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  • Writer's pictureNoni Harrison

The Complex Nature of Defining a Complex Concept

Updated: May 8, 2023

Defining Literacy and Changing Literacy Needs.

Put simply, literacy is the ability to read, write, speak and understand in a variety of contexts and with a variety of modes. Literacy encompasses more than the basics of comprehension. It has evolved to include a complex array of skills needed to better understand the information world we live in. When Gee (1991) defines literacy, he first explores the concepts of discourse and the patterns of learning and acquisition. He posits that acquisition is a more powerful tool to understanding than learning, which can become a separate, compartmentalised process in a classroom (Gee, 1991, p. 5-6). This explanation resonates strongly with me, as I find distinct connections between this and the importance of information literacy models in schools. Rather than learning a model out of context, it is crucial that a model is demonstrated by the teaching team and that the model is a distinct part of the information seeking and use journey. Gee (1991) suggests that literacy is the “control of secondary uses of language” (p. 8). This implies that literacy occurs in the realms outside of basic oral skills, as it involves both written and oral language in a range of environments. Gee (2010) goes on to explain, “literacy is mastered through acquisition, not learning, that is, it requires exposure to models in natural, meaningful, and functional settings, and teaching is not liable to be very successful – it may even initially get in the way” (p. 8). This supports my earlier assertion that these concepts greatly relate to the importance of embedding information literacy models in schools. Warlick (2005) supports this perspective, as he proposes the redefining and integrating of literacy into schools assists teachers in planning effective curriculum and better equips students for their futures. Furthermore, Warlick (2005) posits if “information is changing, then our sense of what it means to be literate must also change” (para. 6). Cope and Kalantzis (2009), speak of a need for educators and learners to expand their repertoire to respond to the changing landscape of literacy. It seems that users may require a combination of new literacy skills and also an extension of the traditional literacy skills to respond to and work with new formats and modes of delivery. Kalantzis and Cope (2015) also suggest a need to respond to new hybrid literacies and multimodalities (p. 17). Accordingly, Armstrong and Warlick (2004) identify the challenge and importance of emphasising literacy skills that reflect the current information environment. Students still require fundamental literacy skills; however, they are much more involved than they once were due to the changing information landscape. Being literate has developed from the three R’s (reading, writing, arithmetic) to the 4 E’s (expose, employ, express, and ethics on the Internet). For example, students can no longer take validity and credibility for granted. Students must be critical information users and employ effective strategies to navigate and use information. Warlick (2005) is critical of current education trends such as a key focus on integrating technology into schools. Instead, Warlick stresses the importance of integrating contemporary literacies into education, so as to equip students with the skills needed to navigate all aspects of their information world. It can be seen that literacy is an ever-important concept to grapple and should be a focus for schools in developing their students’ capacities as 21st Century learners.


Armstrong, S., & Warlick, D. (2004). The new literacy: The 3Rs evolve into the 4Es. Technology & Learning, 25(2), 20-28.

Cope, B. & Kalantzis, M. (2009). Multiliteracies: New literacies, new learning. Pedagogies: An international journal 4(3), 164-195. doi: 10.1080/15544800903076044

Gee, J. P. (1991). What is literacy? In C. Mitchell & K. Weiler (Eds.), Rewriting literacy: Culture and the discourse of the other (pp. 3-11). Bergin & Garvey.

Kalantzis, M. & Cope, B. (2015). Regimes of literacy. In M. Hamilton, R. Heydon, K. Hibbert & R. Stooke (Eds.), Negotiating spaces for literacy learning: Multimodality and governmentality (pp. 15-24). Bloomsbury Academic.

Warlick, D. (2005, March/April). The new literacy. Administrator Magazine.

[Forum Reflection: Module 5.1]

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