Educational issues for literature, literacy, media, and the arts.

Page contents
  • Focus questions
  • Overview
  • Considerations for definitions
  • Educational issues related to these definitions
  • Conclusions

Focus Questions


When people think about literature, literacy, media, information, and art they usually feel confident about their personal definitions for these ideas. Understandings created from their experiences, which establish preferences related to those definitions based on beliefs and values they hold. Usually we assume our definitions and beliefs are fairly similar to other people's. However, each person's are based on their unique personal experiences and when compared are found to vary. The variance being more pronounced as the understandings are probed to greater depths. This becomes apparent as we share ideas, particularly as educators when we begin to discuss what students can do and what we hope they will know and learn with activities we provide for them to experience. When we discovery these differences we can make changes to accommodate them by increasing the diversity of possibilities to benefit students by expanding their experiences and increasing our expectations. Or we can find weaknesses and faults so as to limit the extent of what we want students to know and the activities they should experience. To justify this limiting we attempt to verify it with the mythology of providing a standardized fundamental set of learnings that is believed will empower all students by essentially limiting their experiences and decreasing our expectations by focusing on ideological standards. Both of these extremes will create conflict.

As teachers we can recall situations where definitional differences cause misunderstandings with parents and other professional educators who make decisions selecting, planning, and implementing curriculum to facilitate literacy. These kinds of situations increase our awareness of the importance of making wise choices by first, selecting the most appropriate words, and second struggling to select an exactness of the definitional wording we choose that will best meet future needs of our students.

Knowing this we must also be aware that it is usually not the initial use of a word that raises concerns. The dictionary is filled with words and definitions; and most people do not actively engage in trying to write or rewrite those definitions. It is the use of a word in relation to the implementation of something, we believe and value, that may initiate conflict, then it is important for individuals to explain how the use of words or phrases caused the conflict and use this awareness to try and built common understandings that can support everyone's values and maintain or change their beliefs to attain better results for our students.

To avoid or reduce conflict in the first place, knowledgeable people usually consider unpacking key elements of a curricular topic and exploring definitions. As this is done it helps the stake holders recognize beliefs and values associated with key topics and how different definitions for topics change what is advocated for students to know, do, and achieve. Resulting in the selection of key words and definitions which when used to make decisions for students' potential learnings and experiences will have very positive outcomes.

Therefore, it is important to carefully consider all possible alternative views and what will best serve students' future needs. Considering consequences of choices within a wide range of possibilities for students will not only benefit students directly, but will also help establish agreement and cohesiveness among all stake holders on defining what students should know, do, and the intended outcomes. It is good to consider standards, particularly national standards and mandated assessment standards. However, be careful to avoid ideological and dogmatic acceptance that narrows student achievement in less beneficial ways.

Considerations for definitions

Literacy definitions range from the ability to read and write to more modern understandings that extend to all media and even further to include ways of thinking: like ways of thinking scientifically for science literacy, thinking mathematically for math literacy, thinking for cultural literacy and other thinking practices required to understand other kinds of information and create new information in the area.

Literature derives from the Latin - letters, which historically has related to reading and writing; fiction and nonfiction; and prose and poetry. However, over time other media was included among the text: images, charts, diagrams, maps, and in some cases the other media has replaced the text. For example picture books without text as well as multimedia with animation, sound, and no or very limited text. Therefore, to limit a definition of literature to textual material, is a restrictive definition, which doesn't seem appropriate today.

Similarly to focus on reading and writing limits the use of textual documents to those two media (text and images). However, even during ancient times or at the dawn of recording messages on pages, in scrolls, books, and other media there was a need to read orally, dictate information, and listen; all could be considered literature. Similarly, public speaking, theater, and other performances, required knowing more than reading and writing scripts.

Today literature may have been replaced in large part by language arts, to include: reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing and visually representing. While these areas can include literature, media, and the arts; the time devoted is usually greater with those at the beginning of the list (reading and writing) and decreases for those toward the end of the list and dropping off more for literature, media, and the arts. Also instruction is often more skill based with a focus on a standardized fundamental literacy rather than on aesthetic value for different pieces of work and the artistic quality in general. While we don't want to under value the necessity of being skilled in these six areas it isn't appropriate to teach as if these skills are the only necessary outcomes for education. These skills are used in the productive activities for which education was created and to not embed them in what students consider productive activities is miseducation.

Media is a medium or means for communication. Which can range from: words, phrases, stories, poems, speech, print, books, pictures, illustrations, maps, songs, recordings, advertising, social multimedia, animations, art, music, live actors, dancers, graphic novels, e-books, clothes, tapestries, sculpture, internet pages and sites, videos, dramas, musicals, theatrical productions, concerts, and other creative artifacts including specific methods used to create the media: paper, pencil, ink, printers, piano, oil, canvas, violin, actors on a stage, and ...

Art is any thing that is aesthetically pleasing to the viewer and listener. A transaction that communicates information through a piece of work, created by an artist or artists, and experienced by a viewer or listener, who responds to the idea or product to complete the transaction. Important to consider is the positive emotions essential for the transaction to result in an aesthetically pleasing viewer response. Beneficial responses must not only be attributed to the piece of art, but there must also be a critical analysis of the causes of responses. The viewer or listener, through repeated experiences, will develop wisdom to know that certain attributes or elements of the piece created a wonderfully desirable responses and will seek further understanding as to how different attributes or elements cause certain responses. The process of creating greater wisdom to understand and appreciate outstanding art is facilitated with teachers and mentors. Which is necessary to become literate and appreciate art. This requires outstanding teachers who can realize the benefits of a powerful productive education only achievable through multiple literacies. Art in an academic sense includes all media in the broad fields of literature, art, theater, communications, design, music, and any other media which communicates.

Related Information communicated, or a response of a viewer or listener as a result of a transaction with a piece of literature, art, media, music, theater, or other communicative piece. Could range from simple sounds represented by letters, speaking, images, ... ; emotions represented by lines, colors, sounds, animals, words, messages, movements, stories; to collections of all of these in the form of prose, poems, songs, dances, plays, operas, symphonies, or any other media that communicates.

Genre is a category of artistic composition, as in literature, music, art, film, dance, theater ... that is characterized by similarities in subject matter, style, tone or other forms. Often people want to restrict the use of the term to media or literature or sub groups of one or the other. We need to be cautiously open and flexible when using the term genre. (Fiction, nonfiction; prose, poetic; Music - pop, rap, blue-grass, country, jazz, ...; Art ...

We begin to understand each genre by how it is defined. However, simple definitions do not describe the possible creative range of the defining elements among and across genre. How different authors or creators creatively exploit them and how we can better understand them. When we understand different possibilities of a genre's defining elements and those differences across genre and among a genre and its subgenres, we gain not only in our ability to comprehend, analyze, and evaluate, but to appreciate the piece and the creator. To help us better understand the elements that define genre and how we can use them to critically evaluate a piece's quality we must learn to explore the limits of each element by seeing how they can be stretched until they expand reach the limits to know how what might change will push the element past its limits and change the genre beyond its defining elements and transform into another genre. One example, that seems straight forward, but becomes complex, is the element of truth or evidence that determines the classification of a piece in to a genre as fiction, historical fiction, nonfiction, biography, or autobiography. For additional information see elements of genre.

Elements of Story include setting, point of view, characters, tone, style, theme, and plot. These elements are necessary for those deeper definitions and descriptions of literature, literacy, media, and art. Particularly their related information and many of their different forms and genre. See more details for elements of fiction, nonfiction, and elements that extend beyond elements of stories.

Educational issues related to these definitions

A narrow scope of literacy, which only defines literacy in the terms of reading and writing, often results in limiting student experiences to elements of reading and writing at the cost of eliminating sufficient activities to develop literacy in literature, media, and the arts.

Literature as a focus may widen the scope, but it depends if the scope is defined beyond reading and writing. However, even the broadest scope for a curriculum with a strong emphasis on literature may still limit students' education if media and the arts are not included.

A scope of media literacy can narrowly define media to advertising and television viewing, which may limit students' education without sufficient emphasis on reading, writing, listening, speaking, visualizing related to all forms of literature as well as the arts.

A broad scope of literacy with an emphasis on critical analysis of multiple forms of information communication (including reading, writing, listening, speaking, visualizing within literature, media, and the arts) with a desire to attain an aesthetic appreciation for these areas is needed to create life long learners, required to meet the future needs of today's students.

Therefore, it is imperative as professional educators, or other stake holders, that we are aware of how we define literacy, literature, media, the arts, and information, in relationship to the educational curricular and instructional decisions we make, which will affect the activities students participate in and hence their achievement.

For a librarian or media specialist a definition of children's literature is necessary for them to know what kinds of media the library or media center should purchase and include under their listings of children's literature: books, magazines, comic books, graphic novels, videos, tapes, maps, pictures, or musical recordings. Additionally a definition for each kind of media might include subcategories for the holdings and purchases which would need to be further described and categorized by genres to catalog the items obtained.

Similarly, selection committee have descriptions they use to know what different pieces are or are not eligible to be awarded prizes for the different kinds of medals and awards they give.


Whenever, educational issues are discussed there are usually references to literacy and the processes of reading and writing in relationship to life long learning. However, if students are going to achieve more than a utilitarian use of reading and writing, then we must have them explore purposes for literacy beyond reading and writing and that is where literature, literacy, media, the arts, and related information are essential. We must insure that we define these educational terms and include discussions on how they are going to be used. The value for the uses and the limits that will result with the definitions we select. We must be aware of the consequences of narrowly defining certain kinds of knowledge as valuable. Therefore we must seriously inquiry and reflect on the consequences of our decisions both for students and society now and into the future. Not doing so can have negative consequences. It is not a question of will it; it is a question of when.

Research has accumulated with respect to how children learn, how they generalize their learning from one idea to another, and how the process can be facilitated. The evidence suggests the brain functions as a net. As children learn they make connections from one idea to another and the more connected their ideas are the greater the likelihood of them being able to generalize information from a past experience to a new experience in a meaningful manner. A bigger net catches more fish.

The implication of this is: if we choose narrow definitions and hence narrow curriculums, then there will be less connections and smaller nets result in less generalization. This implies curriculums based on broader definitions would have a greater likelihood, for students experiencing those curriculums, to be more successful in the future. Therefore, a definition of literacy that includes multiple literacies results in students who are better prepared for the future. Of course this hinges on the ability of teachers to identify relationships, facilitate thinking skills, and habits of mind that enable students to make and use those connections.

Related to the idea of learning as connections and the idea everything we learn having to be connected to something we presently know is significant for consideration as to the kinds of experiences students have before they come to school and while they are in school. One important consideration is media connections. Students come to school having watched thousands of hours of television, video, and participating in video gaming. It would be plausible to use these media experiences as connecting points to continue to develop student's literacy into other media. Instead of going from text to media as many teachers do, maybe a sequence from media to text and eventually in both directions would be advantageous.

A last issue related to this discussion is the impact of emotions on learning. Again accumulating research and our wisdom of practice seems to support that both positive and negative feelings learners experience will have a respective effect on their learning. Not only within their immediate learning environment in school, but their entire cultural experiences before, during, and after their interactions with a piece of literature, will impact their experiences in ways that most people don't imagine.

I hope this motivates you to seriously reflect and inquire into your definitions for literature, literacy, media, the arts, related information and the values you have for them. As professional educators our choices will have serious consequences for our students. Those who understand these consequences will demonstrate it with the choices you make in the definitions you choose, the goals you set, the outcomes and activities you select, and what you choose to assess.

Additional references to explore can be found at teacher's tools.

Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes