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What does it mean to be literate?

4 min read


I often hear teachers talk about the value of literacy. If students are not literate, they will not be able to be functional citizens. I can’t argue with those teachers on that point. I completely agree with them. However, I do disagree with what they think literacy means. To them, it means just being able to read and write. Reading and writing are still very valuable skills that every person needs to master, but there is more to being literate today than there was 20 years ago, and teachers need to keep this in mind.

The digital age requires a whole new set of skills for people to master if they want to be contributing members of the community. Here are some of the new skills that every person should have to be considered literate today.


Every person should know how to create an e-mail account, send an e-mail and attach files to e-mail. Communication is key in all things. If you want or need something today, e-mail is the one of the quickest ways to communicate. Businesses around the world have e-mail addresses so customers can ask questions quickly. The ability to contact politicians can be done easily with the use of e-mail. Attaching pictures or documents to e-mail is important when trying to share information. Learning to use e-mail is just an extension of learning to write a formal letter or use a phone. Without it, people will be out of touch with the world around them.

Word processing

Many people out there spend many hours learning to format their essays in class by doing many writing drills. Headers, footers, names, dates and all of the wonderful things that go on essays or letters were beaten into us over time because those skills were needed for school and the business world. With word processing applications available to all people with Internet access, people need to know how to use these tools to share their thoughts and ideas. As I type this on a Google Doc, there are tons of formatting issues that need to be addressed if I want to move things around. Students need the skills to manipulate the different features of various word processing applications if they want to create the documents they want.


Sometimes a person needs to go beyond a simple Google search for their information. There are millions of websites out there, but does the average person know if they are good sources of information. People used to be able to go to the encyclopedia and find their facts. Today, a Google search will provide thousands of possible answers, but sorting through them is a difficult task. Research skills need to be taught to ensure that people are careful about the resources they find and use. Without these skills, too many people can succumb to water-downed or completely false information. Since the Internet has become the “go to” spot for information, it is key people learn to sort through the trash to find the facts they need.

These three items are key for any person to be a literate adult in the world today. If we want our students to be competitive in the world markets, they need these basic skills. Teachers need to work to embed these skills into their classrooms. Creating brand new classes students take for a semester or making it a small unit in a computer class is not going to help students. These are skills that need to be part of students’ everyday lives if they are to master them. Based on these new additions to literacy, I wonder how many teachers are considered literate?

This one might be the most debated on this list because it seems vague and maybe a bit arbitrary, but there needs to be a minimum bar for people when it comes to technology and this is as low as it should go. The average adult should be able to turn a computer on, create and send e-mail and use a word processing application.

Nicholas Provenzano is a high-school English teacher and a technology-curriculum specialist for the Grosse Pointe Public School System in Michigan. He has a master’s degree in educational technology from Central Michigan University and is a regular presenter for the Michigan Association for Computer Users in Learning and ISTE. When he is not writing on his blog or tweeting @TheNerdyTeacher, he is working on an educational e-zine and a free “unconference,” Edcamp Detroit. He also blogs for Edutopia on the value of technology in education.