what is literacy then and now in 21st century

‘Literacy’ is a concept that has had a variety of meanings and has been developing over time, to include skills needed for one to perform well in the society. The most basic definition of literacy is to be able to read and write (OED, 1998). In developing country like Bangladesh basic is used to indicate the ability to read and write one’s own name in his/ her own language.

The term functional literacy refers to the ability to read and write enough to complete simple everyday reading and writing tasks in a particular context. However, it is well understood through research that ‘to be literate is more than being able to read and write. Gamble and Easingwood explain that literacy is about to access to ideas that challenge our thinking and promote new ways of looking at the world and it includes speaking and listening. The important feature of this definition is access to the idea/ information that can contribute in changing our thoughts which relates to critical thinking and reflexion. It implies to the fact that what type of information we need, where we get those information and how we get them. Most importantly,  it also applies to achieve the ability to use the information in an effective way.

From the above discussion, it is understood that literacy is related to the needs of human life. In this 21st century, people are in need of multiliteracies which will enhance their participation in global village.

Hence, multiliteracies refer to many arena including health literacy, information literacy, visual literacy and so on.

Health literacy: Health literacy is relatively new concept in health promotion. Generally, education has been an essential field to disseminate the information on preventing disease, promoting maternal and child health as well as promoting immunisation and other preventive health services. However, there has been a shift in the emphasis of public health action moving toward changing individual risk behaviour. health literacy also conceptualised from functional to  interactive and critical literacy. In this context the health literacy is defined in broader sense. “health literacy represents the cognitive and social skills which determine the motivation and ability of individuals to gain access to, understand and use information in ways which promote and maintain good health” (Nutbeam, 1998.)

Information literacy: Reading writing and numeracy are still the basics of literacy but additional skills are needed to gain the advantages of information delivered in different media through information and communication technologies (ICT) and the internet (Langford, 1999.) Bawden (2001) in his review on “information literacy” and “digital literacy” positioned to clarify related “concepts and multiplicity of terms”. Some of this are shown in the following image.

Visual literacy: Visual literacy refers to the ability to communicate and understand through visual means (Riesland, 2005). Traditionally, writers use language to convey ideas and information. They tend to use images and graphs to reinforce writing. Now there is  a shift in science textbooks revealing the switch from visuals that explains text to text that support visual explanation(Kress, 1996). Hammerberg (2001) notes the increase in children books that are interactive through sound or visual cues.

Visual literacy education should prepare students at a young age for the attack of advertising they will be exposed to during their lifetime. Students need to be prepared to be critical  of the messages as they see too.  They need be able to understand a few questions about visual representation, such as, what is the image about? relationship between image and text, what does it mean to me? how is this message effective? Consequently, in the visual design world, similar questions are asked during message creation as well: how can I visually explain the message? how can I make the message effective? what are some verbal/visual relationships I can use? Once students can internalized these questions,  they are prepared to recognise subversive advertisement and to communicate with a level of visual sophistication and actively participate in multimedia-dependent environment. Moreover, student will be better prepare for the dynamic and constantly changing online world they will inevitably be communicating through.

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