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Toward an Understanding of Media Literacy


Cindy Hendricks, Bowling Green State University (

James E. Hendricks, Ball State University

Timothy Murnen, Bowling Green State University

Lessie Cochran, Bowling Green State University

Angela Nickoli, Ball State University


Today's youth use laptops, pagers, instant messaging, and cell phones to connect to friends and family, as well as other persons of interest.  Hagood (2003) suggests that students’ uses of new technologies range from video productions, to online research, gaming and creating their own texts.  Further, often educators find themselves with students who are likely to be more advanced in some technologies than they are. In the past, literacy instruction focused on the use of print materials; however, in many classrooms literacy demands now require students to not only communicate face-to-face, but also online using digital formats such as e-mail. In addition, many students now engage in various online activities such as locating and evaluating information through the Internet, completing courses, preparing reports, using presentation software, and writing for local and global communities (Brown, Bryan, & Brown, 2005). 

New literacies are surfacing and are necessary to participate in today’s digital world. The purpose of this paper is to explicate a small portion of the research on new literacies, focusing particularly on media literacy. The present paper is designed as a primer of literacy definitions and to introduce some relations between media literacy and multimodal literacy.  Finally, the paper will explore some basic implications for teaching in a classroom of new literacies. This primer is built on 23 articles and eight book selections that were randomly found in freely available resources through the Internet using popular search engines, such as Google.  


Definitions of Literacy


Not only has technology revolutionized the way many youth communicate with each other, continued developments in information and communication technologies are also changing the ways in which educators view literacy and literacy instruction (Leu & Kinzer, 2000). Alvermann and Hagood (2000) assert, “Literacy is on the verge of reinventing itself” (p. 193).  Heretofore, definitions of literacy were limited simply to the ability to read and write (Nixon, 2003). The New London Group (1996) write, “Literacy pedagogy has traditionally meant teaching and learning to read and write in page-bound, official, standard forms of the national language. Literacy pedagogy…has been…restricted to formalized, monolingual, monocultural, and rule governed forms of language” (p. 1).


Today, however, many definitions of literacy expand well beyond the printed page, which continues to hold a position of privilege in our schools (Hammer & Kellner, 2001). According to Semali (2002), literacy includes: reading, interpreting, producing, editing, and organizing printed texts, the popular media, and the Internet. Semali believes media texts can be manipulated (copied, pasted, excerpted, morphed, revised, annotated) to offer multiple meanings as well as additional opportunities for constructive engagement with them. Today’s literacy has also been defined as the ability to use "digital technology, communications tools, and/or networks to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information to function in a knowledge society" (International ICT Literacy Panel, 2002, p. 2). Adams and Hamm (2000) explain that being literate now implies having the ability to decode information from all types of media. To be literate, then, today's students must be able to generate meaning and express ideas through a range of media.


Au and Raphael (2000) believe that the more proficient students are with a range of literacy skills, the better they can understand the world around them. According to Au and Raphael, proficiency with literacy translates to power and assert that students whose literacy education focuses only on the printed word will be limited. Technology’s role in developing and advancing multiple literacies in the information age is extensive. Leu (2001) explains, "what it means to be literate will continuously change as new technologies of literacy rapidly appear in an age of information, creating both new opportunities and new challenges for literacy educators" (p. 568). According to Hagood (2003), while some literacy educators advocate for an expanded notion of text extending beyond traditional print-based reading and writing, others are resisting any definition of literacy broader than reading and writing (and speaking and listening).


New Literacies Defined


Grisham (2001) explains that media have developed along a continuum that includes hieroglyphics, the alphabet, the printing press, the telephone, and the Internet. Semali (2001) simplifies Grisham’s notion by defining new literacies as those literacies that have emerged in the post-typographic era. Semali argues that divisions between literacies and exact definitions may be unnecessary; however, it is important to recognize that particular literacies may require differentiated skills. Therefore, some differences are needed to distinguish between various types of new literacies. Frequently-cited new literacies include: computer, critical, cultural, diagrammatic, document, economic, environmental, film, information, mathematical, media, music, political, scientific, technical, technological, television, video, and visual. (Grisham, 2001; Hammer & Kellner, 2001; Semali, 2001). Hagood (2003) explains that multiple literacies have been conceptualized using a variety of terms such as new literacies, multiliteracies, digital literacies, and new media and popular culture.


Sefton-Green (1998) explains what is believed to be a major difference between old and new literacies,  “If a fixed relation between writer and reader is the hallmark of the old literacy then an interactive dynamic is at the heart of the new literacies (p. 10). Hagood (2003) agrees that we can no longer focus on only on the reader, the text, and the context. We must conceptualize the three in a multidimensional fashion where production and consumption are a part of the equation. Selfe and Hilligoss (1994) submit, "It is not simply that the tools of literacy have changed; the nature of texts, of language, of literacy itself is undergoing crucial transformations" (p. 11).


Media Literacy


Semali (2001) defines media literacy as the ability to access, experience, evaluate, and produce media products. It also includes the ability to examine various presentation formats. Grisham (2001) suggests that media literacy is an umbrella term that is usually understood to refer to multiple literacies across the curriculum and the ability to produce multimedia. While Hammer and Kellner (2001) add that media literacy enables students to seek information and knowledge more actively, they also believe that media literacy gives students the skills they need to produce and develop their own cultural artifacts both in and out of school. Media literacy, then, involves helping students develop an informed and critical understanding of media, the techniques used by media, the impact of these techniques on understanding. In addition, media literacy includes the skills necessary for students to create their own “text.”


Because information, visual, multimodal, and media literacies are often used interchangeably (Semali, 2001), each will be defined briefly. According to the American Library Association (1989), a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information if he/she is to be considered information literate. Similarly, The North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL, 2003) defines information literacy as the ability to (a) evaluate information across a range of media; (b) recognize when information is needed; (c) locate, synthesize, and use information effectively; and (d) accomplish these functions using technology, communication networks, and electronic resources. Semali adds that not only does information literacy require one to evaluate, recognize, and locate information using media; it also includes the ability to create, and disseminate information.


As a result of today’s children's and adolescents' steady diet of television, video games, computer images, movies, and advertisements, they are highly knowledgeable about visual media. Semali’s (2001) definition of visual literacy refers to multiple abilities to read, view, understand, evaluate, and interpret visual texts (artifacts, images, drawings, or paintings) that represent an event, idea, or emotion. Muffoletto (2001) defines visual literacy as more than the ability to produce/encode and read/decode constructed visual experiences; visual literacy requires the “reader” to be actively engaged in asking questions and seeking answers about the multiple meanings of a visual experience. Muffoletto explains that visual texts require the construction of meaning through a system of codes used by the author and reconstructed by the reader. Muffoletto adds that visual literacy is concerned with the construction of meaning, the construction of sense, and the telling of stories by authors and readers. Messaris (2001) emphasizes that visual literacy includes competence in the production and consumption of visual messages. Although not detailed in providing a definition of visual literacy, Debes (1968) claims there visual literacy includes the ability to discriminate and interpret, the ability to create, and the ability to comprehend and enjoy.


Multimodal Literacy


Another outgrowth of media literacy is multimodal literacy, a term that has grown in usage in recent years as educators explore traditional conceptions of literacy (reading and writing) within a larger framework of how people construct meaning. Jewitt and Kress (2003) define multimodal literacy as the ability to make meaning through many representational and communicative modes, often simultaneously. Short, Harste, and Burke (1996) explain that multimodal literacy includes multiple ways of knowing, and argue, “all literacy events are multimodal” (p. 17). They suggest that authoring and learning are multimodal processes because authors shift stances from reader to writer to artist to speaker during the process of constructing meaning. In a multimodal conceptualization of literacy, students construct meaning not only in black ink on white paper, but also in other combinations of sign and symbol systems, such as art and mathematics, or in multimedia formats such as PowerPoint and digital video that provide for the addition of visual and other literacies.


While humans have always been multimodal, as evidenced by cave paintings, hieroglyphics, and cathedral ceilings (Kist, 2004), advances in digital cameras, graphics packages, streaming video, and common standards for imagery have permitted 21st century multimodal literacy practices to become more commonplace. Fehring (2001) asserts that multimodal literacy has necessitated a "massive change to...the nature of what it means to be literate" (para. 1). Kress (2003) explains the de-emphasis on writing and the emphasis on other modes of representation has evolved logically with new media forms such as computers, cd-roms, and cell phones. But more than simply offering new communication tools and media formats, Stein (2003) emphasizes, “multimodal pedagogies unleash creativity in unexpected, unpredictable ways. They produce creativity” (p. 134).


Impact of New Literacies on Teachers


Literacy has become a more expansive and inclusive concept in the wake of the technological revolution. Leu (2001) makes it clear that literacy is "no longer an end point to be achieved but rather a process of continuously learning how to be literate" (p. 568). He adds that literacy is not static; therefore, teachers must change to prepare students for increased technology demands. Sefton-Green (1995) adds that literacy education and its educators have been slow to move from its focus on reading and writing to a focus on production and “making media.”


Semali (2001) asserts that if educators are preparing students for the emerging information age, then both teachers and students must consider broader definitions of literacy - beyond print. The canons of traditional education and the curriculum will need to be broadened to include the new technologies of television, film, video, and computers. Teachers must help students comprehend and communicate through both traditional and emerging technologies. This includes understanding the programs, the contexts in which programs are transmitted, the organizations that produce them, and the technologies of production, distribution, and reception. The New London Group (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000) argue that we have to change the way we have taught literacy and what counts for literacy because our personal, public, and working lives are changing and transforming our cultures and the way we communicate.


Semali (2002) argues that the world of new media literacies poses many challenges to U.S. students where online live chat, Web casts, digital images, and movies compete in the classroom with textbooks, state-mandated standards, and high-stakes tests. Because researchers (Hammer & Kellner, 2001) believe new literacies broaden the mismatch between student experiences, subjectivities, and culture, a call has been made to make education more relevant to students’ lives, to develop productive citizenry, and to motivate struggling readers (Hagood, 2003). This call to action has been answered, in part, by the International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers of English who have created multiple standards related to media and technology. According to Watts Pailliotet (2000), 48 states now have technology, media, viewing, and representing categories as well as electronic and mass media requirements within their reading, writing, and communication curricula and standards. While national standards are in place, Semali (2001) believes that local curriculum standards are not recognizing that students need to be literate in moving images and graphics, as well as in printed text.


To meet the current trends in multiliteracies, educators will need to explore and examine ways that old and new ideas merge and clash across contexts; however, presenting literacy as an either/or situation (either print or literacy) will not be in students’ best interests. Semali (2001) calls for today’s literacy instruction to involve teaching traditional literacy as well as teaching how to read and produce the kinds of texts typical of the emerging information and multimedia age. Hobbs (2001) recommends that media literacy activities can be used to serve as a vital tool in helping educators connect the culture of the classroom to the larger cultural environment. Simply stated, Semali believes that schools need to develop literate citizens who are able to read, write, listen, talk, analyze, evaluate, and produce communications in a variety of media, such as print, television, music, video, film, radio, hypertext, and the arts. Messaris (2001) also agrees that students should learn to create visual meaning, not just consume it. According to Messaris, the alignment of visual images together in ways that make sense and are compelling to view is not easy. These skills and abilities must be taught and cannot be left to chance.


Classroom teachers will need to engage students in multiliteracies, which may mean re-crafting their assignments to include opportunities for interacting with and experiencing multiple media to complete an assignment. For example, in a college criminal justice class, multiliteracies are engaged in an assignment that requires students to examine policing through media/film. Students enrolled in the class examine a celebrated criminal case by evaluating the factual information related to the case (print), viewing an interpretation of the case (film), and evaluating cultural and ethical issues involved in the case. Students are given the titles of movies (i.e. In Cold Blood, Gideon’s Trumpet) to begin their multiliteracies journey. Students must determine what information is needed to complete the assignment and then evaluate the information from print and film resources. Another example of utilizing multiple literacy forms is the digital essay, where students use written text (often spoken or narrated), visual images, music, and other media forms to construct an argument that cannot be achieved by simply using the mono-modality of black ink on white paper. Digital journals and video literacy biographies are other activities or assignments that engage students’ multimodal literacies.


Current notions of what constitutes literacy skills may need to be re-examined and re-defined by literacy educators, reading educators, and classroom teachers. Dalton and Grisham (2001) suggest that finding and using information on the Internet is a fairly new literacy skill that requires students to know how to evaluate information "critically and competently” in an environment more complex and demanding than that of print-based books. Hobbs (2001) asserts that it is important for readers to recognize that evaluating media involves an interpretive judgment made by the reader, and not by someone else. With new literacies, the notion of what constitutes relevant literacy skills may need to be re-examined, particularly in light of the need for students to evaluate the accuracy of the sources they retrieve. Hammer and Kellner (2001) argue that it is more productive to teach students how to access and appreciate worthwhile educational and cultural media and to engage in critical analysis rather than to censor online material because they believe censoring material only makes it more appealing and seductive; their recommendation is to embark on critical engagement with media materials rather than prohibit their use. Semali (2002) concurs that rather than banning certain sites, teachers can teach students the critical viewing, reading, and thinking skills that will allow them to evaluate media messages.


The ability to teach the new literacies to today’s school population will require significant professional development for most teachers. Many of today’s students move quickly and easily between multiple media and modes of communication as they participate in the global media culture (Nixon, 2003); however, classroom teachers do not have a similar advantage. Hammer and Kellner (2001) recall that in the past, teachers generally used media, primarily film and television, as a supplement or as a way for the teacher to take a break. They now observe that media literacy is rarely taught in schools, and imaginative use of media in the classroom occurs infrequently. They caution that the relationship between new and old literacies, as well as between classroom teaching and computerized teaching is not an either/or situation but an inclusive one. Educators will need intense professional development and strong support to use new media effectively. Grisham (2001) shares that she will integrate one change involving technology into her courses each year.


Educators who are floundering may want to capitalize on Rosenblatt’s (1978) reader response theory as a way to begin thinking about these new literacies. Based on Rosenblatt’s notion that meaning is built through the back-and-forth relationship between reading and text during a reading event, one could apply the same principle to viewing. Thus, meaning, while viewing, is derived from the back-and-forth relationship between viewing and the media form. In both instances readers/viewers are actively engaged in the event while simultaneously and repeatedly making meaning. During the meaning construction event, individuals are influenced by themselves, the media form being used, and the context of the event.




Several issues have been presented in this primer that impact the future of literacy instruction. First, defining what we mean by literacy and the need to expand the definition of literacy well beyond the reading and writing of print seems to be a necessity for all literacy educators. Acknowledging that new literacies are here to stay and that today’s pre-service teachers must be proficient with media literacy means that there will be a shift in how we view literacy instruction in undergraduate classes. However, it is essential that classroom teachers and college educators not overlook the teaching of reading. Media literacy and reading instruction are not synonyms and should not be viewed as such. It is evident that both are needed to ensure the success of today’s students.



The new literacies have the potential to further widen the achievement gap. To move schools and students into a technologically-savvy world armed with the latest in new literacies will take money that many school districts and students across this nation do not have. Advancements in what it means to be literate may leave poorer school districts and students behind. In addition, literacy educators utilizing new media and technologies face concerns associated with mandated media literacy standards, institutional support, materials development, access and equity, and a host of other concerns. Although there are many challenges to moving from a print world to a print and media world, incorporating new literacies and technologies into daily instruction will serve to bridge the gap between the world in which students live and the world in which students learn. We must ensure that we bridge the gap for all students, and not leave any students or classroom teachers behind.




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