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Digital literacies: What are they and why should we care?

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In most UK schools new media literacy skills now supplement the more traditional 3 Rs (reading, writing and 'rithmatic).

In Australia schools teach 'digital literacy skills', and in the USA there is a growing awareness of the importance of 'new media literacies'. In Spain and Norway there is talk of 'digital competences' being a necessary part of the curriculum. In short, digital literacies are being recognised as fundamental skills for today and tomorrow's citizens.

What are digital literacies?

An umbrella term for the media literacy skills and digital competences which appear in national curricula, digital literacies refer to our ability to effectively make use of the technologies at our disposal. We are not just talking about a checklist of technical skills, but also about the social practices that surround the use of new media. So not just knowing how to create a blog entry, but knowing how to use this to connect with a wider community of readers and writers, and what sort of online persona one projects though one's post. Not just knowing how to upload photos to Flickr ( a photo sharing site), but knowing whether to publish them under a Creative Commons license and what this implies in terms of digital rights and usage.

Why digital literacies in the language classroom?

What has this got to do with language teaching, you may be asking yourself. Well, everything. Quite apart from the emphasis put on lifelong learning and the acquisition of ICT skills in all areas of education in many countries in Europe, we are teachers of the language of global communication. And that communication is increasingly digitally mediated. If our learners are to be fully functional citizens in the 21st century, they need digital skills. We can promote these skills in parallel with teaching English. Digital skills and English can help many of our adult learners get ahead in the workplace, or prepare our younger learners for better future job opportunities. And equally important, they can make our classes a lot more relevant and interesting in the here and now. According to Henry Jenkins (2009): What students do in their online lives has nothing to do with what they are learning in school, and what they are learning in school has little or no value to contribute to who they are once the bell rings. By integrating digital literacy work into our English classes, we can make them a little more relevant to who are learners are once they are outside the school environment.

Digital literacies

So, what exactly is digital literacy? Are there a series of subskills or digital ´literacies´ (note the plural) that we can define?

In our book Digital Literacies, co-written with Gavin Dudeney and Mark Pegrum, we explore these new literacies in detail, offering a range of practical ideas of how they can be developed in the English language classroom. We can break digital literacies down into four main areas: those with a focus on language, on connections, on information, and on (re)design.

A detailed consideration of each literacy is beyond the scope of this article, but let's take a brief look at a few of them:

Focus on language: print and texting literacies

Whilst print literacy is a familiar typology, texting literacy remains the domain of regular mobile phone users and is much maligned in educational circles for the supposedly negative effect it is having on literacy. In fact, as David Crystal points out, "typically less than 10 percent of the words in text messages are actually abbreviated in any way".

Focus on connections: personal, participatory and intercultural literacies

These literacies come to the forefront in social networking spaces and other online media. They may include blogs and wikis, as well as social networks such as Facebook. In such spaces users not only write about themselves and their lives, but also participate in wide social groupings which transcend geographical, religious and ethnic boundaries.

Focus on information: search and information literacies

In many ways, these are two of the most important literacies for any learner to acquire - the ability not only to find information amongst the mass of sites and sources afforded by technologies, but also to evaluate that information.

Focus on (re)design: remix literacy

This form of literacy refers to the trend of 'remixing' pictures, videos and other media, to create something new, often to striking effect. This may refer, for example, to the trend for making 'literal versions' of music videos, or the doctoring of digital images to create memes such as lolcats. Understanding 'remix' is crucial to an understanding of media.

Clearly, then, this is a complicated mix of skills to master, and teachers can play a part in helping learners acquire some of the necessary skills by integrating them into their classroom practice alongside the regular 'content' they deal with. In this way we can make a difference in our learners' comfort level, helping them beyond the 'tech comfy' to the 'tech savvy' which will contribute to their life beyond the classroom, in the professional workplace and in our (increasingly) knowledge-based economies.


Crystal, D. (2008) On the Myth of Texting, [ ]

Jenkins. H. (2009) ‘Geeking out’ for democracy. Confessions of an Aca-Fan.

Further reading:

Dudeney, G., N. Hockly, & M. Pegrum (2013): Digital Literacies. Harlow: Pearson.

Pegrum, M. (2009) From Blogs to Bombs: The Future of Digital Technologies in Education, UWA Publishing