Multiple Literacies: Definition, Types, and Classroom Strategies

Students using digital tablets in class
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Traditionally, literacy has referred to the ability to read and write. A literate person can communicate effectively through writing and assimilate information from reading. However, in today’s technology-driven world, the word literacy has expanded to encompass an ability to communicate effectively and absorb information through a variety of mediums.

The term multiple literacies (also called new literacies or multi-literacies) recognizes that there are many ways to relay and receive information, and students need to be proficient in each one.

Types of Literacy

The four primary areas of aptitude are visual, textual, digital, and technological literacy. Each literacy type is described below.

Visual Literacy

Visual literacy refers to an individual’s ability to understand and evaluate information presented through images such as pictures, photographs, symbols, and videos. Visual literacy means going beyond simply looking at the image; it involves assessing the message the image is trying to convey or the feelings it is designed to evoke.

Developing strong visual literacy involves teaching students to observe and analyze images. They should be trained to observe the image as a whole and note what they see. Then, they should think about its purpose. Is it meant to inform? Entertain? Persuade? Finally, students should learn to infer the image’s significance.

Visual literacy also includes a student’s ability to express himself effectively through digital media. That doesn’t mean that all students will become artists, but one practical application is a student’s ability to put together a visual presentation that accurately and effectively communicates information.

Textual Literacy

Textual literacy is what most people would associate with the traditional definition of literacy. At a basic level, it refers to a person’s ability to assimilate written information, such as literature and documents, and to communicate effectively in writing. However, textual literacy goes beyond merely reading information. Students must be able to analyze, interpret, and evaluate what they’ve read.

Textual literacy skills include the ability to put what is read into context, evaluate it, and challenge it, if necessary. Analyzing and responding to books, blogs, news articles, or websites through reports, debates, or persuasive or opinion essays is one way to build a student's textual literacy.

Digital Literacy

Digital literacy refers to an individual’s ability to locate, evaluate, and interpret information found through digital sources, such as websites, smartphones, video games. Students must learn to evaluate digital media critically and determine if a source is credible, identify the author’s point of view, and determine the author’s intent.

Help students learn to recognize satire by providing samples from spoof websites such as The Onion or Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. Older students will also benefit from reading a variety of opinion and news articles in order to determine which ones contain the least bias.

Technological Literacy

Technological literacy refers to a person’s ability to use a variety of technologies (such as social media, online video sites, and text messages) appropriately, responsibly, and ethically.

A technologically literate student understands not only how to navigate digital devices, but also how to do so safely while protecting his privacy and that of others, obeying copyright laws, and respecting the diversity of culture, beliefs, and opinions he will encounter. To develop their technological literacy skills, assign your students projects that require online research.

Utilizing Multiple Literacies in the Classroom

Teaching multiple literacies requires teachers to understand technology themselves. Teachers should look for ways to engage with their colleagues in the technology that their students are using, such as social media, blogging, and gaming.

In addition, teachers must provide opportunities for students to develop multiple literacies in the classroom. Students should learn to locate, evaluate, and process information and communicate what they have learned to others. Try these tips for integrating multiple literacies in the classroom.

Create Engaging Classroom Activities

Engage in activities to promote visual literacy, such as Five Card Flickr. Provide students with five random photos or images. Ask them to write a word associated with each image, name a song that reminds them of each image, and describe what all of the images have in common. Then, invite the students to compare their answers with those of their classmates.

Diversify Text Media

Provide a variety of ways for students to interact with text, such as books in print, audio, and electronic formats. You may wish to allow students to listen to an audiobook while following along in the print version. Try posting infographics where students can read them or allowing time for students to listen to podcasts.

Provide Access to Digital Media

Ensure that students have opportunities to access a variety of digital media for collecting and creating information. Students may wish to read blogs or websites or watch videos on YouTube or streaming services to research topics of interest. Then, they can create a blog, video, or other digital media presentation to relay what they learn.

In 5th through 8th grades, prepare students for high school and beyond by allowing them to choose a topic to research for the semester or year. Guide students in learning to read web pages, identify the author, determine the credibility of the information, and cite sources. Students should then use digital media (or a combination of digital and print) to create a presentation on their topic.

Use Social Media

If your students are 13 and older, consider setting up a classroom Twitter account or a Facebook group. Then, use it to communicate with your students and to model the safe, responsible, and ethical use of social media.

Multiple Literacies Resources for Students

Apart from classroom integration, there are many resources for students to develop multiple literacies. Students will naturally use many of these resources, such as gaming, the Internet, and social media outlets.

Many libraries now recognize multiple literacies and offer resources for students, such as free computer and Internet access, e-books and audiobooks, tablet access, and digital media workshops.

Students can also use free tools that are available on their smartphones, digital devices, or computers to explore multiple literacies. Some suggestions include:

  • iMovie for video creation
  • GarageBand for creating podcasts, music, or sound effects
  • Google products such as Docs, Sheets, and Slides
  • Apple Podcasts on iPhone and Stitcher or Spotify on Android for accessing podcasts
  • Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint