Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Adolescents and Literacies in a Digital World

reviewed by Florence R. Sullivan - 2004

coverTitle: Adolescents and Literacies in a Digital World
Author(s): Donna E. Alvermann (Editor)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820455733 , Pages: 235, Year: 2002
Search for book at Amazon.com

The varied theoretical and epistemological approaches to discussing adolescents and literacies taken by the authors presented in this edited volume reflect the depth of the complexity of the central questions at issue in the text – what are new literacies? How are these literacies shaped by both new capitalism and new digital technologies?  And how are adolescents and teachers alike responding to these new literacies? 


While the canonical definition of literacy (print and oral – reading, writing and speaking) is easily understood, the definition of new literacies is elusive and potentially in continual flux, tied as it is to the rapid development and diffusion of new digital technologies.  The authors in this book broadly sketch the landscape of the new literacy in terms of youth culture, the attention economy and the development of identity (Lewis & Finders; Knobel & Lankshear) digital technologies and critical literacy (Luke, C.; Beach & Bruce), generational literacy practices (King & O’Brien; Hagood, Stevens & Reingking; Young, Dillon & Moje;) the demands of new capitalism and the resistance to same (Gee; Lankshear & Knobel, Knobel and Lankshear), and as an issue for both teacher education programs (Hinchman & Lalik) and educational policymakers (Luke, A.).


While an actual definition of new literacies seems to have been specifically avoided by the authors, one may infer from the articles that these literacies include the ability to: 

  1. Communicate through digital means including email, instant messaging, creation and/or browsing of hypertext documents.
  2. Interpret or extrapolate meaning from music CDs, videos, web sites, and video or computer games .
  3. Gain attention through constructing an identity (or several identities) using digital technologies. 
  4. Create texts to be read by others, for instance, web pages or zines. 

The authors share a postmodern framework for the semiotic basis of literacy.  The historical primacy of the printed word as text is eschewed for the signifying capabilities of image, architecture, fashion, and performance.  In the words of a pre-service teacher presented in the volume, "If you are deriving a message from it, you are reading it" (p. 73). This expanded view of literacy is highlighted by Knobel and Lankshear’s discussion of new literacy practices in an attention economy such as scenariating (imagining alternate future scenarios based on current and potential realities) and culture jamming (the practice of digitally altering an image to create a different visual message); and by Gee’s new literacies and new capitalism discussion of bobo’s (aging upper-middle-class baby boomer parents), millennials (bobo’s offspring born from 1982-1998) and shape-shifting portfolio people (millennials in search of the “right” experiences to propel them forward to elite schools and elite positions in society).


The authors are united in their view that adolescents who have access to digital technologies are leading the way in their use and in the development of new literacies and literacy practices. Youth culture and digital technologies are strongly tied together, particularly for children of means.  With this in mind, the authors share a commitment to the importance of critical literacy and social justice.  A common theme in several of the articles is that teachers and schools should be engaging with these new literacies in order to make sure that all students, not just economically advantaged teens, have access to them,.  The best way to accomplish this classroom engagement may well be the subject of a different book, although two of the chapters in this volume (Beach and Bruce, and Hinchman and Lalik) provide concrete ideas of how teachers might integrate the new literacies into the curriculum.         


This volume challenges the reader to consider the relationship of new literacies and new literacy practices to the institution of school.  A central argument of the book, echoed by several authors, is that adolescents are engaged in new literacies, teachers should learn about these new literacies from their students, and teachers should help their students learn how to use the new technologies to critically evaluate the world in which they live.  King and O’Brien rightly define the problem of adapting new literacies and technologies in the classroom to issues of teacher resistance to compromised authority. Yet, to my way of thinking, the issue goes beyond individual teachers.  The problem with adopting and teaching these new technologies involves an institutional refusal to allow the re-ordering of the classroom in the form of teacher/student role reversal vis-à-vis digital technologies and new literacies, particularly if cultural critique and examination of power relationships are an integral part of the new literacies.  Will culture jamming ever be embraced as a literate practice that should be taught in school?  Will adopting a new identity in a chat room ever be seen as a valuable literate practice in which students should be well versed?


Schools, as bastions of literacy and literate practices, are being left behind. The interaction of technology, commerce, and youth culture is driving the development of new and multiple literacies.  The authors do an excellent job of identifying and exploring the reasons for the growing gap in literacies between generations of teachers and students, and leave us with the burning question of how our transition from an industrial to an information society is affecting the relevance and the operation of the institution of school.  What is the concomitant paradigm shift for schools? 


We are a society in the midst of a huge transformation.  How can schools and educators respond to these changes in a meaningful way?  This book lays the groundwork for further exploration of these essential societal questions.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 409-411
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11203, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 11:08:45 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Florence Sullivan
    Teachers College
    E-mail Author
    FLORENCE R. SULLIVAN is a Ph.D. candidate in the Cognitive Psychology program at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue