Redefining Literacy in the 21st Century

Bethany Oxford
Literate Schools
Published in
4 min readSep 22, 2018


Literacy is “the ability to read and write,” or so I thought. This is a definition that has spanned many generations, and is still being taught in schools to this day. However, the latest technological advancements have brought about a new kind of learning, one that is not dependent on just books and writing. The 21st Century is distinguished for its new innovations and dependency on technology, in all parts of life. Therefore, digital literacy has become an increasingly important skill to possess. According to the American Library Association (2017), “digital literacy is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills.” In this day and age, it is important to understand that technology is everywhere around us. Therefore, it is becoming increasingly necessary, or almost required for people to stay up to date with the technological advancements surrounding them. Whether it is working at a fast food restaurant, a school, a hospital, or even an art studio, it is important for people to be digitally literate.

Important Information about Digital Literacy, 2018

However, digital literacy is just one of the many types of literacy that is being acknowledged today. Literacy is not just the ability to read and write, or even the ability to thrive in today’s technological world. To be literate in the 21st century, a person must be willing to constantly learn about and adapt to many different areas of life, subjects, and environments.

Naruto, 2018

If I were to say that understanding and knowing many details about the Japanese anime, Naruto, made someone literate, many people would find me wrong. However, there are many different definitions of what it means to be literate. The Oxford Dictionary (2018) states that literacy is: (1) the ability to read and write, but also (2) competence or knowledge in a specified area. Therefore, someone who is able to “have a complex discussion about characters, levels of play, and chakra within the genre of anime” is literate in this context (Rowsell and Burke, 2009).

Robinson, 2010

The RSA Animate video above opened my eyes. Although a college degree might have been able to guarantee a job twenty years ago, in the 21st century employers require a vast many skills that may not be taught in college classes. For example, someone who receives a degree in Veterinary Medicine may not be able to find a job out of college because they may lack conversational skills or the ability to empathize with customers. A college degree can only get you so far. To be literate in these areas, one must have prior experience. Experience is necessary for people to grow and become literate in a great many areas, making them desirable to employers.

Some employers will also look at prospective employees Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter accounts. These affinity spaces let the employer see what kind of person the applicant is and how they interact socially over an online global platform. Becoming literate in these affinity spaces is important. However, even if someone does not understand how to post and comment in these spaces, they are not illiterate. Through experience with these applications, they will be able to expand their knowledge and skills in this area.

Burnell, 2012

As technological advancements and new forms of literature come to the forefront of everyday life, it is crucial for teachers to include these large influences in their classroom. Technology can be used to encourage teamwork, which the video above states is necessary because “learning is not an independent process” (Burnell, 2012). It is also imperative for teachers to include lessons that are not just reading and writing, but also include technology and other forms of literature. For example, teachers could ask their kids to “make a movie trailer, design a map, write a song, or make a political cartoon” (Curwood, 2013). This allows children who are literate in other areas, such as music or art, to create something that is meaningful to them.

The definition of literacy has truly evolved. It is no longer accurate to say that being able to read and write defines an individual as being literate. Instead, it is more accurate to look at the bigger picture. Competency and experience in different environments will allow people to become considered literate in today’s standards. It is important for teachers to educate their students on the new definition of the word literate and “to try new things, and work with students to find where learning is most comfortable for them to succeed” (Lynch, 2018). Literacy is an ever-changing concept which people must dedicate themselves to understanding in order to become literate in the 21st century.


Burnell, B. (2012, November 05). Language & Literacy — Teaching Students in the 21st Century. Retrieved from

Curwood, J. (2013). The Hunger Games: Literature, Literacy, and Online Affinity Spaces. Language Arts, 90(6).

Digital Literacy. (2017, July 17). Retrieved September 22, 2018, from

Important Information About Digital Literacy [Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved September 22, 2018, from

Literacy. (2018). In Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved from

Lynch, E. (2018, July 18). Elements of a Literacy-Rich 21st Century Classroom. Retrieved September 22, 2018, from

Naruto [Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved September 22, 2018, from

Robinson, K. RSA Animate: Changing Education Paradigms. (2010, October 14). Retrieved September 7, 2018. Retrieved from

Rowsell, J., & Burke, A. (2009). Reading by design: Two case studies of digital reading practices. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(2), 106–118.