An Overview of Multilingual Learners' Literacy Needs for the 21st Century

An Overview of Multilingual Learners' Literacy Needs for the 21st Century

MaryAnn Christison (University of Utah, USA) and Denise E. Murray (Macquarie University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2722-1.ch001


The most common definition of literacy is the ability to read and write. However, for teachers working with multilingual learners, the development of literacy skills is much more complex than this simple definition would suggest. Notions of literacy in the 21st century have evolved in response to a number of societal changes, such as globalization, large-scale human migration, and advances in digital technologies. This chapter considers how these societal changes have influenced conceptions and practices of literacy. It provides a brief overview of some important theoretical considerations that inform understandings of literacy development for multilingual learners, including critical literacy, multiliteracies, multimodal literacy, and translanguaging, and explores current conceptions of literacy to help second and foreign language (SFL) teachers better understand how to meet the literacy needs of multilingual learners in the 21st century, offering practical suggestions for teaching from a multiliteracies perspective.
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Notions of literacy and what it means to be literate have been evolving for decades. Historically, literacy has been conceptualized and defined in a number of different ways. For example, it is common knowledge that in the early 19th century in the western United States, a literate person was minimally defined as a person who could write his or her own name as opposed to writing an “X” on a signature line for deeds and legal documents (Lockridge, 1974). Obviously, notions of literacy in the 21st century have expanded well beyond name writing, yet the most common and widely-used definition of literacy is still the ability to read and write. Educators have also defined literacy on a sliding scale relative to the number of years of schooling one has had, without consideration for the quality of the schooling, the knowledge and skills of the individual learners, or even the number of uninterrupted years of schooling. For example, in the United States, students in the fifth grade who are aged 9-10 are assumed to be literate by virtue of their grade level. In order to explore the concept of literacy as it relates to the needs of multilingual second or foreign language (SFL) learners from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, we must look beyond common definitions and understandings to explore what being literate means in today’s world and how societal changes have influenced our understanding of literacy. However, finding a consistent definition of literacy that is appropriate for all contexts and learners is challenging.

There are a number of reasons why literacy is difficult to define. First, the concept of literacy can be explained in several different ways and on a variety of dimensions because different societal groups, including educators, linguists, psychologists, and sociologists, have contributed to the knowledge base from which common definitions of literacy have been derived. In a joint project on literacy, which was conducted over two decades ago in Australia by the Department of Secondary Education (DSE) and the Catholic Education Office of Victoria (CEOV), the difficulties associated with conceptualizing and defining literacy were plainly delineated.

Definitions of literacy are notoriously difficult to compose. Literacy is a social construct, a complex idea that means different things to different cultural groups at different times. Therefore, literacy is a relative term and dynamic. While literacy is popularly understood to denote the ability to read and write prose and other print texts, it is an integrated complex of language and thinking processes and skills, incorporating a range of habits, attitudes, interests and knowledge, serving a range of purposes in different contexts. (DSE/CEOV, 1994, p.329).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Multilingual Learners: Children and adults who use multiple languages on a regular basis in school and in contexts outside of school.

Critical Literacy: An approach to literacy that goes beyond decoding and encoding and focuses on the meaning embedded in texts.

Digital Literacy: The ability to use information and communication technologies to find, create, and communicate information that requires both cognitive and technological skills.

Translanguaging: The process of making meaning and shaping knowledge and experience by using the repertoire of languages available.

Decoding: The process of converting written text into its spoken counterpart.

Multimodal Literacy: The ability to use and comprehend two or more modes of meaning in a text.

Visual Literacy: The ability to understand and evaluate information presented visually.

Semiotic Systems: Semiotics is the study of the process of making meaning from signs. There are five semiotic systems in total—audio, gestural, linguistic, spatial, and visual.

Encoding: The ability to write correct symbols to represent spoken language.

Multiliteracies: A pedagogical approach for making classroom teaching more inclusive in relation to cultural, linguistic, and technological diversity.

Languaging: The process of making meaning and shaping knowledge and experiences through language.

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