What Is Literacy?
Andrea A. Lunsford
Bread Loaf ~~July 28, 2014
Alvin Toffler predicts . . .
[In the future] “illiteracy will not be
defined by those who cannot read
and write, but by those who cannot
learn and relearn.”
(I say the future is TODAY!)
According to Stephen Apkon,
“[l]iteracy is the ability to express oneself in an effective
way through the text of the moment, the prevailing
mode of expression in a particular society. Literacy
follows language. To be literate . . is to be conversant in
the dominant expressive language and form of the age.
--The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a
World of Screens (2013)
I agree with Apkon’s definition, but would add a
In today’s literacy, reading, writing, speaking, and listening are
Acts of literacy are deeply social and collaborative: to
communicate, as Apkon notes, means to commune
Literacy involves consuming and producing, receiving and
Storytelling is the universal literacy—in words, images, moving
pictures, and sounds.
And so . . . What is writing??
An epistemic technology
that creates and performs lines of thought within conceptual
that draws from and expands on conventions and genres
that uses signs and symbols, drawn from multiple sources
takes advantage of a full range of media
responds to others and other writing/reading
Children instinctively enact this definition of
writing early on
Meet Xinghe, just six years
old, living in Beijing, and
writing (in English) in
words, images, and sounds
Or consider these fifth graders at work
Meet Emma Zavala, student in Mr. Nitikman’s
Fifth Grade Class at Washington School in
Check out their accompanying Website at
Such texts are increasingly remixes or mashups—
and they’re not new
Consider Tom Phillips, who in 1966 set out on a quest: to find a used
book that cost no more than threepence and then to transform each
page using drawing, painting, collage, and cut-outs to make an entirely
new version. According to Phillips’s website, he “found . . . an 1892
Victorian obscurity titled A Human Document by W.H Mallock and he
titled his altered book A Humument.” First published in 1973, there
have now been five editions. His work is now considered a classic
postmodern artist’s book.
Or the work of many other great students, like
Or to my students, some of whom have won
Stanford’s Lunsford Oral Presentation of
Joy Williams’ and Alice Cohen’s "Baba Iaga and the Pelican
Child" - An Electric Literature Single Sentence Animation
To sum up the argument I’m making
Literacy is active, participatory, and always adapting to new
circumstances, audiences, and media
Writing now includes image, sound, video, color—any tools
available to writer/authors.
Student writers want and need to create as well as to receive
As teachers, we must find ways to draw on the best of the old
literacy while engaging students in the best of the new.
a few recommended sources….
Stephen Apkon, The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens. NY:
Farrar Strauss, 2013.
Adam Banks, Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Digital Age. Carbondale:
Jonathan Safran Foer, Tree of Codes. NY: Visual Editions, 2010.
Brett Gaylor, RiP: A Remix Manifesto. YouTube, 2008.
Henry Jenkins et al, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby Dick in the
English Classroom. NY: Teachers College P, 2013.
Lawrence Lessig, Remix. NY: Penguin, 2009.