What does it mean to be literate in the 21st century?

Multimodality and the power of language

Amy Jolene
3 min readFeb 4, 2022
Photo by fauxels from Pexels

Literacy is no longer as simple as the ability to read a set of words in a given text. In today’s world, the capability to read, write, and comprehend meaning goes beyond the expertise that once defined literacy. The integration of technology into our personal, educational, and professional settings has gifted us with better communication, connection, and engagement. With these assets comes a new set of skills necessary to navigate literacy in the 21st century.

How can you discern the tone of an email? How can you use emojis to cushion a request in a text message? How can you experience empathy while listening to a podcast on your way to work in the morning?


Multiliteracy is the ability to comprehend a variety of texts, not solely written words. These types of texts include news articles, podcasts, photo essays, videos, social media posts, graphic novels, and so on. It is crucial that students learn multiliteracy in a world where they are constantly bombarded with images, ideas, opinions, and suggestions.

Basic written text rarely exists on its own anymore. It’s accompanied by a curated Instagram photo or entwined within the captivating intro of a new Netflix series. We use multiliteracy when we debate with our “friends” on Facebook and when we rate restaurants with four stars instead of five. We use multiliteracy when we send 😬 to our friends after an awkward encounter and when we share informational videos on TikTok.

To be multiliterate is to navigate all of these modes of communication and make meaning from them. To be multiliterate is to understand the sarcasm from an article in The Onion. It’s to recognize the advertisement in an Instagram photo of a model drinking vodka on a beach. It’s to ascertain the political messages woven into a colorful campaign video during an election year.

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

The multiliteracy pedagogy supports the diverse backgrounds of all students in a given classroom, as it caters to multiple intelligences. In her article, “Redefining Text, Redefining Me,” educator Belinda Foster explains, “every time students discovered they were experts in a certain kind of text — students who often are not regularly seen as experts — I promised them that their ability to deconstruct that text could be applied to any other kind of text. I promised them that their ability to create that kind of text could be applied to any other kind they need to create” (Foster 24).

Why is this important?

Because so many students don’t fit the outdated educational mold that was originally designed to generate factory workers. Why drill a formulated five-paragraph essay on an author’s use of figurative language, when you can have your students create and display the same understanding through short videos, interactive presentations, and digital writing?

Multiliteracy gives students the tools to find their niche within their distinctive backgrounds, abilities, and interests. This pedagogy doesn’t seek to eliminate traditional writing altogether, but to blend it with the useful technologies of today. Troy Hicks explains in “The Digital Writing Workshop,” that “writing multimedia texts both honors our traditional understanding of what good writing is while at the same time offers us new definitions of what makes. . . . a compelling lead, effective characterizations, and successful use of repetition for rhetorical effect” (Hicks 54).

When education supports students with a multimodal and multiliterate curriculum, students are more engaged, gain confidence in their abilities, and are better prepared to become contributing members of society.

Teachers, how are you using multiliteracy in your classrooms right now?


Arola, K. L., Ball, C. E., & Sheppard, J. (2014). Writer/designer: A guide to making multimodal projects. Macmillan Higher Education.

DeVoss, D. N., & Eidman-Aadahl, E. (2010). Because digital writing matters: Improving student writing in online and multimedia environments. John Wiley & Sons.

Educationatillinois. “1. Background to the Multiliteracies Project.” YouTube, YouTube, 6 Mar. 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVRehngLMqs&feature=youtu.be.

Foster, Belina. “Redefining Text, Redefining Me.” The Current | Educator Innovator, https://thecurrent.educatorinnovator.org/resource/redefining-text.

Hicks, T. (2009). The digital writing workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.



Amy Jolene

Copywriter & Editorial Manager. Educator. Crazy Cat Lady.