The Multidimensional Nature of Literacy

It is important to work to dispel the myth that literacy strictly means reading and writing words on a page. This flat perspective focuses on only one view, and, as a result, dismisses many other important literate skills. We instead need to have a multidimensional view of literacy, which takes into account its cognitive, social, and critical aspects and the fluidity of the meaning of literacy.

The cognitive aspect of literacy involves actually being able to carry out the literate skill needed in the context, whether it is reading a traditional text, viewing pictures, writing equations, or navigating using a map. Leona, the young African-American girl whom Gee writes about, demonstrates a literate skill in class when she tells her story using poetic structures; however, she does not think through how she tells her story to fit the context and structure of what her teacher wants in school. In the context of school, Leona’s story is considered illiterate because “a given style of language can only be judged in terms of what it is meant to do” (Gee, 2015, p. 17). Leona’s story did not accomplish the literate skill of a report type story demanded in the activity. In the early development of a literary skill, the use of metacognition as an “awareness and management of one’s metal processes, to guide goal directed thinking” (Davidson & Sternberg, 1998, p. 48) can be helpful and then as the skill is mastered, it can become automatic. Leona’s teacher neglects to explain to Leona how to approach the task of telling a story in the format she wants and Leona would have benefited from the teacher breaking down the thought process needed to tell her story. The teacher would have benefited from asking Leona some questions about why she told the story the way she did. Literacy requires the cognitive act of thinking how to perform the literate skill, but what skills need to be used in different situations can be illustrated, in part, by the social aspect of literacy.

The social aspect of literacy determines how our multiple literacies are shaped and which literate skills we use in different situations. A person can be literate in some settings and not in others depending on their primary Discourse and which secondary Discourses they are attempting to participate in. Leona is “seen as deficient when she is enacting a culturally known, important, and impressive way of being, making meaning, and using language” (Gee, 2015, p. 10). Even though Leona’s teacher dismisses her story as being illiterate, in the view of Leona’s primary discourse, she would be considered literate and, perhaps, an exceptional student. In her TED talk What Makes a Word “Real”, Ann Curzan (2014), an English professor and literary historian, contends that, “if a community of speakers is using a word and knows what it means, it’s real” as opposed to a dictionary being the authority on whether a word is “real”. Leona’s family and other people that understand her cultural way of telling stories derive meaning from her structure and the dialect she uses, so in that sense, it was a valid and literate method. Our learning is shaped by our experiences and “the means by which we order experience and give structure to our thoughts-our languages-are the stuff we breathe in a sea we swim in” (Sousanis, 2015, p. 51). The picture, seen below, that accompanies these words is a person completely immersed in what looks like a sea, but in the top right corner there is light filtering down through the water that the person swims toward (Sousanis, 2015, p. 51). Our experiences pervade our thinking but we can always seek out new experiences to “swim towards” in order to give new perspective to our learning and literacy. Literacy that is shaped by cognitive and social aspects can then be used critically.

Unflattening p. 51

The critical aspect of literacy allows us the challenge the dominant power or prevailing attitudes of society and “this kind of literacy — words rethinking worlds, self-dissenting in society — connects the political and the personal, the public and the private, the global and the local, the economic and the pedagogical, for rethinking our lives and for promoting justice in place of inequity” (Ira Shor, 1999). In The Hand That Feeds, the workers are only able to fight to improve their situation when they involve people who possess secondary Discourses involving law and organizing workers. Virgilio Arán, a member of the Laundry Worker’s Center who helps workers organize, informs the workers that they have a right to organize even though they are undocumented (Blotnick & Lears). This knowledge empowers the workers and they engage in critical literacy by becoming “active questioners of the social reality around them” (Gee, 2015, p. 43). Critical literacy utilizes the cognitive and social aspects of literacy in order to read the world to become aware of oppression and then advocate for change. Literacy is a great agent for change and can be used in an emancipatory sense to help people fight for their rights.

Considering the cognitive, social, and critical aspects of literacy as interwoven and equally important gives a full, multidimensional perspective of literacy where each of the aspects informs the others. We have a three-dimensional idea that we can approach from all angles, see how the sides connect, and explore the core which is encompassed by all the sides (Sousanis, 2015).

Unflattening p. 43

Blotnick, R. (Producer) (Director), & Lears, R. (Producer) (Director). (2014). The Hand That Feeds [Motion Picture]. United States: Jubilee Films.

Curzan, A. (2014, March). What makes a word “real”? [Video file]. Retrieved from

Davidson, J. E., & Sternberg, R. J. (1998). Smart Problem Solving: How Metacognition Helps. In D. J. Hacker, J. Dunlosky, & A. C. Graesser (Eds.), Metacognition in Educational Theory and Practice (pp. 47–68). New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Gee, J. P. (2015). Literacy and education. New York: Routledge.

Shor, I. (1995). What us Critical Literacy?. The Journal of Pedagogy, Pluralism and Practice, 1(4).

Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.