Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

new literacies, New Literacies

  • Charles K. Kinzer
  • Donald J. Leu
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_111



How new literacies are defined and perceived, and how they are addressed, has important implications for both how to educate and what to include in educational curricula. This entry explains how definitions of literacy have changed, provides views and definitions of new literacies, and argues for a need to see new literacies from the perspective of a dual-level theory.

Defining literacy has always been challenging and controversial. For example, earlier definitions related to literacy have defined reading as a psycholinguistic guessing game (Goodman 1976), a transaction between reader and text (Rosenblatt 1994), a building up of skills-based, mechanical processes (Flesch 1981), or a fusion between readers and writers (Shanahan 1990). While these and other definitions can be applied to our changing world of literacy, they come largely from a predigital time when literacy was conceptualized within static, print-based environments. They do not adequately address the personal role one now has in manipulating and merging different media as authors and readers, communicating in digital environments that require skills beyond those required in traditional texts, and necessitating search and evaluative strategies in electronic environments.

Individuals no longer interact mainly with static print materials when reading and writing. Rather, they interact with moveable text, images, audio files, links, digital search engines, virtual keyboards, touch screens, motion-based and haptic interfaces, and other input and output devices as they communicate, create, and consume information. This is true even for very young children across socioeconomic status demographics. In a cross-sectional study of 350 children aged 6 months to 4 years in an urban, low-income, minority community, Kabali et al. (2015, p. 1044) found that 96.6% used mobile devices, and most started doing so before age one. Most 3- and 4-year-olds used devices without help, one-third engaged in media multitasking, and child ownership of device, age at first use, and daily use were not associated with ethnicity or parent education. Clearly, what it means to be literate, and how literacy is defined, continually changes based on available technology, social needs, and expectations surrounding communicative and collaborative practices. This has caused some to call “literacy” a deictic term – one that changes continually depending on the frame of reference in which it is used (Leu 2000).

Links from Old to New Literacy Practices

Simply reading alphabetic text on a computer screen does not appear to require “new literacies.” However, new literacies would be required to bring the to-be-read text to the screen, to save the text if a return to it is desired, to extract parts of the text and move it into a new document, to highlight and insert comments within the text, to send a message about the text, perhaps with a copied section, to someone else, to add video to the text based on someone else’s suggestions, to post the text to a social network, to allow the text to evolve as others add information and links to the original post, and so on. While the actual processing of the alphabetic or image-related information on screen is not substantially different from its processing on paper, the new literacies required to find and use a text, to author multimedia documents, and to communicate about texts through online and digital tools is different from the literacies required in earlier times when copying parts of the message or communicating about it required a different set of literacies than needed in digital environments.

New literacies are, in a sense, unique to an individual. The high school student who has grown up with and is facile in using social software and social media, the Internet, and video on their personal digital devices would not feel that they are using new literacy skills and practices in their lives. These skills are part of their lives. The young child, however, who is unfamiliar with the letters and sounds that make up words or the toddler who is trying to create an audio-voice message for the first time are learning new literacy skills, as those are as yet unfamiliar communicative practices to those individuals and, once learned their lives change. While based in individual practices, however, the term “new literacies” is generally used to describe how digital technologies and environments are used, and how these technologies have changed individuals’ lives and society as a whole.

New literacies are also related to the specific devices and software tools within which they function. Each device has its own demands, features, and affordances. Each device and software, when upgraded, provides a new set of affordances and results in new practices and skills. For these reasons, functioning within a new literacies perspective requires the ability to adapt to these continuous changes.

Wilber (2012) reinforces and discuses the notion that new literacies should be both ontologically and paradigmatically new. They should allow individuals and groups to do things that were not possible before, and establish a new ethos or “ways of being,” (Lankshear and Knobel 2011), perhaps in how personal and academic identities or social networks are formed and differ both in scope and application of social capital. Yet, definitions of new literacies must also acknowledge that people often act alone in such spaces, and that new literacies encompass an individual’s knowledge, acquisition, and use of skills and abilities in communicating and understanding the various digital modes that are common in developed countries.

Accepting the view that new literacies allow us to do things that were not possible before (Lankshear and Knobel 2011; Wilber 2012) leads to acknowledging that devices, interfaces, software, and their changes and upgrades influence what we do and how we do them. For example, the literacies required to search for and access content with a mouse linked to a desktop computer rather than a multitouch screen on a small-screen mobile phone result in different Internet search capabilities, how search results are displayed, and how they can be manipulated. Even within a given technology category, different features result in different possibilities and experiences. When force touch became available on Apple mobile devices, more sophisticated users could access searched-for content more quickly and efficiently, thus separating their experience and the amount of information they could access in a given amount of time from less knowledgeable users or those with older touch-interface devices. Of course, as we discuss later, evaluating and using searched-for items requires different, higher-level literacies than those required to simply use a device.

Literacies, Then and Now

One might say that the impetus for thinking about new literacies came from the seminal publication of the New London Group (1996), who recognized that the world and literacy landscapes were changing and argued for new pedagogies to address teaching and learning within the “multiliteracies” that were required for communication and the demands of the shifting workplace (e.g., see Cope and Kalantzsis 2009). Yet the term “new literacies” is itself deictic – the multiliteracies that the New London Group highlighted have changed dramatically, as have the pedagogies needed as technologies evolve.

Studies relating to new literacies have often examined the skills and dispositions required to use, interact with, create, and understand messages largely through the Internet (e.g., Castek et al. 2014; Coiro and Dobler 2007). Other researchers have examined what various age or demographic groups do with digital technologies and tools (e.g., Black 2005; Ito et al. 2009; Leu, et al. 2015b). Still others apply new literacies to the study of new discourses or semiotic contexts (Kress 2003; see also Abrams 2015) or literacy practices in various text genres, from traditional books to comics, to videogames (Gee 2007; Kinzer et al. 2011; Kinzer et al. 2012). Thus, new literacies means different things to different people and has been used to describe research and perspectives that, while different, are all informative and important.

To resolve the important yet diverse conceptions to which the term new literacies is applied, Leu et al. (2013) have proposed a dual level theory of new literacies in an attempt to resolve the difficulties in conceptualizing a single theory of new literacies. They argue that explanatory theories have difficulty keeping up with and encompassing all that “new literacies” implies at any given point in time because new literacies has become a deictic term. Thus, definitions and perspectives relating to it can’t be pinned down for all time. A dual level theory addresses this problem and, in doing so, does not privilege one framework, methodology, research context, or perspective over another, while acknowledging the importance of multiple perspectives and lines of work in the area.

This dual level theory consists of lower case new literacies and uppercase New Literacies. Lowercase new literacies encompass research that addresses specific areas of new literacies or new and emerging technology, such as examining new literacies and social implications of Twitter use (Greenhow and Gleason 2012) or Internet search and comprehension strategies (Leu et al. 2015). Lowercase new literacies also includes research and scholarship focused on specific disciplinary foundations such as the semiotics of multimodality in online media (Kress 2003), the formation of identities and youth cultures (e.g., Moje 2015), the ethos and materiality of new literacies pedagogy (e.g., Vasudevan 2014; Skinner et al. 2014), conceptual approaches to new literacy studies (Street 2003), or studies that explore specific populations or underrepresented groups (Black 2005; Warschauer and Matuchniak 2010). Lowercase new literacies thus allows the inclusion of many perspectives, methods, and contexts within which new literacies are studied and applied and allows an inclusionary perspective to bear on the field. It also provides the flexibility to encompass research and conceptions of new literacies that will change as new technologies and their applications appear and evolve, thus acknowledging the deictic nature of new literacies while providing the flexibility to include future research in areas yet unknown. Each of the studies, methodologies, and perspectives within lowercase new literacies is important, because they provide a piece of the puzzle as we learn about new literacies in all of its present and future contexts and connotations. These diverse foci allow learning from each other as the field grapples with what might become the core or prototypical features of a general theory.

Uppercase New Literacies theory allows looking across the new literacies studied in various contexts and from different lenses. It facilitates recognition of consistent patterns that evolve from the many new literacies that are being studied and has the potential to ultimately lead to what might be called core features of New Literacies theory. Uppercase New Literacies theory includes the consistent findings from many lowercase new literacies studies. Such a dual level approach allows scholars from different fields and perspectives to study literacy as technology changes while informing New Literacies theory, facilitating the study of alternative and competing theories of new literacies while continually modifying New Literacies theory as consistent findings emerge. As stated by Leu et al. (2013, p. 1158)

By assuming change in the model, everyone is open to a continuously changing definition of literacy, based on the most recent data that emerges consistently, across multiple perspectives, disciplines, and research traditions. Moreover, areas in which alternative findings emerge are identified, enabling each to be studied again, from multiple perspectives. From this process, common patterns emerge and are included in a broader, common, New Literacies theory.

While consistent patterns from lowercase new literacies have begun to emerge and inform an uppercase theory of New Literacies, a complete theory of New Literacies is not yet possible. Indeed, because of the changing nature of technology and the literacy uses that these provide, a static, “complete” New Literacies theory may never be appropriate or completed because new literacies will continue to be studied within new contexts and technologies, continually providing new results and insights over time. Yet, at any given point in time, the patterns across available new literacies research can provide general principles within New Literacies theory that are based on consistencies seen from new literacies research at that time. At present, several principles of New Literacies appear to be common across the research and theoretical work currently taking place (Leu et al. 2013, p. 1158):
  1. 1.

    The Internet is this generation’s defining technology for literacy and learning within our global community.

  2. 2.

    The Internet and related technologies require additional new literacies to fully access their potential.

  3. 3.

    New literacies are deictic.

  4. 4.

    New literacies are multiple, multimodal, and multifaceted.

  5. 5.

    Critical literacies are central to new literacies.

  6. 6.

    New forms of strategic knowledge are required with new literacies.

  7. 7.

    New social practices are a central element of New Literacies.

  8. 8.

    Teachers become more important, though their role changes, within new literacy classrooms.


Uppercase New Literacies and Implications for Pedagogy

While many researchers have discussed new literacies in terms of behaviors exhibited by users of digital technologies, or the social networks and possibilities that results from such uses, discussion around teaching the practices, strategies, skills, and dispositions required within a new literacies framework is less visible. Yet, there are differences in the abilities across children who come to school in their knowledge about digital technologies, how such technologies might be used, and how to position oneself in relation to digital technologies in ways that result in a continuum of learning within the technological space as new technologies appear. These differences and the understanding that principle seven in New Literacies theory notes that new forms of strategic knowledge are required with new literacies mean coming to understand the necessary knowledge and how to teach it.

This is not to suggest teaching a narrow use of a specific tool, except to facilitate understanding of what using such a tool allows. That is, learning about the specifics of a given tool is less important than knowing what the tool “buys” – what power it might provide for the user, whether it be for information gathering, constructing and communicating a message, collaborating to solve a need, or networking for social change. For example, teaching the use of a keyboard or touch interface may be required, but done in combination with teaching that an interface allows one to search the Internet, how to conceptualize search strategies, how to evaluate the content that comes back from a search request, how to merge information from search “hits” into a document, how to transmit that document to others, and so on.

Teaching the technologies available and how to use them, as a lower-level goal to meet higher-level goals, addresses both the technology and the ethos of new literacies as discussed by Knobel and Lankshear (2014). But doing so requires new ways of teaching and materials of instruction (Kinzer 2010; Watulak & Kinzer 2012). Classroom spaces need to be reorganized to facilitate uses of technology. Classroom management that enables working groups within and beyond classrooms, linked through digital tools, needs to be conceptualized and implemented. Digital spaces where learners can try out and rapidly prototype their ideas – from drafts of writing to simulations of experiments – and iterative discussion and feedback on those ideas require sharing and networking spaces. Assignments that demand the use of technology, and the technology to do so, need to be provided. In short, children cannot learn about digital tools and new literacies by talking about them – they must be able to try them, experiment with them, apply them, and work in social spaces.

One must acknowledge, however, that placing digital technologies and the social spaces and dynamics created in such spaces into schools and school curricula do not automatically parallel (or have the same motivational value) as out-of-school uses. Leander and Bolt (2013), in a study of Lee, a 10-year-old who engages with manga throughout a day, remind us that emphasizing texts (broadly defined) produced and designed in school through teachers’ well-intentioned strategies and intervention perhaps “does little to address the reality that children … may well be resistant to such teaching, no matter how well intentioned, how thoroughly it is argued that it is for his own future good. Even if manga had been one of the resources used in school, it would not have been the raucous, playful excessive manga he loves. It is likely that … in that domestication of manga, something key is lost.” (p. 43). However, Jacobs (2013) points out that Leander & Bolt’s criticisms of multiliteracies as applied in schools could be viewed best as a criticism of schools and their current structures and restrictions rather than as a criticism of providing a multiliteracies curriculum in schools. Reconceptualizing those structures and restrictions, however, is difficult, although there are some promising efforts underway attempting to do so (e.g., Rose 2012; Salen 2011).

Core pedagogies now take into account the multimodal nature of communication and social interaction, and the pedagogies involved to find information and to think critically about it continue to evolve as well. For example, Leu et al. (2015) point out specific teaching strategies within new literacies to enhance Internet search and comprehension strategies, as well as approaches to writing within digital environments. Also, and at minimum, schools may need to provide the following components in their classrooms, in order to educate individuals to be literate in today’s and, hopefully, tomorrow’s world:
  • Opportunities to use and learn about the affordances and challenges of a variety of digital tools that are linked to curricular goals by allowing a variety of digital tools into the classroom. These tools might include wikis, search engines, podcasts, productivity software, games and media. This can facilitate learning and prepare for future learning (Bransford and Schwartz 1999; Reese 2007; Dede 2009).

  • Opportunities to share knowledge and respond to each others’ work through experiences that maximize social practices in digital spaces. Distributed problem solving and collaborative activities through technology tools allow children to learn that digital tools can be powerful, and that they allow collective knowledge and effort to solve problems or complete assignments in ways that move beyond individual efforts alone.

  • Opportunities to showcase ideas in multimodal forms and with multimodal tools. Assignments that use video and audio, mash-ups, and remixes of a variety of sources to communicate a message or opinion can provide opportunities to teach the use of such tools and also teach effective ways to structure messages across multimodal texts.


This entry has argued that definitions of literacies, including “new literacies,” has evolved and should be considered deictic. With this in mind, definitions and perspectives of literacy were presented, showing how these definitions as well as initial conceptions of “new literacies” have changed as technology and its uses have evolved. It provided arguments that a dual level theory consisting of lowercase new literacies that encompasses different perspectives, methodologies, and contexts leads to guiding principles within an uppercase theory of New Literacies and argued that a dual level conception is best able to adapt to studies of current technologies and literacies, as well as studies yet to come, based on technologies as yet unimagined. It concluded with general recommendations for teaching based on New Literacies guidelines.

New Literacies and new literacies remain in constant flux, and the affordances of technology, including the Internet and the increasingly social nature of digital environments, present challenges to educators. However, studying new literacies within a framework of New Literacies has the potential to facilitate understanding and reconceptualizing pedagogy within an increasingly digital world. Knobel and Lankshear (2014, p. 101) remind us that “Ultimately, a concern with “new literacies” is a concern with preparing students as best we can for a world in which there are few constants and the near future will involve artifacts, social relations, processes, routines, and practices barely imaginable now. Studying new literacies offers useful footholds for thinking about how and why extant literacy practices are changing and new ones emerging in the present, why others are remaining constant, and what’s to be done about it.”


  1. Abrams, S. S. (2015). Historical trends and contemporary practices. In J. Rowsell & K. Pahl (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of literacy studies (pp. 354–368). NewYork: Routledge.Google Scholar
  2. Black, R. W. (2005). Access and affiliation: The literacy and composition practices of English-language learners in an online fanfiction community. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 49(2), 118–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bransford, J. D., & Schwartz, D. L. (1999). Rethinking transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications. Review of Research In Education, 24, 61–100. doi:10.2307/1167267.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Castek, J., Beach, R., Cotanch, H., & Scott, J. (2014). Examining middle-school students’ uses of Diigo annotations to engage in collaborative argumentative writing. In R. S. Anderson & C. Mimms (Eds.), Handbook of research on digital tools for writing instruction in K-12 settings (pp. 80–101). Hershey: IGI Global.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Coiro, J., & Dobler, E. (2007). Exploring the online reading comprehension strategies used by sixth-grade skilled readers to search for and locate information on the internet. Reading Research Quarterly, 42(2), 214–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Cope, B., & Kalantzis, M. (2009). “Multiliteracies”: New literacies, new learning. Pedagogies: An international journal, 4(3), 164–195.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Dede, C. (2009). Immersive interfaces for engagement and learning. Science, 323(5910), 66–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Flesch, R. (1981). Why Johnny still can’t read. NewYork: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  9. Gee, J. P. (2007). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy (2nd ed.). NewYork: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  10. Goodman, K. S. (1976). Reading: A psycholinguistic guessing game. In H. Singer, & R. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (2nd ed., pp. 497–508). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.Google Scholar
  11. Greenhow, C., & Gleason, B. (2012). Twitteracy: Tweeting as a new literacy practice. The Educational Forum, 76(4), 464–478. doi:10.1080/00131725.2012.709032.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Ito, M., Judd, A., Finn, M., Law, A., Manion, A., Mitnick, S., Schlossberg, D., Yardi, S., & Horst, H. A. (2009). Hanging out, messing around, and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  13. Jacobs, G. E. (2013). Reimagining multiliteracies: A response to Leander and Boldt. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 57(4), 270–273. doi:10.1002/JAAL.249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Kabali, H. K., Irigoyen, M. M., Nunez-Davis, R., Budacki, J. G., Mohanty, S. H., Leister, K. P., & Bonner, R. L. (2015). Exposure and use of mobile media devices by young children. Pediatrics, 136(6), 1044–1050. doi:10.1542/peds.2015-2151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Kinzer, C. K. (2010). Considering literacy and policy in the context of digital environments. Language Arts, 88(1), 51–61.Google Scholar
  16. Kinzer, C. K., Hoffman, D., Turkay, S., Gunbaş, N., & Chantes, P. (2011). Exploring motivation and comprehension of a narrative in a video game, book, and comic book format. NRC Yearbook, 60, 263–278.Google Scholar
  17. Kinzer, C. K., Turkay, S., Hoffman, D. L., Gunbas, N., Chantes, P., Chaiwinij, A., & Dvorkin, T. (2012). Examining the effects of text and images on story comprehension: An eye-tracking study of reading in a video game and comic book. In P. J. Dunston, S. K. Fullerton, C. C. Bates, K. Headley, & P. M. Stecker (Eds.), Literacy research association yearbook 61 (pp. 259–275). Chicago: LRA.Google Scholar
  18. Knobel, M., & Lankshear, C. (2014). Studying new literacies. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 58(2), 97–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kress, G. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. London: Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203164754.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2011). New literacies: Everyday practices and social learning. NewYork: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Leander, K., & Boldt, G. (2013). Rereading “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies” bodies, texts, and emergence. Journal of Literacy Research, 45(1), 22–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Leu, D. J., Jr. (2000). Literacy and technology: Deictic consequences for literacy education in an information age. In M. L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, P. D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (Vol. 3, pp. 743–770). Mahwah: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  23. Leu, D. J., Kinzer, C. K., Coiro, J., Castek, J., & Henry, L. A. (2013). New Literacies: A dual-level theory of the changing nature of literacy, instruction, and assessment. In D. Alvermann, N. Unruh, & R. B. Ruddell (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (8th ed., pp. 1150–1181). Newark: International Reading Association.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Leu, D. J., Forzani, E., Timbrell, N., & Maykel, C. (2015a). Seeing the forest, not the trees: Essential technologies for literacy in the primary-grade and upper elementary-grade classroom. The Reading Teacher, 69(2), 139–145.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Leu, D. J., Forzani, E., Rhoads, C., Maykel, C., Kennedy, C., & Timbrell, N. (2015b). The new literacies of online research and comprehension: Rethinking the reading achievement gap. Reading Research Quarterly, 50(1), 37–59. doi:10.1002/rrq.85.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Moje, E. B. (2015). Youth cultures, literacies, and identities in and out of school. In J. Flood, S. B. Heath, & D. Lapp (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching literacy through the communicative and visual arts, volume II (pp. 207–219). NewYork: Routledge.Google Scholar
  27. New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66(1), 60–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Reese, D. D. (2007). First steps and beyond: Serious games as preparation for future learning. Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia, 16(3), 283–300.Google Scholar
  29. Rose, J. (2012, May 2). How to break free of our 19th-century factory-model education system. The Atlantic. Available: http://theatln.tc/1dmztXvGoogle Scholar
  30. Rosenblatt, L. M. (1994). The transactional theory of reading and writing. In R. B. Ruddell, M. R. Ruddell, & H. Singer (Eds.), Theoretical models and processes of reading (4th ed., pp. 1057–1092). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.Google Scholar
  31. Salen, K. (2011). Quest to learn: Developing the school for digital kids. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  32. Shanahan, T. (1990). Reading and writing together: What does it really mean? In T. Shanahan (Ed.), Reading and writing together: New perspectives for the classroom (pp. 1–18). Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon.Google Scholar
  33. Skinner, E. N., Hagood, M. C., & Provost, M. C. (2014). Creating a new literacies coaching ethos. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 30(3), 215–232.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Street, B. (2003). What’s new in new literacy studies? Current Issues in Comparative Education, 5(2), 1–14.Google Scholar
  35. Vasudevan, L. (2014). Bodies matter in literacy coaching. Reading & Writing Quarterly, 30(3), 237–240. doi:10.1080/10573569.2014.908685.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Warschauer, M., & Matuchniak, T. (2010). New technology and digital worlds: Analyzing evidence of equity in access, use, and outcomes. Review of Research in Education, 34(1), 179–225.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Watulak, S. L., & Kinzer, C. K. (2012). Beyond technology skills: Toward a framework for critical digital literacies in pre-service technology education. In J. Ávila, & J. Z. Pandya (Eds.), Critical digital literacies as social praxis: Intersections and challenges (pp. 127–153). New York: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  38. Wilber, D. (2012). Trying to get ahead of the curve: Raising and understanding current themes in new literacies practices. The Educational Forum, 76(4), 406–411. doi:10.1080/00131725.2012.709415.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Teachers CollegeColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.University of ConnecticutStorrsUSA