social change

New Literacies & Digital Inquiry


Literacy is an evolving concept. It wasn’t until the 70’s that reading instruction began morphing into literacy instruction. Prior to the 70’s the concept of reading was grounded in psycholinguistics and centered in decoding printed text, with less emphasis on encoding practices (Lankshear & Knobel 2006). Among the most prominent historical reasons for the concept of literacy to take front and center in formal education is Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, in which literacy is conceptualized as ‘reading the word and the world’:

“In Freire’s pedagogy, learning to write and read words became a focus for adults in pursuing critical awareness of how oppressive practices and relations operated in everyday life. (…) Within Freire’s approach to promoting literacy, then, the process of learning literally to read and write words was an integral part of learning to understand how the world operates socially and culturally.” (Lankshear & Knobel 2006)

The rise of a sociocultural perspective in language studies and social sciences strengthened the role of identity and Discourses (Gee 2000) within the concept of literacy. Discourses are “ways of being in the world’, which integrate words, acts, gestures,attitudes, beliefs, purposes, clothes, bodily movements and positions, and so on.” (ibid. 2006) Each one of us has a primary Discourse which we learn from and use with our immediate group (family members, intimate relations), and we also have multiple secondary Discourses that will vary according to our social relations and our participation in different secondary social groups, such as community groups, churches, and schools. Literacy then becomes ‘literacies’, in its plural form, since they are “bound up with social, institutional and cultural relationships, and can only be understood when they are situated within their social, cultural and historical contexts (Gee et al. 1996). Freire blew up the concept of text, from the printed word to the world; Gee and the sociocultural perspective blew up the concept of reader identity and its interplay with texts. Both galvanized the concept of literacy as being critical, multiple, socially situated and embedded with power. Literacy is, after all, a sociological concept.

The three-dimensional model of literacy (Green 1988, 1997) embodies a sociocultural perspective by articulating language – the operational dimension, meaning – the cultural dimension, and context – the critical dimension. “(…) rather than focusing on the ‘how to’ knowledge of literacy, the 3D model of literacy complements and supplements operational or technical competence by contextualizing literacy with due regard for matters of culture, history and power.” (Lankshear & Knobel 2006) Literacy in its singular form now describes a category of proficiency level in any given area, whereas literacies are fully charged by a sociocultural perspective. It is as if the term multiliteracies set in motion the tetradic heuristic of reading comprehension (RAND 2002), blurring its divisions.

New literacies presuppose one’s understanding that “the internet has happened to education. Now what?” (Cormier). The advent of the Internet has blown up the variety of modalities of texts. “The Internet, in particular, provides new text formats, new purposes for reading, and new ways to interact with information that can confuse and overwhelm people taught to extract meaning from only conventional print.” (Coiro 2003). The multimodality of online texts elicit new strategies from readers. Online reading is, thus, “a problem-based inquiry process involving new skills, strategies, and dispositions on the Internet to generate important questions, then locate, critically evaluate, synthesize, and communicate possible solutions to those problems online.” (Castek, Coiro, Henry, Leu, & Hartman 2015) I understand the use of the terms ‘online reading comprehension’ and ‘digital inquiry’ as being in different ends of a conceptualization spectrum. The first term refers simply to the location or text type – online as opposed to offline, or traditional print – whereas the latter coalesces into a new understanding of online reading as necessarily sparking from a continuous process of inquiry. Digital inquiry therefore necessarily begins with a question and engages the reader in new strategies such as locating, critically evaluating, self-regulating so as not to lose sight of one’s purpose, synthesizing and communicating information with the Internet (Leu et al., 2007) “The fact that online reading comprehension always begins with a question or problem may be an important source of the differences between online and offline reading comprehension.” (ibid 2015) Therefore, the benefit in moving from ‘online reading comprehension’ to ‘digital inquiry’ is the increase in awareness of the centrality of inquiry and one’s capacity to formulate questions and identify problems as critical skills for readers to engage and participate as citizens in today’s information and innovation age.


Online reading/digital literacy skills, strategies, practices, and mindsets are equally important for today’s learners compared to those related to offline reading comprehension, vocabulary, and/or fluency skills and strategies. Digital inquiry strategies build on and expand offline reading strategies. In an era when our youth is immersed in social media and ‘digital for play’, super exposed to the algorithmic manipulation and the subtle education of the eye and the senses, it is essential that they develop the skills that will enable their understanding of the inner workings of the Internet, as well as their engagement in critical digital consumption, production, distribution, and invention (Mirra & Morrell 2018).

Internet Reciprocal Teaching is a promising online reading instruction and digital inquiry methodology in that it effectively scaffolds learners’ abilities to understand and engage with online, multimodal texts. Gradually and intentionally moving from teacher-led instruction, to collaborative modeling of online research and comprehension strategies, to inquiry, teachers find opportunities to build on their curriculum, expanding the offline work with traditional print texts and engaging learners in the development of critical strategies and dispositions, thus preparing them for active citizenship in today’s highly complex and culturally multifaceted social environments. In an age where the social fabric of our democracies is challenged by an information ecosystem that is ever more polluted (Phillips 2020), we need to look beyond media and beyond literacy. We need to situate ourselves as critical readers of the world, and support our youth in becoming critical readers and participants themselves.


Castek, Coiro, Henry, Leu, & Hartman, (2015). Research on Instruction and Assessment in the New Literacies of Online Research and Comprehension.

Coiro, J. (2003). Expanding our understanding of reading comprehension to encompass new literacies. The Reading Teacher.

Coiro, J. (October, 2013). (Online reading comprehension challenges video of keynote delivered in Colombia: “Comprensión lectora en línea:oportunidades, retos y nuevos pasos” available on YouTube:

Hammerberg, D. (2004). Comprehension instruction for sociocultural diverse classrooms: A review of what we know. The Reading Teacher, 57(7), 648-656.

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2008). From ‘reading’ to ‘new literacy studies. In C. Lankshear & M. Knobel, New literacies: Everyday practices and classroom learning. Berkshire, England: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill Education.

Mirra N, Morrell, E. & Filipiak, D. (2018). Digital Consumption to Digital Invention: Toward a New Critical Theory and Practice of Multiliteracies, Theory Into Practice, 57:1, 12-19.

Phillips, W. (2020). “Looking Beyond Media and Beyond Literacy” keynote delivered in the 2020 Northwestern Media Literacy Conference.

RAND Model of Reading Comprehension. (2002).