Approach to Literacy

Approach to Literacy Paper by Gee

by Rebecca Daniel, Susan Goulding, Claire Nightingale, Melissa Stern


Several interdisciplinary intellectual movements have arisen over the last few decades regarding literacy and, as it came to the forefront, technology.
  • The New Literacy Studies (NLS): In 1990, linguist James Paul Gee identified this emerging field of study--which argues against the commonly held view that reading and writing are cognitive exercises defined in terms of mental processing, strictly done inside individuals' heads. Rather, this theory holds, literacy occurs as a way of participating in social and cultural groups.
  • Situated Cognition Studies: While earlier work in cognitive psychology saw the human mind as similar to a digital computer, likewise with limited memory, this newer theory of the 1980s posited that human memory is almost limitless. According to this school of thought, which comes in many different varieties, cognition is connected to actual situations and is seldom a process of applying abstract generalizations and rules.
  • The New Literacies (plural) Studies: This theory carries over to digital technologies the New Literacy Studies--thereby examining new and ever-evolving types of literacy beyond print literacy. The "updated" NLS views different digital tools as technologies for giving and getting meaning, just like language.
  • The New Media Literacy Studies: This concept is concerned with with how people give meaning to and get meaning from media.

The New Literacy Studies

Noted linguist and education expert James Paul Gee coined a theory about reading and writing in 1990 called The New Literacy Studies (NLS), which opposes a traditional psychological approach to literacy that defines the abilities to read and write in terms of mental processing. Traditional psychology sees readers and writers as engaged in mental processes like decoding, retrieving information, comprehension and so on. On the contrary, the NLS posited, literacy needs to be understood in a full range of contexts--not just cognitive, but social, cultural, historical and institutional.

Instead of viewing literacy as an individual pursuit, the NLS saw readers and writers as interacting in social and cultural practices. Written language, according to the theory, is deeply rooted in a society's oral language. People don't just read and write in general--they read and write specific kinds of texts in specific ways determined in part by the values and practices of their social and cultural groups.

Different people can read the same text in different ways for different purposes. Gee cites as an example the Bible, which can be read as theology, literature, history or inspiration for self-improvement.


Situated Cognition Studies

"To a particular person, the meaning of an object, event, or sentence is what that person can do with the object, event or sentence" (Glenberg, 1997: p.3).

Earlier work in cognitive psychology described the mind as a digital computer with limited memory. But the various viewpoints that make up Situated Cognition Studies agree that thinking is connected to actual situations and is not always a process of using abstract generalizations.

Thus, people think, understand and learn best when they use their prior experiences as a guide. Their minds are not like digital computers but, rather, "connectionist" computers that look for and store patterns. Humans, too, seek and store patterns based on their experiences in the world. The more experiences a person has, the deeper and more subtle the patterns--patterns that help to predict the future and to accomplish goals.

As an example of how we use patterns and previous experiences to make predictions, Gee presents the following illustration:

If you are asked to visual a typical bedroom, you probably will think of a room with things like a bed, side tables, dresser, lamps, pictures, drapes and so on. These are elements that you have come to see as a pattern based on your experiences.


But if you are told there is a small refrigerator in the room, you might envision a student's dorm room--cramped with a bed, a desk and maybe a mess on the floor. Such associations show how you can refer to patterns as you gain more experience.


Again, you can witness the same phenomenon with these three slightly varying sentences:

"The coffee spilled--go get a mop."


"The coffee spilled--go get a broom."


"The coffee spilled--stack it again."


While the ideas embraced by the Situated Cognition Studies are compatible in many ways with those of the New Literacy Studies, the NLS poses the question: "What determines what experiences a person has and the degree to which he or she pays attention to the experiences?" In answer to its own question, NLS says that a person's experiences and the import given them depends upon participation in the practices of various social and cultural groups. For example, bird watching clubs shape how novice bird watchers pay attention to birds.


Still, both Situated Cognition Studies and the NLS emphasize the "social mind" as opposed to the "private mind."

The New Literacies Studies
Factors that determine written language's meaning
    • Social
    • Cultural
    • Historical
    • Institutional practices
The New Literacy Studies
The New Literacies Studies
  • Studying literacy in a new way
  • It is a technology for giving and getting meaning
  • Uses written language within different sorts of sociocultural practices
  • Studying "digital literacies” &
literacy embedded in popular culture
  • View different digital tools as technologies
for giving and getting meaning, just like language
  • Uses digital tools in different sorts of sociocultural practices
Example: This is the study of literacy by digital immigrants.
Example: This is the new study of digital literacy by digital natives.
Both of the above ideas are natural off-shoots of one another, BUT each field does not contain the same people.

Both the NLS and the New Literacies Studies include:
  • Acting
  • Interacting
  • Valuing
  • Believing

Digital Tools

  • Digital tools are giving rise to major transformations in society.
  • First, digital tools are changing the balance of production and consumption in media. It is easier today for everyday people not just to consume media but to produce it themselves.
  • Second, digital tools are changing the balance of participation and spectatorship. More and more today, people do not have to play just the role of the spectator.

New Media Literacy Studies

Media Literacy

  • Both NMLS and Media Literacy are connected to people in the communications field.
  • Interest has become more widespread by people from other disciplines.
  • Media Literacy is concerned with with how people give meaning to and get meaning from media.
    • Examples of Media we get and give meaning from and to
      • Advertisements
      • Newspapers
      • Television
      • Film
    • We get the meaning through oral and written language through a media context.
  • MULTIMODAL TEXTS- texts that mix images and/or sounds with works


  • Media can be used to manipulate people
    • Example- Meow Mix repeats Meow Meow Meow over and over again so the consumer automatically buys this brand of cat food.
  • People can use media to manipulate others
    • Example- People can show you any Youtube video they make or find and pass it off as legitamite

How to Beat Media Traps and Scams
  • ALWAYS ask whose vested interest is served by any message in the media
  • BE a responsible consumer
  • DON'T be DUPED! Be a savvy consumer of media!
  • It is important to teach our students to be critical and reflective about the sorts of meaning we give and get from the media
Media literacy as a field was concerned with how people give meaning to and get meaning from media, that is, things like advertisements, newspapers, television, and film.

How is Media Changing Society Today?

  1. Balance of production and consumption.
    1. Example-Everyday people can produce professional looking movies, newscasts, and video games (thanks to “modding”)
  2. New balance of participation and spectatorship.
    1. People can now produce their own music, news, games, and films, for example, they can participate in what used to be practices reserved for professional or elite musicians, film makers, game designers, and news people.
  3. Change in the nature of groups, social formations, and power.
    1. It is now easy to start a group and give mass information.
      1. Example- Egyptian revolution was organized entirely on Facebook and Twitter
      2. Link to video on Egyptian Facebook Revolution Courtesy of BBC:
  4. The phenomenon known as “Pro-Ams”.
    1. Today young people are using the Internet and other digital tools outside of school to learn and even become experts in a variety of domains. We live in the age of “Pro-Ams”: amateurs who have become experts at whatever they have developed a passion for [1]


  • Pro-Ams have a passion and go deep rather than wide.
  • Pro-Ams are adept at pooling their skills an d knowledge with other Pro-Ams to bring off bigger tasks and problems
  • They may not be experts but they do know how to collaborate digitally to fulfill their intellectual and social passions
  • Pro-ams have expertise in a plethora of different areas including:
    • Digital Video
    • Video Games
    • Digital Storytelling
    • Machinima
    • Fan Fiction
    • History
    • Civilization Simulations- (Think: The Sims)
    • Music
    • Graphic Art
    • Political Commentary
    • Robots
    • Anime
    • Fashion Design

An Example

Children often develop “island of expertise.” Below is an example and analysis of one child’s expertise on dinosaurs.
external image desert-island.jpg
"Island of Expertise"

Child: This looks like this is an egg

Mom: Ok well this…That’s exactly what is it! How did you know?

Child: Because it looks like it.

Mom: That’s what it says, see look egg, egg…Replica of a dinosaur eff. From the oviraptor

Mom: Do you have a…You have an oviraptor on your game! You know the egg game on your computer? That’s what it is, an oviraptor

Mom: And that’s from the Cretaceous period. And that was a really, really long time ago.

Mom: And this is…the hind claws. What’s a hind claw? (pause) A claw from the back leg from a velociraptor. And you know what…

Child: Hey! Hey! A velociraptor!! I had that one my [inaudible] dinosaur.

Mom: I know, I know that was the little one. And remember they have those, remember in your book, it said something about the claws…

Child: No, I know, they, they…

Mom: Your dinosaur book, what they use them…

Child: Have so great claws so they can eat and kill…

Mom: They use their claws to cut open their prey, right.

Child: Yeah

The examples above demonstrate the following traits about language:

  1. Contains non-vernacular (not every day) language, such as “prey,” “replica,” “oviraptor, “Cretaceous period,” and “hind claw.”
  2. Mother asks the child, “how did you know?” highlighting specialist domains
  3. Mother publicly displays reading the text even though the child cannot read
  4. Mother relates current talk and text to other texts child is familiar with
  5. Mother offers a technical-like definition
  6. Mother points to and explicates hard concepts
  7. Mother offers technical vocabulary for a slot the child has left open

These examples demonstrate how students enter the classroom with informal specialist language, as it is acquired from their parents. Yet, this brings up the question of what happens to students who come to school without such informal specialist language teaching?

Another Example:

Armed Ninja

Card-Type: Effect Monster

Attribute: Earth, Level 1

Type: Warrior

ATK: 300, DEF: 300

Description: FLIP: Destroys 1 Magic Card on the field. If this card’s target is face-down, flit it face up. If the card is a Magic Card, it is destroyed. If not, it is returned to its face-down position. The flipped card is not activated.

Rarity: Rare
external image images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSVyLkTue9CsDZrQEodUfyU-UXJ2-iGp_HOYm1R2rPy-sZtDz3_&t=1

Above is a text from a Yu-Gi-Oh card, a card game involving complex rules. This text contains the following:

  1. The “description” is really a rule
  2. Contains three straight conditional clauses
  3. Example of “logic talk,” with “either-or,” and “if-then” clauses
  4. Contains classifactory information
  5. Uses technical, specialist terms.

Situated Meaning and Video Games

Verbal vs. Situated Understanding

Verbal Understanding

Definition-like general (abstract) understanding that can be applied to specific situations, similar to "deduction".

Video Games Facilitate Situated Understandings

Digital "game-like" learning happens "in the context of activity" and is "grounded in perception".[2]

Written texts associated with video games, such as guides, walkthroughs, and manuals, are very difficult to understand until one has actually played the video game.

Example from a guide on the PS3 game Infamous2:
"There are four areas in New Marais: The Red Light District, Ascension Parish, Floodtown, and Gas Works. Only one story mission (white ? mark) will be available at a time. The remaining ? marks are side missions, karma-aligned missions (or good/evil side missions) and - if you are connected to the Playstation Network - UGC (or user-generated content) missions.
Only story missions need to be completed to finish the game. Side missions unlock more powers for purchase. UGC missions are just for fun (and Trophies)."[3]

Another example from L.A. Noire external image LA-Noire.jpg

In order to understand that short introductory paragraph, you must have situated understanding of what the game Infamous 2 is about, how RPG games work, and what those underlined words mean in the context of that video game. Otherwise, you can read the paragraph and truly understand very little of what it is saying.

This excerpt, and all video game texts, are almost meaningless at the literal level. You can read and understand the words, but without understanding it within the context of the domain for which it was created, it has no authentic application.

These types of booklets are most useful not when they are read cover-to-cover before playing but the game, but after one has explored the game thoroughly and constructed an authentic understanding of the game. The player can then reference the text in order to answer specific questions or solve a particular problem.

Application to School Learning

Just as players cannot be expected to master literal understandings and apply them to real-world situations in video games, we cannot force our students to read and memorize "the manual" before they get to "play the game".[4] We must let students "play the game" and then provide them with "the manual" in order to check for understanding, answer specific questions, or solve particular problems.


"Game-like learning" --> situated (not verbal) understanding
Situated understanding --> specialist language becomes clear, useful, easy
  1. ^ Anderson, C. (2006). The long tail: Why the future of business is selling less of more. New York: Hyperion.
  2. ^ Gee, J.P. A Situated Sociocultural Approach to Literacy and Technology, 33.
  3. ^
  4. ^
    Gee, 38.