The author of this month’s New Literacies department feature is Ladislaus Semali, who has very kindly agreed to serve as guest department editor for the next several issues of Reading Online.

Defining New Literacies in Curricular Practice

Ladislaus M. Semali

Teaching literacy to children today involves teaching both “traditional” literacy and how to read and produce the kinds of texts typical of the emerging information and multimedia age. Recent reports indicate that teachers and administrators are beginning to take interest in the new literacies of multimedia (see, e.g., the New Mexico Media Literacy Project). Through exposure to cutting-edge multimedia, new curricular materials, research studies, and pressure from both government and industry, teachers are recognizing the power of new literacies. More than ever before, they are realizing that presentations and ideas are influenced by social, cultural, political, and historical events. Furthermore, in the United States and many other countries, curriculum standards are now recognizing that students need to be literate in moving images and graphics, as well as in printed text (see, e.g., the teacher-education standards for Pennsylvania [PDF document]). Nevertheless, new literacies are still not part of everyday practice in most classrooms.

This essay defines these new literacies and explores their place in school curricula. Here, “new literacies” refers to those literacies that have emerged in the post-typographic era. To highlight the different effects of electronic and visual communication, various writers have used the term “post-typographic” to mark an intellectual and cultural shift in the way information is designed, communicated, and retrieved. For McLuhan (1962), the term referred to cultural effects. But for some critical social theorists, it suggests a time when postmodern views of meaning will become operational. Such contemporary critical positions -- associated with Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari -- broaden notions of reading, writing, and text to include a range from philosophical treatises to novels, newspaper advertisements, visual and graphic representations, and films. In sum, “post-typographic” points to the fact that electronic texts are destabilizing previously held conceptions of literacy and are requiring students and teachers to examine assumptions about reading, writing, books, and what we know -- and think we know -- about curriculum practice.


Related Postings from the Archives

Introduction | New Literacies in the Post-typographic, Multimedia Era | A Critical Perspective on Definitions | Is Definition Necessary? | References

The rationale for defining and valuing new literacies of electronic media in schools is based on the notion that if we are to prepare students for the emerging information age, we must help them comprehend and communicate through both traditional and emerging technologies. This means making them understand

In Teaching Media Literacy, Masterman (1985) argues that it is only a matter of time before schools realize that they must teach students to analyze media texts and visual images critically. For him, the gulf between education inside the classroom, which remains heavily print based, and outside of school continues to grow, and there is no likelihood of narrowing this gap any time soon:

Schools continue to be dominated by print. To have difficulties in decoding print is, in school terms, to be a failure. Outside of school the most influential and widely disseminated modes of communication are visual (or oral).... [T]elevision is probably the most important source of political information in our society and is regarded by most people as the most reliable source of news, perhaps because of its ability to present a visual record of events. Even print is coming to be regarded as a visual medium. Layout, design and typography are widely understood to be a significant part of the total communicating process, whilst even the term ”print media” is frequently a misnomer, since most texts print is rarely accompanied by visual images. (p. 13)

Over the past quarter century, communication technologies have spawned an explosion of ways in which “text,” both written and electronic, has become part of the out-of-class curriculum. This explosion has outpaced our pedagogy, our curricula and methods of instruction, and the definitions of what it means to be literate in a multimedia society. (One major irony in American education is that no philosophy or pedagogy has been developed to take into account the role of visual representation in instruction, while at the same time increasingly large portions of the education budget are being spent on iconic technologies such as computers, video recorders, and video cameras.) These technologies are much more than electronic envelopes for delivering the old curriculum in a marginally new way. Because of them, teachers must now ask themselves questions such as these:

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New Literacies in the Post-typographic, Multimedia Era

In recent years, labels for many new literacies -- including computer literacy, cultural literacy, diagrammatic literacy, document literacy, economic literacy, environmental literacy, film literacy, information literacy, mathematical literacy, media literacy, music literacy, political literacy, scientific literacy, technical literacy, television literacy, video literacy, and visual literacy -- have emerged (Patersson, 1996). These literacies involve specific competencies that seem to be in demand in schools and industry. Even though such divisions are seen by some educators as unnecessary and superfluous, it is important to recognize that the call for differentiated skills in particular literacies are situated with specific practices. But the fundamental questions remain: Where can students learn these new literacies? How can an over-crowded curriculum accommodate them? What do these new literacies mean to classroom teachers in the 21st century?

Let me begin by examining the definitions of a few of the most commonly mentioned of these new literacies. (They do overlap to the extent that it is difficult to see how one could become literate in the postmodern sense in one without some involvement of others.)

Computer literacy. This refers to the competencies needed to perform a variety of tasks related to computer language and use. However, a person can be computer literate without being a programmer. Further, literate use of computers now includes competence with the visual representations, multimedia, interactivity, and linked hypertexts they present on screen. Modern computer systems with advanced microchips have made it possible to use specific applications without first reading their laboriously detailed instructions; instead, user-friendly and elaborate indexes, diagrams complemented with pictures, and trouble-shooting outlines are available. And because microchips are now embedded in almost all electrical and electronic equipment, computer literacy is considered a postmodern condition without which a high school graduate cannot succeed.

Information literacy. The ability to create, disseminate, and retrieve information quickly is necessary in today’s technological world. The American Association of School Librarians (1989) defines information literacy as

Having the ability to recognize when information is needed locate, evaluate, and use effectively needed information. Because of computers, the days of using library index cards are almost over at least in the United States. The expansion of information and data retrieval systems to include the World Wide Web (WWW) has broadened the equation to include virtual libraries and virtual data systems. The emphasis today is that literacy can no longer be considered merely to be able to read and memorize a base of knowledge; instead, literacy must entail the ability to acquire and evaluate information that is needed in any situation.

We have reached the point where the traditional literacies sought by liberal education are insufficient. Schools are now being called upon to define and develop a new learning style that fosters within students the abilities needed to be information literate.

Media literacy. Media literacy may be defined as the ability to access, experience, evaluate, and produce media products. Media are seen to represent actual events, but those representations are subjective and incomplete. Journalists and news producers select which stories to publish, what aspects to emphasize, and what language to use. Media literacy is necessary for media consumers to sift through the variety of presentations, including films, newspapers, Web sites, and video screens to arrive at meaning.

Television literacy. Also championed by Bianculli (1993) as “teleliteracy,” this competence affirms the need to teach children how to read and interpret television messages, including advertising. In 1989, the U.S. Department of Education defined critical television viewing skills as those factors that enable persons to distinguish among a wide range of program elements so that they can make judicious use of their viewing time (see Brown, 1991). But although scholars have commented widely about television literacy, there is little consensus regarding what the competencies consist of. Buckingham (1993), for instance, has argued that the notion of television literacy is far from straightforward and raises a number of theoretical questions that remain to be explored.

Visual literacy. Visual literacy is as old as or older than print literacy, though the term has not been used until recently. Visual literacy has been used as an interdisciplinary concept that includes theoretical perspectives, visual language perspectives, presentational perspectives, and technological development, including digitization. In an attempt to define visual literacy, scholars have often compared it to print literacy. Heinich, Molenda, and Russell (1982), for example, define it as the ability to interpret visual messages accurately and to create such messages. The International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA) suggests that it includes

a. A group of competencies a human being can develop by seeing and at the same time having and integrating other sensory experiences.
b. The learned ability to interpret the communication of visual symbols (images), and to create messages using visual symbols.
c. The ability to translate visual images into verbal language and vice versa.
d. The ability to search for and evaluate visual information in visual media. (IVLA, 1989)

At present, “information literacy,” “visual literacy,” and “media literacy” are often used interchangeably. Their definitions tend to have shifting meanings, and confuse those of us saturated in conceptions of traditional print literacy. This situation leaves the classroom teacher with questions regarding the literate tradition and the nature of education, learning, and thinking.

For Davies (1996), a school administrator in the state of Florida, the mass media are ushering in “the new learning.” The advent of this new, but rapidly evolving learning of literacy, turns the world into a big classroom. With mass media and the fast-growing Internet such dominant forces, out-of-school learning has come to depend heavily upon visual imagery. What can we as educators do about it? Do we have the material as well as academic resources to deal with these new forms of knowledge production?

McLaren and Hammer (1995) clearly point out the new dynamics playing in contemporary classrooms and how literacy is taught and acquired:

In the current historical juncture of democratic decline in the United States, ideals and images have become detached from their anchorage in stable and agreed-upon meaning and associations and are now beginning to assume a reality of their own. The self-referential world of the media is one that splinters, obliterates, peripheralizes, partitions and segments social space, time, knowledge, and subjectivity in order to unify, encompass, entrap, totalize and homogenize them through the meta-form of entertainment. What needs to be addressed is the way in which capitalism is able to secure this cultural and ideological totalization and homogenization through its ability to insinuate itself into social practices and private perceptions through various forms of media knowledges. (p. 196)

These authors urge us to take a hard look at the situation brought upon us by multimedia technologies, raising the following critical questions:

What isn’t being discussed is the pressing need within pedagogical sites for creating a media literate citizenry that can disrupt, contest, and transform media apparatuses so that they no longer possess the power to infantilize the population and continue to create passive and paranoid social subjects (McLaren & Hammer, 1995, p. 196).

Such questions urge teachers and students to consider alternative definitions of literacy and go beyond print literacy. A lack of critical pedagogy in schools creates passive citizens. The time has arrived to broaden the canons of traditional education and the curriculum to include the expanding technologies of television, film, video, and computers. Using critical pedagogy to integrate the new forms of visual and electronic “texts” represents a curriculum requiring new competencies and a new definition of what constitutes learning and how and when it takes place. Making these changes requires that teachers be trained in the emerging literacies. Dake (1982, cited in Braden, 1996) documents 20 areas in which competence is required:

  1. Developing an understanding of visual media
  2. Developing of an awareness of communications (mass media) technology and its pervasiveness
  3. Technical information on photography, video, etc.
  4. The psychology and physiology of vision (these are organized with various levels of analysis of specific behaviors as well as holistic subjective content)
  5. The analysis, evaluation and interpretation of visual communication
  6. Aesthetics
  7. How visual literacy contributes to the development of general intellectual skills
  8. Developing (visual) learning skills
  9. Developing positive self-concept, autonomy and self-esteem
  10. Learning attentiveness to concrete experiences
  11. The blending of vision with other senses
  12. Developing self-knowledge (the selectivity that goes into visual messaging reveals a great deal about the creator)
  13. Metaphorical thinking and language -- development of meaning
  14. The creative process
  15. The nature of consciousness
  16. Imagination
  17. The relationship of visual literacy to concept development
  18. Perception of patterns and classification (such as causation)
  19. Body and object language
  20. Exploring visual/verbal relations (p. 36)

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    A Critical Perspective on Definitions of New Literacies

    Let me state up front that an exploration of the future of the study of new literacies cannot be adequate without close examination of relationships among them and among other literacies now emerging. As mentioned earlier, there is considerable overlap among definitions of such terms as “media literacy,” “computer literacy,” and “visual literacy.” Members of IVLA, for example, publish on topics including creativity, artistic expression, computer graphics, interactive multimedia, therapeutic aspects of visual representations, historical uses of imagery, imagery for the professions, visual and perceptual education, design and production of visual form, international and multicultural perspectives, social, political, and economic concerns, and visual communication, thinking, and learning. Within IVLA and in other organizations that claim to study visual literacy, members make attempts to define “literacy” in ways that suit their own objectives.

    At this juncture, I must hasten to caution however that I have nothing against definitions. But we must keep in mind that all definitions shift. All understandings of language are by nature incomplete. And so, to claim an absolute definition of a term such as literacy must be preposterous.

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    Is Definition of New Literacies Necessary?

    An old adage states, “Define or be defined!” I suppose if we do not offer a definition of new literacies, a definition will be imposed on us. For me, definitions need to be based on praxis to be meaningful. I insist that terms such as “visual literacy,” “information literacy,” or “media literacy” be defined by the artist, author, or producer who uses it. (I am troubled, for example, by my observation that, in the Journal of Visual Literacy, the terms “visual literacy,” “visual communication,” and “media education” are used interchangeably without explanation or definition).

    To a large extent, I am comfortable with Debes’ (1968) definition, which incorporates three key components of visual literacy:

    But because of the technologies now upon us, this 30-year-old definition is now inadequate or incomplete. I believe what is missing is the ability to evaluate, to analyze or question the motive of the creator of the visual representation, relative to one’s own experience. This involves a critical examination and analysis of content and point of view represented in the visual work. Basically, this means that viewers consciously engages in a systematic inquiry to

    Such sustained questioning opens the gates for us to pursue meaning and understanding through further inquiry or analysis.

    As you may have guessed, I advocate a more critical approach to visual literacy, one that goes beyond the impact that visuals have on individuals. Thus, for me, visual literacy refers to multiple abilities to read, view, understand, evaluate, and interpret visual texts including artifacts, images, drawings, or paintings that represent an event, idea, or emotion. And, because of rapid technological changes and developments, I suspect it is counterproductive to define any literacy in pithy ways, since definitions will naturally shift over time.

    It would be more rewarding to talk about a reconceptualization of literacy and of literacy education. I acknowledge the many dimensions of literacy in the post-typographic, multimedia era. For this reason, I believe that visual literacy, for example, makes most sense when we define it as knowing and understanding visual texts, one form of “mediated” texts that are part of the world of knowing and learning. For me, “text” goes beyond a verbal or written artifact to refer to any communication or expression produced by artists, writers, or those in media industries. I believe that meanings of such texts evolve as readers/viewers interact with them and construct meaning from them. As Barthes (1971) would assert, constructing textual understanding is a recursive and ongoing process, not a linear or static one.

    In this context, textual analysis is a close examination of how particular media texts generate meaning. To examine the process of generating meaning in texts is a complex matter. I recognize that such examination needs to go beyond the aesthetics, modes, and forms present in the visual work and to locate in them their social and political contexts as well. A definition or discussion of visual texts that ignores these aspects is incomplete. This critical perspective acknowledges the “intermedial” nature of the world students live in today. In this world, technology and media have become part of the texts of everyday life.

    What is also missing in many discussions and definitions is a method of reading and understanding the new languages of media that would enable us to produce meaning that enhances lives and rejects the oppression that privileges some students and denies other students’ voice. A reconceptualized vision of new literacies education would include an explicit effort to enable students to acquire the ability to understand how visual media work to produce meanings. This effort would strive to develop literate people who are able to read, write, listen, talk, analyze, evaluate, and produce communications in a variety of media, including print, television, music, video, film, radio, hypertext, and the arts.


    American Association of School Librarians. (1989). Information power: Guidelines for school library media programs. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

    Barthes, R. (1971). Image, music, text. New York: Hill and Wang.

    Bianculli, D. (1993). Teleliteracy: Taking television seriously. New York: Continuum.

    Braden, R. (1996). Visual literacy. Journal of Visual Literacy, 16(2), 1-83.

    Brown, J. (1991). Television “critical viewing skills” education: Major media literacy projects in the United States and selected countries. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

    Buckingham, D. (1993). Introduction: Young people and the media. In D. Buckingham (Ed.), Reading audiences: Young people and the media (pp. 1-23). London: Edward Arnold.

    Dake, D.M. (1982). Curriculums in visual literacy. Ames: Iowa State University.

    Davies, J. (1996). Educating students in a media saturated culture. Lancaster, PA: Technomic.

    Debes, J. (1968). Some foundations for visual literacy. Audiovisual Instruction, 13, 961-964.

    Heinich, R., Molenda, M., & Russell, J.D. (1982). Instructional media and the new technologies of instruction. New York: Macmillan.

    International Visual Literacy Association. (1989). International Visual Literacy Association: For the exploration of visual media. Blacksburg, VA: IVLA Virginia Tech Educational Technologies.

    Masterman, L. (1985). Teaching the media. New York: Routledge.

    McLaren, P., & Hammer, R. (1995). Media knowledges, warrior citizenry and postmodern literacies. In P. McLaren, R. Hammer, D. Sholle, & S. Reilly (Eds.), Rethinking media literacy: A critical pedagogy of representation (pp. 171-204). New York: Peter Lang.

    McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

    Patersson, R. (1996). Verbo-visual communication. In T. Velders (Ed.), Multimedia education in praxis: Selected readings (pp. 11-15). Deventer, Netherlands: International Visual Literacy Association.

    About the Author

    portrait of Ladislaus Semali    

    Ladislaus Semali is an associate professor of education in the Curriculum and Instruction Department of the Pennsylvania State University (State College, PA, USA; e-mail, specializing in language, media, and literacy education. His research involves critical media literacy, teacher education, and comparative perspectives in crosscultural communication in multicultural classrooms. Among his recent publications are Literacy in Multimedia America: Integrating Media Across the Curriculum (Routledge/Falmer) and Postliteracy in the Age of Democracy (Austin & Winfield). For the fall and winter of 2001-02, he is serving as guest editor of the New Literacies department of Reading Online.

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    Citation: Semali, L. (2001, November). Defining new literacies in curricular practice. Reading Online, 5(4). Available:

    Reading Online,
    Posted November 2001
    © 2001 International Reading Association, Inc.   ISSN 1096-1232