The meaning of literacy has been elaborated within education over the last forty years. Prior to the 1970s it principally referred to how individuals learn to decode, encode and comprehend printed alphabetic texts (Bawden 2008). Since then its meaning has become extended to include the social practices surrounding reading and writing. Lankshear and Knobel define literacies (using the plural form) as ‘socially recognized ways in which people generate, communicate, and negotiate meanings, as members of Discourses, through the medium of encoded texts’ (Lankshear and Knobel 2003: 33).
Contemporary educational debate reflects the broad background of the concept of literacy. For example the major reforms enshrined in the National Literacy Strategy focused on a technical approach based upon the relative merits of specific teaching approaches including a genre-based model to text study and the direct teaching of phonics. This is what Street refers to as the ‘autonomous’ model which defines literacy in terms of ‘limited mental operations, giving no attention to social structures within which the concepts and philosophies of specific cultures are formed’ (Street 1995: 85). On the opposite side of the spectrum is critical literacy which has been defined as ‘an educational practice that emphasises the connections between language, knowledge, power and subjectivities, originates in the work of Paulo Freire and connects literacy to social justice’ (Practices 2012). Freire referred to teaching ‘readings of the world’ which means understanding what words mean and how they are used to do things in society (Freire and Macedo 1987). Although interpretations of critical literacy vary, all share a common theme of the need to include a critical dimension in teaching and a focus on the social purposes of Literacy. The narrowly instrumental view and the more political, socially-situated view of literacy is a tension that has carried over into the realm of digital literacy.
A review of recently published book titles on Amazon illustrates how popular the term ‘literacy’ has become in all fields in the last ten years. This includes emotional literacy (Bruce 2010), sexual literacy (Vallin 2009), health literacy (Mayer and Villaire 2007), financial literacy (Lusardi 2012), political literacy (Carr and Lund 2008) and environmental literacy (Scholz and Binder 2011). These have been described by Barton (2007) as metaphorical uses of the word literacy. Of course educational publications for teachers tend to use the term ‘literacy’ in a more traditional sense. Nevertheless this appropriation of the term ‘literacy’ charts the tendency to extend its use to include far more than the basic ability to read and write. This is shown in attempts to establish historical literacy (Nokes 2013), statistical literacy (Watson 2006) and mathematical literacy (Solomon 2009).
The popularity of the term suggests that, despite its contentious nature, the word ‘literacy’ serves a useful purpose in common sense understandings of education. Most of these references use literacy as shorthand for knowledge and competences that can be applied in the real world. As a result the emphasis is on the outcome of an educative process (formal or informal). This is reflected in a distinction that Buckingham makes between media education and media literacy:
Media education, then, is the process of teaching and learning about media; media literacy is the outcome – the knowledge and skills learners acquire.
(Buckingham 2003: 4)
Sonia Livingstone makes the point that what was previously described in terms of a set of knowledges, competences and skills has become bundled under the notion of literacy (Livingstone 2005). This has implications for the socio-cultural understandings associated with the term literacy and is contextually bound with the discussions and cases in this resource.