internalized prior experiences, are key factors in student understanding. Educators can achieve this by first establishing preexistent student knowledge’s and preconceptions, and using these as baselines during assessment.

Becoming successful Text Users requires understanding social purpose and context in which the text occurs, and how to use and create texts for various purposes and audiences. Freebody (1992) explains that this entails “… developing and maintaining resources for participating in ‘what this text is for, here and now’”. Perhaps alternate methods could include undertaking aspects of dramatization, using factual information to augment historic based performance, in modern vernacular.

Freebody (1992), denoting texts as “crafted objects”, portray Text Analyses as critically reviewing and understanding texts as bias constructs, relative to a particular authors ideologies, amongst social and historical contexts. Problems here return to the previous issue of a lack of overt instruction. How are students to know what questions to ask of the material? This also illustrates the interweaving of all areas of the Four Resources model as a single characteristic. It is important that, as reader, students can successfully decode text, comprehend it, relate it to social knowledge, and successfully undertake literacy activities be based on it. “A fully successful reading … calls for nothing less than an analysis of the ways in which the text constructs a version of you (Freebody 1992).

Multiliteracies, Sandretto (2013) relates, are a “new wave in the international literacies landscape” that in order to harness, educators must “reconceptualize literacy and literacy practices; and rethink pedagogy”. Such challenges will not be achieved overnight, but by utilizing both the Four Resources and Multiliteracies models, representative of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, educators can achieve a holistic approach to planning and critiquing literacies learning.



Freebody, P. (1992). A socio-cultural approach: Resourcing four roles as a literacy learner. In A. Watson & A. Badenhop (Eds.), Prevention of reading failure (pp. 48-60). Sydney: Ashton-Scholastic.

Freebody, P. & Luke, A. (1999, October 26).  Further Notes on the Four Resources Model. In Reading Online. [Trasncript]. University of Texas, Clear Lake, USA. From http://www.readingonline.org/research/lukefreebody.html.

Henderson, R. (2012). Teaching Literacies in the middle years: Pedagogies and Diversity. Victoria: Oxford University Press.

Henderson, Robyn (2004) Recognising difference: One of the challenges of using a multiliteracies approach. Practically Primary 9(2) pp. 11-14. From http://eprints.qut.edu.au/2069/1/2069.pdf

Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., & Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: effective classroom and intervention practices. From http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/pdf/practice_guides/adlit_pg_082608.pdf.

Lander, R. (2010). Key Characteristics of Effective Adolescent Literacy Programs. Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, Minority Student Achievement Network. From http://msan.wceruw.org/documents/researchBrief/R%20Lander%20Research%20Brief.pdf

Queensland Government (2006). Literacy the key to learning: Framework for Action 2006-2008. Department of Education and the Arts. From http://education.qld.gov.au/publication/production/reports/pdfs/literacy-framework-06.pdf

Queensland Government, Queensland Studies Authority. (2011) Unit Overview Year 11/12 Ancient History, “How was Athenian democracy formed, and does it conform to modern day interpretations of democracy?” From: http://usqstudydesk.usq.edu.au/m2/pluginfile.php/307793/mod_folder/content/0/Example_03_Yr_11_12_Ancient_History.pdf?forcedownload=1

Sandretto, S. & Tilson, J. (2013). Reconceptualising literacy: Critical multiliteracies for “new times”. Dunedin: Teaching & Learning Reasearch Institute.

The New London Group. (1996). A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Defining Social Futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60-92.

Unsworth, L. (2001). Teaching multiliteracies across the curriculum: changing contexts of text and image in classroom practice. Buckingham: Open University Press

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