Posted by: lindapemik | October 17, 2010

Evolving definitions of literacy

Evolving Definitions of Literacy

Is our current definition of literacy too narrow and are our kids illiterate as Will Richardson suggests on his blog?
Lisa Lane reminds us of the roots of the concept of literacy.  She writes that to be literate in the past was to be learned and that meant to be “a lettered person”.  If we take that definition out of the European context however what does literacy mean in the context of oral societies like those of Nunavut and the NWT?  One could argue that people without a written language are illiterate but are they un-learned?  I don’t think so and neither do the territorial governments and Literacy Councils.  The NWT government describes literacy in their Literacy Strategy as a pluralistic concept:

“There are many definitions of literacy available in today’s world, most of which focus narrowly on understanding printed material. In the Northwest Territories, literacy is a pluralistic concept, which is linked to language, social context and cultural identity. Literacy encompasses a broad range of competencies: reading different kinds of printed materials, writing, speaking, listening, observation, visual representation, numeracy, use of technology, critical thinking and problem solving. Development of these multiple literacies is encouraged in the 11 official languages of the Northwest Territories. Literacy is a continuum of lifelong skill development in which there is always room for growth and the risk of decline if skills are not used.”

Will Richardson’s kids aren’t growing up in Nunavut or the NWT; in all likelihood they are very competent in all of the competencies listed above.  So what is he complaining about?  The missing competencies that he addresses are those needed to function fully in the ever increasing complexity of literate environments in the 21st century. He references the National Council of Teachers of English in the USA who challenges our understanding of what it means “to use technology”. They state that the 21st century demands that new competencies be added to the list of conventional literacy skills.  These are:

  • Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  • Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  • Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

I can hear many of my fellow educators in the territories groaning at this new challenge and saying, “Don’t we have a big enough job to do now, helping our students develop basic literacy skills and promoting literacy development in their first language as well as in English? People like Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, Terri Thompson, Zoe Branigan-Pipe, Bill Belsey, Neil Christopher and others like them demonstrate that addressing the literacy needs of the 21st century enhances the development of basic math and literacy skills and pushes learners into higher levels of learning.  And I add the argument that this learning is also essential to strengthen and preserve a strong cultural identity.

Inuit have survived and flourished in one of the harshest environments in the world.  How did they do this?  Survival has always depended on the ability to adapt and adopt new technologies.  Those traditional skills continue to flourish today and many Inuit across Nunavut are learning to use the technologies of the 21st century to meet their needs including their need to remain connected within large family and community networks.  The Nunavut Broadband Corporation was astounded in their early years when the demand for Internet services in Nunavut exceeded their market projections by more than 4 times in the first year of operations!  Inuit are also using social media to preserve their culture, share information with the global community and tell their stories. One example of this is IsumaTV.   Isuma Productions is the film company that brought us the international award winning film, Atanarjuak.  They now have an interactive social networking site that shares learning materials, promotes Inuit culture and is a tool to address global issues that impact on the Inuit way of life.  See Isuma’s  short documentary in which Inuit challenge the anti-sealing movement.

I feel that northern educators must embrace technology and do all that is possible to help our students prepare to take their place, not only in Nunavut but in the world.  It would be a shame to once more see Inuit marginalized by a new divide, the digital divide.



  1. I really appreciated you writing this post and enlightening me to the social and educational realities of the northern parts of Canada. I feel pretty lucky to have been able to read it.

  2. I am glad that you found this informative. One of the challenges for me as a new blogger lies in my own self doubts about the relevancy of my posts… there is no point in posting if what I write is not relevant or interesting to others. Thanks for your vote of confidence. 🙂

  3. Linda, it’s obvioius that the Inuit have extraordinary skills as part of their culture, skills we do not necessarily possess in ours. I wonder whether, if the cultural transfer were going to other way, education experts would want to call these literacies?

    • good question Lisa, I’ve been mulling it over all night. I think if we look back at history at a time when the culture transfer was going in the other direction, with Inuit being the dominant society and the newcomers, the Europeans, being the illiterate/unlearned ones, we can catch a glimpse of how the Inuit experts would have interpreted “literacies” The early explorers such as Franklin and others did not possess the competencies that were needed to survive in this harsh and cold land. Inuit welcomed many of the visitors to their land and taught them the skills they needed to survive, taught them their language and through traditional story telling passed on the knowledge needed to live ‘a good life”. These were the literacies of traditional life and I suspect that this historical context has given rise to the modern conceptual definition of literacy in our territory. Basically, we see literacy as a concept that encompasses all the skills needed to function in our world today.

      I was so intrigued by your question that I asked some of my colleagues to share their thoughts with me. That stimulated some very interesting dialogue that helped me clarify my own understanding of literacy. For the moment it is this: a literate person is one that can interpret/understand the “symbols” of her/his culture and use this understanding to convey knowledge to others.

  4. Thank you for posting this very real and thoughtful piece. I do not think that you are alone in these struggles. The school that teach in right now has many immigrant families who are, themselves struggling to keep their culture, maintain family ties, learn and live in a second language, and are often just making ends meet, so very little access to technology outside of school. I’ve heard comments that echo “what is the point if they don’t have access at home?”. And like you, I feel like this makes it even more for us to expose and teach our students about these tools and their benefits to their current lives and their futures! Thanks for posting.

    • Thank you Jamie for putting my comments in a broader context. I truly believe that education should be a transformative process, one that pushes and encourages students to stretch beyond their current boundaries and helps them to develop the tools to “be all that they can be”. With that philosophy behind us then we are obligated as you say to expose and teach our students to be media literate.


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