Digital literacy and the language teacher. A new definition of literacy and the language curriculum.

Digital literacy and the language teacher. A new definition of literacy and the language curriculum.

Digital literacy asks for a change of the definition of literacy, an update of the necessary language skills and a new language curriculum to make education relevant and up to date.
The version in Dutch here.

One of the major tasks of a language teacher is to increase pupils’ literacy: to be able to read and write well, and to deal with information critically and in a well-considered way. Nowadays, all information is on the internet and communication is mainly online. Acquiring, processing and providing information online is different and more complex than when we mainly used offline, paper, sources. Researchers, teachers and politicians are convinced that everyone must be digitally literate in order to become active citizens in this online society. And this necessitates innovation in language teaching.

Frameworks. There are now various frameworks that define what we can understand by digital literacy. See a few here (partly in Dutch). In the Netherlands, we use a broad definition of digital literacy: “Digital literacy is the entirety of (1) basic ICT skills, (2) media literacy, (3) information skills and (4) learning to understand how technology works (Platform Onderwijs2032, 2016, 32).

New literacy. Literacy is at the heart of Dutch-language education. In language education, it mainly means being able to read and write. If we apply it to digital information, it concerns the acquisition, processing and provision of information in digital form, especially online. Looking at the definition of digital literacy mentioned above, this coincides with the section on information skills. The SLO defines this as the ability to sharply formulate and analyse information from sources, to critically and systematically search for, select, process, use and refer to relevant information on the basis of this information and to assess and evaluate its usability and reliability’ (SLO, 2015). The term Information Skills comes from educationalists.
From now on, I will use the term digital literacy in this more limited sense: being able to read and write well in an online information environment. In this paper, we focus on digital reading skills in language education.

Necessity. Most pupils are not well digitally literate. It is often said that young people, the digital natives, are naturally good at understanding and using the internet, but that is a myth (Kirschner, P. A., & De Bruyckere, P., 2017). Kervin, Mantei and Leu (2018) conclude that pupils are not proficient in reading complex information, in searching for and finding information, and they find it difficult to assess the accuracy, reliability and objectivity of the information. Pupils overestimate their skills, particularly because they are good at online social networks and using WhatsApp.
In the 2018 PISA survey, reading literacy is a key task. Digital literacy is included in that test. The Netherlands scores poorly there. 25% of pupils are (very) weak. Digital literacy skills are one of the reasons for this.

Explanation. One of the reasons that traditional reading skills no longer suffice in online reading is that texts with which we share information have changed considerably (Coiro, 2011): online texts are not linearly structured with an introduction, core and ending; they are usually hypertextual texts that are not hierarchical, but a network of texts, connected via hyperlinks; texts are often multimedia and multimodal, use is made of diagrams, animations, video and audio; online texts are sometimes written in interaction; they are no longer static, but change rapidly. The process of reading online is also different. It is a form of inquisitive reading. The reader searches for answers to a question, for which he or she searches, evaluates, chooses, compares and integrates information online. It is a self-directed process of text and knowledge construction (Leu, Kinzer, Coiro, Castek, & Henry, 2013). Navigating is a core component of digital reading. Good online readers choose metacognitive strategies that meet the requirements of the reading task. Weak readers lose their way. Better readers minimise reading pages that are irrelevant and choose pages with relevant information efficiently. (OECD, 2011). And the skills required for online and offline reading differ. A good grade on text comprehension no longer suffices.

A new definition. Afflerbach and Cho (2009, 2010) conclude that reading literacy is becoming increasingly complex and that the definition of reading literacy needs to be expanded. I called reading a three masts or three-fold fountain egg (Clemens, 2016). It concerns three groups of skills.

Reading 1. Traditional text comprehension is about understanding single, linear texts. Here, basic reading comprehension skills are taught.
Reading 2. Multy Document Reading. People read information about a topic from different sources. This involves juxtaposing sources, evaluating and selecting parts of the text and integrating the chosen information so that it becomes part of one’s knowledge of the subject. Here the skill of synthesising is very important.
Reading 3: New skills are needed for online reading: ‘While readers can apply the strategies that work for traditional forms of reading, in hypertext, the reader-text(s) interactions may be more complex and demanding (Afflerbach and Cho, 2009, 13, Coiro, J., 2011).
Donald Leu et al. define the required skills as Locate, Evaluate, Synthesize and Communicate (LESC), plus Monitoring and evaluating the results, modifying these as needed (Leu et al., 2013).
Carita Kiili and colleagues (2018) arrive at a comparable categorisation in a meta-analysis of research conducted. They arrive at six groups: (a) searching for and finding information with a search engine, (b) determining the (possible) credibility and usefulness of information, (c) critically questioning the credibility of information, (d) determining the main points of an online source, (e) synthesizing information and (f) communicating a source-based message.

Relationship with traditional language teaching. Many of the skills and language skills mentioned are in line with what we do, but new skills are needed and sometimes you need to redefine the same skill (e.g. critical reading). Some examples.

  • New skills include interpreting and assessing search results to make the first choice, assessing online sources/websites for reliability and usability, how to recognise fake news (High-Level Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation, 2018) and new language skills from reliable sources to start with.
  • Critical reading is very important because the internet has no editorial staff and it is easy to publish mature and green. You need to be able to judge sources on their soundness and usefulness.
  • Reading strategies. Online, it is really necessary to read in a targeted way, guided by a reading question, all the information that passes by and to choose useful information. And not to lose your way. Targeted reading and self-regulation is necessary.
  • Search strategies were hardly needed when reading linear offline texts, but online they were. You have to be skilled in choosing search terms, know how a search engine works, that different search engines differ from each other, that algorithms favour certain search results and can compare search results.
  • New texts/types of text. New is reading hypertext (Segers, E., 2016) of pages search results and multimedia texts. Reading and using blogs and vlogs is also new.
  • We also need to be able to categorise, store and synthesise collected information properly, not ‘cut and paste’. Synthesis skills are hardly taught and are a core skill in digital literacy.
  • New language knowledge are also needed: how the internet is constructed, how hypertext is constructed, what are hyperlinks, how to combine images, video and text, knowledge of new types of text, the difference between the surface web and the deep web, how algorithms work.

Relationship with the current Morthertongue curriculum.

Digital literacy belongs in the curriculum of Dutch language education (Clemens, 2014, 2018, Kervin, L., Mantei, J., & Leu, D. J., 2018). As early as 2015, the SLO says “[there] is too little attention for reading and writing new text forms (such as hypertext, messages on social media) and developing online literacy: searching, assessing and selecting reliable information; reading and analysing multimodal texts; processing large amounts of digital information”. In our education2032 in 2016, talking about Language Teaching one says ” … reading and discussing critical texts and learning to deal with the ever-increasing number of sources of information deserve more attention. Digital texts and images are increasingly replacing paper forms of text and pupils must also be able to deal with them skilfully”. (p30). In the learning area Dutch of there is a ‘big task’, in which “Pupils learn to deal critically with digital and non-digital information and to pay close attention to its reliability and usability”.

Curriculum renewal. Proposals have already been made for the elaboration and implementation in the curriculum, particularly learning objectives and a few examples (see this overview) and a Handbook Digital Literacy, in which the author of this piece is interviewed about the relationship between digital literacy and Dutch.
However, digital literacy is not yet often and/or explicitly linked to the Dutch curriculum (Clemens, J, 2018). At, learning area Dutch, there is a ‘big task’, in which ‘Pupils learn to deal critically with digital and non-digital information and to pay close attention to its reliability and usability’. But that is only part of what the new digital literacy means.
There is development work being done in the field, particularly with teacher development teams. I myself am involved in this. See this example, in which a team of teachers of Dutch at KWC works in a teacher development team to develop a digital literacy learning line for vmbo class 1 to 3. Or look at the project Hidden Family History, with which various schools have been working for a number of years.

Testing and assessing. If we feel that the curriculum should have an authentic assessment of reading skills, consistent with the way texts are used in the present day, the curriculum and examiners should get down to work. We should have formative and summative assessment instruments within the lessons. The CSE (National Exam) focuses (almost) exclusively on the traditional understanding of single and linear texts. They do not involve online reading. If we want to do this, this would mean that in the exam students would also have to carry out new reading tasks in an online situation (possibly with a fence around it) with which they could show that they are also capable of searching for information in a targeted way, assessing it for relevance and reliability, choosing good sources and storing and synthesising them.
They can get inspired by the OECD, PISA 2018. In the 2018 version, the framework has been strongly adapted, explicitly including digital literacy. This version ‘considers how new technology options and the use of scenarios involving print and digital text can be harnessed to achieve a more authentic assessment of reading, consistent with the current use of texts around the world’. What more could you want?
Another source of inspiration could be the instruments of ORCA (Online Reading Comprehension Assessments). These have been designed by The New Literacies Research Lab of Donald Leu and others. They have developed an instrument for ‘valid, reliable, and practical assessments of online reading comprehension’. This instrument is widely used in the USA and is tailored to the VO. It contains the four skills Locate, Evaluate, Synthesize and Communicate in conjunction. See an overview here.
I made and tried out a first Dutch version for the VO myself. But this is only the first step.

In short: digital literacy is a challenge to revamp the definition of language skills and to make education relevant and up-to-date again. Join in the discussion. Provide comments and feedback below. We will move forward together.


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