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Literacy is a contested term. There are several perspectives and approaches to the study and to the conceptualization of literacy. The term, has become so stretched that there are literacies of everything nowadays. There is a diversity of the literacy experience. The concepts of literacy depend of its context. They are also related to power, control, and participation in culture and society. What it means to be literate in a given society and culture is subject to change? Literacy has an evolving nature, it changes as society, culture, technology, and media change. Literacy is related to teaching, learning, and education in general.

However, in its most basic form, we can speak of literacy as ability for reading and writing in a given language.

Different disciplines have approached to the study of literacy and they have focused on different aspects of the field. The most important approaches, historically, have been:

  • psychology : focusing on the mind, literacy as individual’s perceptual and cognitive process. This is the oldest research tradition on literacy: it focused on reading and how readers decoded texts. Understood as an individual skill, dependent on a reader’s intellectual and perceptual capacities. It informed approaches to the teaching of reading.
  • applied linguistics : analysis of written texts and the teaching of of reading and writing.
  • sociolinguistics and anthropology: observing and documenting literacy activities in everyday life with attention to the social and cultural contexts. This approach studies how language is used in social life. It acknowledges the diversity of literacy experience and what it means to ‘be literate’ in any society.
  • learning sciences (education) : interest in researching ways in which children and adults learn to read and write

In my research project, I understand literacy from a historical sociocultural perspective. This approach has an emphasis on social and cultural practice and that is why it has points in common with the "practice turn" of social sciences. That is, literacy is a social and cultural practice, something people do with various texts to participate in the meaning making in social communities. The notion of text could be expanded not only to typography but also visual text, audio, audiovisual, electronic, computer, video, videogame, media, internet and many other kinds of languages.

Literacy practices include the construction of knowledge, values, attitudes, beliefs and feelings associated with the reading and writing of particular texts within particular contexts. (Street 1984, Baynham 1995, Barton & Hamilton 1998, Barton et al. 2000).

Are literacy domains the same as social fields? arenas? settings? Literacy practices are realised in particular events, in concrete occasions where texts are used and where acting and interacting around the texts can be identified. Events are embedded in larger contexts, literacy domains, such as school, work and community. (Street 2000, Barton 1994, Barton & Hamilton 1998).

Literacy practices from different domains influence each other: literacy practices at school are shaped by the institution, but at the same time they are enforced, renewed, transformed and even ignored by the out-of-school literacy practices.

Literacy is not objective nor ideologically neutral: All uses of text are shaped in and by their social contexts which means that even the most established and institutionalised conceptions of literacy can be traced back to social and cultural conventions, needs and values (Gee 2000).

The curriculum, textbooks, tests and classroom practices regulate and determine what counts as literacy and what kind of literacy practices are valued in society (Luke 1996).

Literacies? multiliteracies? new literacies?

within social perspectives on literacy a key question has been as follows: how useful is the notion of ‘literacies’ rather than ‘literacy’?

Street uses the term ‘literacies’ to indicate that literacies vary according, not least, to different contexts, purposes and social relationships. This definition is echoed by Barton and Hamilton who state:

   Literacies are coherent configurations of literacy practices: often these sets of practices are identifiable and named, as in ‘academic literacy’ or ‘workplace literacy’ and they are associated with particular aspects of cultural life.

Barton and Hamilton, 2000, pp. 10–11

Street describes some disagreement between himself and the linguist Gunther Kress about the value of the concept of ‘multiple literacies’ (although both researchers have been associated with the development of the New Literacy Studies). Kress argues that there is no need to make literacy plural because ‘it is a normal and fundamental characteristic of language and literacy to be constantly remade in relation to the needs of the moment’ (Kress, 1997, p. 115, quoted in Street’s article). In other words, plurality or multiplicity is a fundamental feature of language and therefore it is superfluous or even misleading to talk of ‘literacies’. Street agrees with Kress’s theory of language and literacy, but argues that for strategic reasons it is important to stress plurality: in order to challenge the view that there is only one kind of literacy which is both uniform in nature and in terms of outcomes.

There are many literacies today and they are complex. Literacy today is complex. It involves many different social practices. The changes taking place require that we expand the notion of literacies, and it has become more accurate to talk about multiliteracies.

As a growing number of individuals use technological means for communication, linguistic activities come to shape the ways in which we view and use language in a “post-typographic” world. (Lankshear & Knobel 2003, Lemke 1998, Reinking 1998).

Multiliteracies captures the growing diversity of culture, language and forms of texts within an increasingly global community and within the multiple modalities of communication (e.g. The New London Group 2000, Cope & Kalantzis 2000, Kress & van Leeuwen 2001).

Multiliteracies involves "not only the ability to produce and interpret texts, but also a critical awareness of the relationships between texts, discourse conventions and social and cultural contexts."

"A multiliterate person can be an active participant in the different interaction chains in contrast to just being handed information to, being interacted with on the terms of the other participants" (Warschauer 1999, 2003).

Through participation in different (multi)literacy practices individuals make sense of their identities, manifest their membership of groups, and their ownership and authorship to texts (Gee 1990, Cope & Kalantzis 2000, MacCleod 2004, Bartlett 2005).

Literacy practices are situated social and cultural acts of identity (Ivanic 1998, Lankshear 1997). And identities can be seen as dynamic – multiple, changeable, negotiable, and contextual.

In order to function in a knowledge society, one has to understand what kind of literacy practices society values (e.g. critical literacy), and how to show competencies to gain affirmation and recognition (Hall 2002).

Multiliteracies allow us to see the interrelation between different literacies, contexts, social fields, settings. They reveal the complexity of literacy today as well as the pervasiveness of media and technology. They also show how they are not even. In a given context, a specific kind of literacy can become more important, more relevant. It can be the dominant literacy in a societal field. However, not having the other literacies at hand can turn out into a disadvantage. The acquisition and use of literacies is then also related to social positionality and cultural and social capitals. However, even in disadvantage position, youth can also acquire and use certain kind of literacies that allow them to participate, to articulate identities. However, the not even distribution of literacies, and the absence of some of them, especially the ones that are more critical can limit the participation, the mobility, and the reach of the agency. The uneven distribution of literacies, and the weak development of some of them, is revealed in the complexity of the everyday interactions across several societal fields and micro fields.

The complexity of literacies is also manifested in the complexity of participation. Understanding this complexity reveals how participation is fluid and changes across different fields. As well as how the interrelation between literacies affect participation. There is a correlation between levels of participation, agency, and control, and the even or uneven development of literacies as well as the critical understanding and interrelated use of them.

Contemporary society and culture are complex. Pervasiveness of media complicates even more the situation. There are many layers of information that need to be read. Reading the world and writing it requires many skills, multiple literacies. A single one is not enough. Multiple technologies that are networked and that are used for communicating. They are interrelated. Many devices connected, many languages being articulated, many forms and contexts being juxtaposed. Reading and writing in todays world requires multiple literacies and knowing how to interrelated, how to make them work together, in connection to each other. In any given situation or event, in a context of social and cultural practices, there are multiple literacies, a costellation of literacies being articulated, used, and developed.

The challenge is then, to identify the literacies I would like to describe and study. They are multiliteracies, yes. But they need to be divided in subgroups that can be studied and described in a simpler and more detailed way. Some of the more relevant are:

  • New media literacies
  • Digital literacies
  • New literacies
  • Information literacies
  • Internet literacies
  • Visual literacies

Each of these literacies can also be subdivided in very particular sociocultural practices.

multiple literacies and multiple worlds : "reading the worlds"

discussion of critical literacy is informed by the work of Paulo Freire, who conceptualises literacy not just as reading the word but as ‘reading the world’ (Freire, 1970).

the heart of debates about the teaching of literacy are the following questions: what kinds of literacy should be taught in schools, colleges and universities? what can and should be taught explicitly? what can/should be taught implicitly, that is as part of engaging in particular literacy activities and practices?

writers such as Street argue that sole emphasis on one kind of language and literacy will negate the value of other ‘ways with words’. Many writers within New Literacy Studies argue that greater emphasis should be placed on taking account of the variety of literacy practices that exist in homes and communities, and that these should be valued rather than ignored. This argument is being voiced even more loudly within the context of the changing communicative practices facilitated by the use of new technology. As is discussed in section 4, researchers are arguing that the ‘new’ literacy practices in which many children and adults are engaging in everyday life must be considered as potential resources for meaning-making in formal educational contexts, such as schools and colleges.

The New London Group of researchers (so-called because the ideas generated by the group emerged after a week-long meeting in the town of New London, New Hampshire, USA), also sometimes referred to as The Multiliteracies Project, have emphasised four elements which they consider to be essential for a meaningful literacy programme for the future. In many ways, these elements amount to a framework for teaching literacy which integrates pedagogical approaches which have previously been construed as distinct.

Integrating literacy pedagogy

Situated Practice Students being immersed in a range of literacy practices Overt Instruction Students being taught explicit and systematic ways of analysing texts Critical Framing Examining critically the texts they are reading / writing / designing Transformed Practice Development of new ways of meaning or ‘designs’

Based on New London Group, 2000, p.35

As the headings indicate, this approach involves students learning how to ‘do’ particular ways with language and literacy, learning how to identify the particular features which constitute these ways of doing, and, finally, learning how to engage in a critique of language and literacy in order to construct or ‘design’ new ways of meaning. The notion of ‘design’ is central to the work of the New London Group.

A Sociocultural Perspective (‘New Literacy Studies’ approach, a new field)

Street, B. (1984) Literacy in Theory and Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Street, B. (1995) Social Literacies: critical approaches to literacy in development, ethnography and education, London, Longman.

Street, B. (1997) The Implications of the 'New. Literacy Studies' for Literacy. English in Education Volume 31, Issue 3, pages 45–59, September 1997

Gee 1996, 2000.

Clear criticism of any universal definition of literacy and any specific cognitive effects comes from a number of writers and researchers, often currently referred to as working within ‘New Literacy Studies’. Anthropologist Brian Street, sociolinguist James Paul Gee, and others.

Argue that it is not literacy as such that develops a particular way of reasoning, but that the ways in which people use written (and spoken) language in their everyday lives involves specific ways of thinking (Street, 1984, 1995).

Furthermore, writers within this tradition argue for the need to theorise the social significance of diverse literacy practices and, as is discussed below, they draw on work by critical social theorists to do so.

A ‘social perspective’ on literacy does not focus on individual acquisition or use of skills, but rather on the ways people use written language in their everyday lives.

Understanding of language and literacy as a ‘social practice’ rather than technical skills that are learned in formal education. Studying them as they occur in social life, taking account of the context and their different meanings for social groups (Street, 1997)

Arguments are provided for the view that literacy and its study should be framed in terms of the sociocultural approach.

What has become known, variously, as ‘socioliteracy studies’ (Gee 1996); ‘sociocultural literacy’ (Gee, Hull and Lankshear 1996), and ‘the "new" literacy studies’ (Barton 1994; Gee 1996; Street 1995).

Literacy within this perspective is conceptualised primarily as a social activity with specific social goals and outcomes.

Barton and Hamilton on what it means to consider literacy as a social practice. (Barton and Hamilton, 1998, p.8)

      * Literacy is best understood as a set of social practices; these can be inferred from events which are mediated by written texts.
      * There are different literacies associated with different domains of life.
      * Literacy practices are patterned by social institutions and power relationships, and some literacies are more dominant, visible and influential than others.
      * Literacy practices are purposeful and embedded in broader social goals and cultural practices.
      * Literacy is historically situated.
      * Literacy practices change and new ones are frequently acquired through processes of informal learning and sense making.

Barton, D. and Hamilton, M. (1998) Local Literacies, London, Routledge.

Barton, D. and Hamilton, M. (2000) ‘Literacy practices’ in Barton, D., Hamilton, M. and Ivanič, R. (eds) Situated Literacies: reading and writing in context, London, Routledge, pp. 10–11.

Since the study of literacy and its conceptualization also depends about context, it is important to say that UK, Australian, and American scholars are the ones who have lead the "New literacy studies"

A lot of debate on presumed benefits accrued to individuals because of their literacy skills.

Many literacy practices that are not the "official" academic literacies thought in school, acquired in formal education. A more inclusive and expanded notion of literacy. School literacies are referred as "academic literacies."

Ethnographic research reveals existence of multiple literacies, multiple practices.

Questions about the nature of academic writing and reading in higher education and students’ experiences of these have been taken up in recent times by researchers working in an area of New Literacy Studies referred to as ‘academic literacy/ies’.

Much work in New Literacy Studies is critical of the emphasis on school literacy only – that is, the kinds of literacy that are required in institutions of formal education – and argue that there is a need for greater recognition of everyday literacy practices in which children and adults engage.


Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T. (2001) Multimodal Discourse: the modes and media of contemporary communication, London, Arnold.

Cultural and Social Capitals

Literacy as cultural capital has already been study. In the 1980s and 1990s there has been lots of research on the field of sociology of education that have investigated this relationship. "The Social construction of literacy" (!986) is a landmark on the field.

Minority and low economic underachievement has been studied using the idea of habitus. The work of J.P Gee although not explicity draws from Bordieu uses the notion of "primary discourses" of early cultural socialization in a way similar to "habitus" and its interaction with the social field of school.

Do literacy skills facilitate acquisition and mobilization of social and cultural resources? capitals? What is the relationship of them? Is there a correlation?

What kind of literacies are the important ones for mobilizing social and cultural capitals? The most important ones?

Sometimes, manytimes it is argued that literacy warranties paths of success, opportunities. Government makes campaigns for literacy, researchers argue for the need of literacies for participation in culture and society.

Vicki Carrington and Allan Luke (1997), argue that literacy of itself does not guarantee social, educational or social success.

Carrington and Luke suggest that ‘Literacy has become one of the enduring myths of the Western world’ linked, as they see it, to some popular ideas or ‘folk theories’ about the value of literacy development for the economic and personal advancement of individuals and societies.

Claim for the adoption of ‘broader social understandings of literacy’ of the kind developed by the New Literacy Studies. Argue that literate abilities do not bring to an individual any intrinsic social or cognitive advantages. Instead, they propose that it is only when literacy is accompanied by gains in other kinds of ‘cultural capital’, such as involvement with ‘educated’ ways of thinking, and economic opportunities for self advancement, that ‘becoming literate’ is the key to personal and social progress.

For them, cultural capital needs to be also acquired. Not only literacies.

"Having literacy skills does not guarantee access and success in society. That indicates the powerful way in which the two levels of discourse are interrelated; that is, that particular instances of language use are bound up with particular ways of representing and being (habitus) in the world."

The concept of habitus as a way of being in the world is key to understanding the relationship between literacies and cultural and social capitals.

ways of using language or doing particular kinds of literacy are intimately bound up with ways of being in the world


The importance of the notion of discourse in what are known as social constructionist perspectives on language, including a sociocultural perspective, is that language not only reflects but constructs social reality. As Hicks points out in her reading, classroom life is constituted through the specific discourse practices in which students and teachers engage.

t is not just a question of learning new ways with words but rather learning and taking on new ways of being. This theme of identity and discourse

using the term ‘discourse’ in two ways:

  • to mean actual stretches of language in context,
  • to mean the systems of knowledge and cultural frameworks.

From a post-structuralist view, therefore, dialogues do not only encode systems of beliefs, values and social practices, they also enact and therefore actually construct these systems, and produce particular aspects of people’s identities in the process.

A similar term to ‘community of practice’ is ‘discourse community’. The term ‘discourse community’ was created to explain how groups of people, sometimes but not necessarily involved in face-to-face relationships, use language for collective activity and thinking. The focus is therefore primarily on language, whereas the term ‘community of practice’ invokes language use as just one explanatory aspect. The terms ‘discourse community’ and ‘community of practice’ thus emerged in relation to different kinds of research interest and evidence, but end up covering some similar ground.

there are different ways of conceptualising the relationship between language use or discourse and identity,

development of a new conceptual apparatus for analysing social processes and the role of language within these. The definitions of discourse are part of this development, as are Eckert and Bucholtz’s use of the concept of community of practice, the replacement of the structuralist view of text with a view of text as social practice and the shift from defining contexts to examining intertextuality.


the use of language is closely connected with identity, focusing in particular on students’ use of oral and written language. ‘Identity’ refers both to how one sees one’s own position and meaning in the world, and also to how one is ‘identified’ by others.

treat the concept of identity as essentially interactive; we develop a sense of our own identity in relation to the social world around us and through interaction with other people.

a post-structuralist theoretical position on language and identity.

This involves the following ideas:

   * identity is never fixed but is always developing and transforming
   * language use or ‘discourse’ plays a central role in this process of identity formation and transformation
   * individuals are constituted by not one, but many senses of identity which are bound up with the cultural contexts they inhabit.

Language has long been seen as closely connected with identity in a number of distinctive ways.

There is a shift from a structuralist approach, which conceives of identity as a relatively fixed set of attributes, to the post-structuralist notion of identity as a more fluid ongoing contested process, with people constructing and reconstructing various aspects of their identity throughout different experiences in their lives. Post-structuralists often use the term ‘subjectivity’ to indicate that ‘identity’ is a continual process of making the self, the subject. The term ‘identification’ is also used to emphasise that identity is an ongoing, interactive process rather than a fixed product.

emphasis on identity as a process rather than any fixed set of social attributes or roles.

The theoretical shift in ways of looking at identity is part of a more general acknowledgement within the social sciences of the importance of the dynamic processes of social life and the role of language within these.

social categories like class, gender or ethnicity are increasingly seen not as intrinsic labels of identity residing within the individual, but as experienced by people as a more or less salient aspect of who they are through their experience in different interactions and dialogues, across different contexts.

‘communities of practice’, each involving students who have come together to share ways of doing things and ways of talking, beliefs and values, as a function of their shared engagement in the activity. Individual identity is constructed in collaboration with others in and around these communities of practice.


Context can be defined in terms of the resources invoked by speakers to make sense of a particular communicative exchange. These resources may include:

       * the physical surroundings
       * the past shared experience and relationship of the speakers
       * the speakers’ shared tasks and goals
       * the speakers’ experience of similar kinds of conversation.

include within the notion of context the ways in which these resources invoked by speakers are shaped and given meaning through:

   * the nature of the social event in which speakers are involved (for example doing a crossword puzzle with friends or a classroom activity in school)
   * relevant broader cultural beliefs and values (e.g. about institutional roles and practices).

from the social constructionist point of view, these events, beliefs and values are at least partly constituted through the discourse itself. So, rather than seeing context as a kind of frame surrounding a communicative event, we need to think of a more dynamic relationship between the two. Particular aspects of the context are invoked by conversation participants in their construction of meaning, and language may also invoke other contexts away from the here and now, for example when people tell anecdotes or stories, or teachers ask students to remember what happened in a previous lesson.

identity as a more fluid, contested ongoing social process.

shift towards post-structuralist ideas within the field of language studies, as well as more generally within the social sciences, has opened up new opportunities for examining and understanding some of the complex relationships between discourse and identity, or, subjectivity,

digital media

digital media have become ubiquitous.

"with the advent of information technology new ways of using language are emerging which make it difficult to continue to argue that the two modes are completely distinct in nature, or in the skills they require for their use. Consider, for example, the use of email, conferencing and other similar kinds of computer-based communication. All involve ‘writing’, yet in their spontaneity and interactivity they often share more characteristics with spoken conversation than with formal letter writing."


media centric

digitally mediated lives

digital media practices

focusing on digital media literacy practices only. There are more, more media practices, and more literacies.

i focus on digital media in specif contexts : home, afterschool, and the internet (the search engine and the context of research/seeking information; and the social network sites -FB,YT)

We know little about how new digital literacies mobilize capital, retain capital, gain cultural capital across settings or fields: home, after-school, search engine, and SNSs.