Traditional Literacy and Digital Literacy

In the Australian education system there is a push towards the basics of ‘traditional literacy’ in the form of the NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy). This is a nation-wide assessment program for students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9.

It is a useful diagnostic tool but the problem lies with its disconnection with the current English syllabus. The incoming National Curriculum addresses some of the issues by having a focus on traditional aspects of literacy – spelling, reading and writing.

However, the breadth of the English syllabus (especially in high school) means I cannot give adequate time to developing these skills. I have to assess the modes of reading, writing, speaking, listening and representing.

Representing will disappear from the new National Curriculum, but it requires students to present written material in a new form, often visual (poster, website, advertisement). It requires learning a new form of literacy: digital literacy.

A New Language

In our visually saturated society, we have to learn to read the information presented to us in the form of advertisements, web pages, comics, films, television shows, street signs, text messaging, multimedia. We have to learn to read colour, form, shape, camera angles and techniques, line, placement, design concepts in order that we may read the message correctly. I teach film to students, teaching them to read a film in the same way I teach them to read a novel, play or poem.

Today’s students are well versed in digital literacy but I do not think they have learned to read it well because their fundamental understanding of traditional literacy is weak.

Technology is touted as the way of the future for education and pedagogical delivery. It will revolutionise the way teaching is delivered but it will not change the core business of teaching.

A tension exists between the need for traditional literacy (in the form of novels, plays, poems, short stories) and digital literacy (television, film, web and other visual texts). Digital literacy may promote greater student engagement, but what are the essential platforms required for student understanding?

Students are adept at using technology to create. It is quick, easy to use and they are capable of producing fantastic products. They often know more about the programs and technology than I do. However, their ability to articulate their ideas in written form is lacking. I sincerely believe a student will create a better digital product like a film, if they are able to clearly, and with a developing sophistication, express their ideas in writing.

Students are quick to brainstorm their ideas and begin creating a product quickly. The brainstorming phase is essential to develop ideas, but students neglect or ignore the editing and refining phase. This is where a good idea becomes fantastic.

The fluidity of modern language, expressed for example, in text messaging, needs to be balanced with an understanding of formal levels of language usage. Technology may shift the focus from traditional methods of print to laptops, e-readers, tablets and i-devices, yet underpinning the reading experience is an understanding of traditional literacy. Using technology for the sake of engagement (kids like things to be ‘fun’) is not teaching our children to read properly. It assumes students have a good knowledge of digital literacy. They don’t. They need to be taught digital literacy as well as traditional literacy.

Throwing this out there: traditional literacy v digital literacy. Which promotes greater critical thinking? Books or multimedia, both or neither? Does it come down to the person teaching you to think and to learn?

For Writers

As writers, we need to understand and maintain high levels of traditional literacy and be conversant with the language of digital literacy. We may not be screen writers for film or television, but we can endow our novels with an understanding of our audience and open up greater possibilities for new multimedia products.


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