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.

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


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Learn Digital History Blog

Teaching about Historical Reconstructions using the Vail Telegraph Key

The reconstruction of historical inventions can provide a powerful context for students to explore how inventions affect society. In fact, the social impact of the invention of the telegraph ripples through to today. It set the stage for the invention of other communications technologies such as radio, television, and the Internet. The ability to send messages across wires in a fraction of the time humans were accustomed had a profound impact on society. Rossiter Johnson captured the spirit of that change in an 1882 poem written in tribute Morse and the telegraph. The poem describes limits of humans imposed by nature, but imagines that with the invention of the telegraph those limitations begin to fade away.

But one morning he made him a slender wire,
  As an artist’s vision took life and form,
While he drew from heaven the strange fierce fire
  That reddens the edge of the midnight storm;
And he carried it over the Mountain’s crest,
And dropped it into the Ocean’s breast;
And Science proclaimed, from shore to shore,
That Time and Space ruled man no more.

Students often have myopic views about how technologies impact their own lives. While it is true that students today seem to live in a constant state of ‘revolution’ regarding new technologies, an understanding of history can temper our enthusiasms. By studying records and relics from the past, such as Johnson’s poem, students can build up a long view of technological innovation and understand how the telegraph fits in that history.

Students can also use these experiences to explore important historical skills related to cause and effect. A reconstruction of the Vail telegraph key provides students with an opportunity to examine the development of scientific knowledge and challenge the narrowly constructed textbook history of the telegraph.

The history of the telegraph is typically transmitted to students as a neat and tidy story about Samuel Morse and the 1844 transmission from Baltimore to Washington DC of the message “What hath God wrought?” But, history is never so simple. Behind the story of Morse is the complex history of the invention of the telegraph, and that story is impossible to tell with Alfred Vail.

A social studies activity exploring this complicated history might begin with the simple question – Who was on the other end of the message sent by Samuel Morse on May 24, 1844? Of course, it was Alfred Vail. From there, students might explore Vail’s 1845 book length survey of the history of the telegraph, The American Electro Magnetic Telegraph: With the Reports of Congress, and a Description of all Telegraphs Known, Employing Electricity or Galvanism.  The book, which has three parts, includes a detailed description of the telegraph system developed by Vail and Morse; letters, reports, and other correspondences about the development of the telegraph system; and a contemporary history of the telegraph. Students can analyze this source to develop questions for inquiry about the development of the telegraph in the 1830s and 1840s.

From Hathi trust and Harvard Library at

The Lincoln Telegram project provides another avenue for exploring the newly invented telegraph and, specifically, how it affected the course of the Civil War and its participants.

The Lincoln Telegrams Project

The Lincoln Telegrams project ( includes digital versions and transcriptions of 354 telegram memos written by Lincoln from March 10, 1864 to his death in April of 1865.  The telegram memos function as source material for helping students and teachers understand how to analyze historical sources using the Hicks, Doolittle, and Ewing’s SCIM-C method ( Direct access to the telegrams, either via the web or through an iPad app with the same content, allows students to explore the historical context and follow the ways in which the telegraph affected communications during that era.

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