In a 2009 article, Leu, Zawillnski, McVerry and Everett-Cacopardo assert a differentiation between Big-N and little-n literacies. While I am tempted to reference the eternal plight of the Lilliputians, which has been carried through the centuries into technology, I restrain myself to pursuing more academic interests.

John Lee's recent blog post intimates that the differentiation between these two terms is a new invention, and that we should now begin looking at various aspects of little-n literacies and their interaction with Big-N Literacies. I must admit that I had, until recently, agreed with this assertion. I would go so far as to say that I had contributed, in many ways, to John's posting. I must, however, point out that the referenced article was not the first to draw a clarification between N-n literacies. William Kist referenced a similar differentiation in 2005.

I have decided to follow the lead of the New Literacy Studies in that, when I am referring to the approach and perspective that situates literacy clearly as a social practice, I will use and capitalize New Literacy. When I am referring to the plethora of communication media available today, I will call these new literacies and not capitalize (Kist, 2005).

Here we read a reference to the current research of the time, outrightly stating that there is such a distinction already established in the literature. This distinction, however, does not necessarily agree with that which John references. Referencing Leu, et al (2009), "a formal theory of 'New Literacies' can be distinguished from more practical instances of 'new literacies' " (Lee, 2010).

The goal of this post is not to directly challenge my esteemed advisor, or even Leu, et al. Remember, I did agree with the assertion of N-n as was stated in his posting. I intend, instead, to ask if these definitions are indeed compatible or if they are mutually exclusive. If they are determined to be mutually exclusive, which definition should be used with regularity from here forward?

The earlier reference indicates that scholars had establish a system of quantifying between the social practice of literacy and the tools which are being used by that social practice (Kist, 2005). The more modern idea, defined by Leu, et al:

New Literacies, as the broader, more inclusive concept, benefits from work taking place in the multiple lowercase dimensions of new literacies. This is seen as an advantage, not a limitation. It enables the larger theory of New Literacies to keep up with the richness and continuous change that will always define the Internet. Lowercase theories explore either a specific area of new literacies[...] (2009).

Taking the risk of selecting what I believe to be the less controversial position, I assert that the two viewpoints are compatible. One could interpret Leu, et al, as saying exactly the same thing as Kist. New Literacies, as a broader concept, could be thought of as Kist's situation of literacy as a social practice.

I fear, however, that this might indicate a further, deeper, difficulty facing the New Literacies (capitalization intended) research community. I fear that we may be sacrificing our soul to gain entrance to the garden. If we accept either, or both, of these definitions of distinction between N-n, our understanding of Big-N will become more and more loose. This tendency to have a broader definition might make further research less than meaningful.

For now, the New Literacies community at large must decide if we are going to accept N-n, or if we are going to find a more meaningful, less enigmatic, way to define what we are attempting to study.


Kist, W. (2005) New literacies in action: Teaching and learning in multiple media. New York, NY and London, UK: Teachers college press.

Lee, J. (2010) New literacies and new literacies. New Literacies Collaborative Blog. Retrieved from:, April 1, 2010.

Leu, D. J., O'Byrne, W. I., Zawilinski, L., McVerry, J. G., and Everett-Cacopardo, H. (2009). Comments on greenhow, robelia, and hughes: Expanding the new literacies conversation. EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHER, 38(4):264-269.

Views: 26

Tags: Lee, Leu, Literacies, New, literacies, new


You need to be a member of New Literacies Collaborative to add comments!

Join New Literacies Collaborative


NLC Salon

You can follow us on Twitter at newlit. Post your tweet to @newlit.
Media Musings: Record and upload your musings about new literacies on our You Tube Channel NLC on You Tube Ning Networking: Share your ideas about new literacies on our Ning NLC Blogs NLC Forum

New Literacies Institute

New Literacies Teacher Leader Institute 2010 in Cambridge, MA. See work from the Institute wiki at

Also see our archived NLI from 2009 at The New Literacies Teacher Leader Institute 2009 Check out the NLI on Facebook, Twitter, and You Tube

NLC on Facebook

The New Literacies Collaborative is now on Facebook


The New Literacies Collaborative (NLC) is a multidisciplinary team of scholars and educators who promote teaching, learning, research, professional development, and global connections around new literacies. New literacies emerge from the theoretical and practical intersection of literacy, evolving technologies, and media.

Learn Digital History Blog

Loading… Loading feed

© 2014   Created by John Lee.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service