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Uncovering Academic Literacies


 that is, drawing the problems from the various shops and laboratories., Digital ID 1231652 , New York Public LibraryThe definition for literacy I accepted was based on all the research I struggled through.
It is: competency in different contexts. This definition allowed me to understand the concepts of multiple literacies. But such a broad understanding of the complicated ideas seems like a cop out to some other teachers I’ve talked with.

“Well, then aren’t you saying everything is ‘a literacy?’” they ask.

And I have to answer, “Yes, I am.”

If successful communication is all about competencies and if we all strive for successful communication, then yes, everything is its own literacy.

Here’s one of the ways I can tell:

I’m teaching an Adolescent Literacy course at Hunter this semester, and on the first day, class members brainstormed answers to three big questions:

  1. Why do teens have their “own” literacies?
  2. How do we teach and learn literacies?
  3. What literacies are important to have?

Partly because my class is made up of adults, half of whom are teaching as a second career, answers were rich and varied. Teens have their own literacies, for example, because their immigration experience is different than that of an adult. We teach and learn literacies, for example, by being exposed to, and then adapting to, new contexts. This adaptation is a literacy. And in terms of what literacies are important to have, students came up with ones such as “hospital advocacy.”

Once my definition was “proven,”—once students arrived at the idea that literacy is the ability to communicate and advocate, I then had to work out just what literacies we were going to cover in class. It was only through this process of drilling down into my definitions and understandings that I arrived at the topic of Academic Literacy. It’s not a new idea, I didn’t invent it, but because I arrived at it through inquiry, it feels new and personal.

Academic Literacy is students’ ability to show communicative competence in school. Specifically school. (And we could go deeper than that. Math Literacy + Science Literacy+ Metacognitive Literacy= Academic Literacies) This definition gives credence to, and honors, all the other literacies in teens’ lives: gaming literacy, texting literacy, computer literacy, sports literacy.  It also honors that Academic literacy may be in conflict with these others. It is separate from how teens speak, think, act, and talk outside of school.

The writings of Academic Literacies are different.  Modes, or registers, of speech and forms of questioning are different.  A student may only “speak,” or “practice” academic literacy during school hours. This is why some students are more literate than others, why some meet with more success in school, why some communicate better with teachers, why some feel that this academic literacy is a literacy of authority. Because the rules are different. Academic Literacy has rules like anything else—languages and games, for example.  The ability to communicate competently in school does mean that students need to follow rules, and does mean they need to learn how to play the “game” of school. If nothing else, Academic Literacy is its own language students have to learn.


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Academic Literacy

Thanks for such a "thinking through" post. I love your line, "It’s not a new idea, I didn’t invent it, but because I arrived at it through inquiry, it feels new and personal." Very meta to demonstrate your own process towards literacy on teen academic literacy! As a new mentor to a high school freshman, it's helpful to be reminded they are not only learning the 3Rs, but learning how to learn, and learning the shape and structure of society, and what it expects from them.

Thanks, Laura, for your

Thanks, Laura, for your response. I do think that teaching students to Think About Their Thinking is one of the most important responsibilities of teachers. Once students can do so, they can confidently and knowingly move between Literacies, or code-switch. Good luck tutoring!

Academic & Other Literacies

This was wonderfully written, and easy to understand. You should direct your students to your blog post. The way you explain different literacies is, to me, akin to the way we speak not being necessarily the way we write. Cheers.


The clarification of the word "literacy" was clearly presented and certainly helpful - so many times the word is used vaguely and superficially. Thanks for the education.

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