New Literacies: Towards a Renewed Role of School Libraries

By Asselin, Marlene | Teacher Librarian, June 2004 | Go to article overview

New Literacies: Towards a Renewed Role of School Libraries


Asselin, Marlene, Teacher Librarian


The notion of "new literacies" is appearing increasingly in the news; in literacy research, journals and books; and in preservice and inservice teacher education. What does "new literacies" mean? How do new literacies relate to school libraries? What does new literacies teaching and learning look like? How can teacher-librarians take a leadership role in including new literacies in the school literacy curriculum?

WHAT ARE THE NEW LITERACIES?

What was counted as literacy a generation ago (let alone 500 or 1,000 years ago) has changed dramatically. To function effectively in society now requires more than basic reading and writing with "old technologies" or print materials. Today, in the workplace, in our communities and in our private lives, we use a variety of print and electronic technologies to communicate and learn. In recent decades, literacy researchers began to examine the many different ways of reading and writing in cultures and groups other than those of white western upper middle-class. This work forms the foundation of the concept of "multiliteracies." Literacy is now conceived as being both more expansive and more complex than ever before.

"New literacies" refers to the unique ways of reading and writing with the new technologies of information, communication and multimedia. While many adults are learning how to be comfortable with new technologies, today's youth have been "bathed in bits since birth" (Tapscott, 1998) and regard technology as an inherent and integral means of creating themselves and the world. As Alvermann notes, "Digital culture locates adolescents in new ways--ways that necessarily challenge earlier views on what counts as literacy, for whom, and when" (2002, p. ix). Many students are well-practiced in technical skills such as word processing and managing software; however, researchers have identified intellectual skills where they need help: searching and locating information on the Internet, comprehending hypermediated text and critically evaluating online information (Kinzer, 2003; Leu, 2002; Todd, 2004).

As well as technical and intellectual competencies, new literacies include social abilities necessary for living in today's diverse and multicultural world. Thus critical literacy perspectives should also shape new literacies education (Street, 2003). Critical literacy theorists emphasize that students should be taught not only to learn with and through information but, most importantly, to learn about the political, economic and cultural production and use of information. Thus students should investigate such questions as "Who posed this information problem? Why was it adapted and others precluded? How was the resultant information solution arrived at? What role did the resources I used play in the investigation and construction of the solution?" (Kaptize, 2003, p. 52).

HOW DO NEW LITERACIES RELATE TO SCHOOL LIBRARIES?

New literacy skills should certainly sound familiar to teacher-librarians as key aspects of information literacy. In our school systems, new literacies are being incorporated into mandated curriculum in both the language arts and ICT domains. School library programs already include relevant learning outcomes (but are limited in the critical literacy competencies); however, their curriculum is not mandated. As is the situation in some other areas of literacy education, the school library field and the literacy research community are working apart from each other. I recently presented a paper at a major literacy research conference outlining the extensive research on information literacy in the school library literature. Attendees at my session were both surprised at its existence, and, at the same time, recognized the obvious reason why intellectual aspects of new literacies would be such a strong area in the library field.

WHAT DOES NEW LITERACY TEACHING AND LEARNING LOOK LIKE?

Although researchers know it when they see it, they are just beginning to articulate the particular components that comprise new literacy learning environments. …

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