Could English proficiency be described as one of the most important digital literacies there is? In the second article in this series, Daniel Barber investigates Digital Literacy.


Digital Literacy

Literacy is more than just the ability to read and write. Any primary school teacher will tell you that it involves mastering many different skills, from analysing how texts are organized to understanding the writer’s reasons for writing. Similarly, digital literacy should be understood as a range of separate sub-skills, or literacies.

Think about it

Which of the following skills could be categorized as digital literacies?

  • basic file management skills
  • the ability to read and write text messages quickly and accurately
  • knowing how to search efficiently for information using a search engine
  • maintaining a professional-looking profile on social media
  • basic html coding to design and maintain websites
  • skill at posting responses to comments, blogs and emails that are appropriate to the context and the reader
  • the ability to deal with irrelevant information and online distractions

What are digital literacies?

In fact, all of the skills listed above are examples of digital literacies. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning’s Framework includes digital literacies as vital skills needed for success in work and life.

In Volume 66 of the ELT Journal, Nicky Hockly groups digital literacies under four main categories – language based, information based, connection and (re-)design based.

Language-based literacies include the ability to read and write new text types such as blogs, text messages, forum discussions and hyperlinked texts. It also includes the language we need to participate effectively in multimedia environments such as video gaming and mobile apps.

Information-based literacies include ‘search literacy’ – knowing the right search terms to find information digitally, and, once we have found that information, knowing how to decide how reliable it is. ‘Filtering literacy’ is about knowing how to manage ‘information overload’ – the problem of being faced with too much information.

Connection literacies are about managing your online identity and relationships. ‘Network literacy’ helps you select the relevant information from social media ‘feeds’ and other online networks.

(Re-)design-based literacies are defined as ‘the ability to recreate and re-purpose already-made digital content in innovative ways’. This recognizes that a lot of what we produce online is ‘reformulation’ of what others produce: copying and pasting, quoting from wikis, retweeting tweets, manipulating images and sharing others’ posts. It is important to be aware of issues surrounding these activities, such as copyright, so that we can do so sensitively, creatively and productively.

Why promote digital literacies in ELT?

Children learn about computers in IT classes at school; adults can attend computer courses. So why include digital literacy goals in our language classes? Don’t we have enough learning objectives to deal with already?

Firstly, digital literacy should not be limited to the IT class, in just the same way that the goal of traditional literacy is not limited to the language classroom. The geography teacher’s job is as much about teaching students to interpret texts about climate change – i.e. literacy skills – as it is to teach ways of measuring climate change. Literacy extends into all subjects and areas of learning, and now so does digital literacy. To ignore the digital needs of students in ELT is to deny them a complete education in English for today’s world.

Secondly, to develop digital literacy we need to bring technological modes of learning into the classroom. This has the potential benefit of making learning more motivating, fun and integrated into their lives outside class. As Mark Pegrum, cited in a presentation by Nicky Hockly, says:

‘Digital literacies are essential skills our students need to acquire for full participation in the world beyond the classroom, but they can also enrich our students’ learning inside the classroom.’

Articles on Blended Learning and Flipped Learning in this series will go into more detail about how and why technology can be used to support language learning.

Finally, English is in many ways the language of technology and a passport to the online world. Consider the fact that more than half of the top 10-million websites have content in English, and that many students are not learning English to travel to English-speaking countries, but are motivated by the promise of greater personal, academic and professional opportunities on the internet. If their needs as users of English are within this technological sphere, shouldn’t we promote the skills they need to succeed there alongside their English language skills? Could we even describe English proficiency as one of the most important digital literacies there is? If so, our role as teachers of English needs to adapt to this new reality.

Teachers and digital literacies

Not all teachers would say that they are particularly digitally literate. So how can we teach something we lack confidence in ourselves? While it’s true that it would be impossible to teach coding without first doing a course or teaching ourselves, we should remember that digital literacy is only partially about technical know-how. A lot of the skills involve critically evaluating material found online and taking a step back to question accepted opinions. Nonetheless, Nicky Hockly urges teachers to ‘skill up’, by which she means to work on our own digital literacies and become ever more competent consumers of technology.

However, we don’t need to worry about keeping up with technology as it keeps evolving and getting more complicated. Digital literacies are transferable skills which can be applied to many particular sites, programmes and apps. Howard Rheingold advises us not to keep up with the technologies but to ‘keep up with the literacies that the technology makes possible’.


The good news is that incorporating digital literacy goals into your English lessons should not put greater pressure on you or your students. Digital literacy is really about using technology thoughtfully, sensitively and critically, considering why and not just what or how. If you exploit online material in class, make use of online tools and discuss online issues, learners will be given the opportunities to acquire the digital literacies they need.