Digital Literacy vs. Literacy in a Digital Medium


Several months ago, I posted a question to Facebook about digital literacy.

What is the role or place of Digital Literacy in a company that values literacy as being vital to reaching its goals?

I have had several months to contemplate the question and I realize that I was a bit ambiguous in my question, or rather my question could not have been understood concisely. Digital Literacy can and is used to mean the proficiency or skills to operate a computer or other electronic device. As is describe on wikipedia:

Digital literacy is the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyze information using digital technology. It involves a working knowledge of current high-technology, and an understanding of how it can be used. Further, digital literacy involves a consciousness of the technological forces that affect culture and human behavior.[ref 1] Digitally literate people can communicate and work more efficiently, especially with those who possess the same knowledge and skills.[ref 2]

This sort of definition of digital literacy is also supported in the way that various organizations approach the issue. For instance: Apple’s Resources for using Apple products in the educational environment, the U.S. Government’s website on Digital Literacy, or Microsoft’s Digital Literacy on-line training program.
The term digital literacy is in a sense an analogy because it equates having a skill set (literacy) which enables an individual to function in a society, with another skill set (being able to use a computer) in the current globalized context of society. I want to push beyond the analogy and ask questions which pertain to literacy as it behaves in a context where the medium being read is no-longer a physical book or newsprint but rather a digital device.

It would appear that monks had a similar issue when they switched to bound books rather than scrolls.


So, while I would have been happy to discuss answers to my Facebook post on this social understanding of digital literacy, I was really aiming for something different. This difference is probably more accurately described as Literacy in digital mediums. Over the last 5 year we have seen the explosion of devices which are designed to help users part with paper (for certain tasks, like reading). Some of the more iconic devices might be the:

  • Sony Reader (Released: September 2006)
  • Kindle (Released: 19 November 2007)
  • NOOK (Released: 30 November 2009)
  • iPad (Released: 3 April 2010).

These devices, change way we the readers experience the message. This is not just the navigation of the devices or the acquisition of reading material but more specifically, context of the message. Because reading is a communicative event (as is also authoring or writing), it is important to consider the whole context of the message not just the words of the message. This would mean that issues like user experience are part of the total message (communication) because they create the context of the message.

We listen with our eyes.

What I would like to particularly look at is how the message is affected by the context and the medium. That is, I want to ask some questions and make some observations on issues like font choice, and page layout strategies. Overall, these issues along with the issues help shape the context of the message and therefore also shape the received meaning. Ask the question, What is the User Experience? and therefore also asking How is the context shaping what the communicated message is?

I would like to look at four factors which affect the interpretation of the text:

  • Color
  • Font Face
  • Page Position
  • Usage of Lists.


In cases of dialogue color can be used to provide continuity throughout the dialogue, so that the reader can follow which words belong to which person.

Example of a conversation from Alice in Wonderland

Which words belong to which interlocutor in this picture?

In the above example from Alice in Wonderland, which set of text belongs to which interlocutor? Is color the only clue given to the reader to help them determine “Who says what?” No. Text position and page layout is also used to help the reader determine which roles the interlocutors play. But we can assume that Alice starts the conversation because her text appears first. A reader would also assume that starts the conversation because she has a blue dress, and there is blue text. This assumption is also reinforced by there being a red cat and red text.

Color, in a digital context can also indicate interactive features. (But this may be more in line with digital literacy, as it is popularly recognized than with just literacy in a digital medium.) However, even in a purely physical, non-digital medium, color and font can and do show prominence by directing the eye and inhibiting or assist in comprehension of the semantically relevant ideas. The ideas for indicating interactive features in a digital context stem from ideas which were already established in the non-digital print world, particularly from the communicative value that text presented differently from the norm (however that is presented in the text) should be understood by the experiencer (reader) as having a different value or importance or relevance. Just as there are semantics in the concepts expressed via the text, the text itself also carries its own semantics.

What is communicated in this chart via the alternation of text? What is prominent to the reader?

What is communicated in this chart via the alternation of text? What is prominent to the reader?

Font Face

Fonts are not just the means of expressing the words of a written element of communication, they are also not just for making things “easy to read” for people learning to read minority languages with exotic alphabets and orthographies. Fonts can express mood and provide a iconicity value to various elements in the message. Without getting into typography, I would like to demonstrate some of the various ways that iconicity adds context and depth to the written message.

Periodic Table of Typefaces

Periodic Table of Typefaces displaying various emotions presented through fonts.

If we were to talk about knights and Castles we might use a font which invokes the social thought and mood around the medieval era. However, if we were to talk about,
Lucky Luke and the Wild, Wild West, we might need a different font, one which might remind us of the Saloon’s marquee sign. Likewise, if we were to talk about NASA and the Space Program, we might use a different font to express modern or Sci-fi moods. Of course these moods might vary culturally, or regionally.

So fonts do provide the reader with additional meaning not derived from the actual words in the text. What then is the affect on the general notion of literacy or the communicative event of which reading is a part? Let’s look at another example of fonts being used to convey meaning, but not being used to convey mood. To do this lets look at the video trailer for a book by Lane Smith[ref 3][ref 4] . The whole video is embedded below, but there are some screen shots prior to the whole video which I will discuss.

How is the Font-Face Pattern established?

How is the Font-Face Pattern established? Is color used? Is page positioning used?

A was discussed previously, font-face, font color, and page position can all be used to provide continuity to the reader (experiencer).

Is page position necessary?

Is page position necessary? Or can the reader infer context based on Font-Face and font color?

However, even if a pattern is established with page position, the pattern is still violable without confusing the reader because there is continuity based on font-face and font color. Notice how in this image that the text each interlocutor “says” occurs in a different order than the interlocutors do on the page.

Who is talking

How does the reader know who is talking in this image? Is it the donkey or is it monkey?

What if the interlocutor who is speaking is not visible on the page, nor is the subject of the visual stimulus, nor is the subject of the textual input? Is it still clear to the reader who is talking? Font-face can play a role in maintaining continuity for the reader while other visual stimulus provides context. So some context is provided by the image, some by the font-face, and some by the meaning of the words themselves.

How does the reader infer or know who is talking?

How does the reader infer or know who is talking?

In this image the reader can infer based on page position and on color of the texts, which words are “being spoken” by which interlocutor.

Which of the interlocutors says this line?

Which of the interlocutors says this line? How does the reader know this?

The line of text in this image does not match any previously established pattern. The reader must decide what to do with this discontinuity. The reader must then decide if the discontinuity matches any possibilities provided by any other input sources. In this case a third character is being introduced.

Page Position

As we have seen in the discussion on the Alice in Wonderland image and in the images from It’s a book position on a page can help the reader comprehend who is saying what in a dialogue. However, these are not the only examples of position on a page giving the reader additional information. Here are some other examples:

  • Addresses on a letter.
    Who is the letter from? - Image of an envelope.

    Who is the letter from? How does the reader know this?

  • The form of a professional letter.
    Image of the form of a letter. - What is it about the format of this layout which tells us that this is a letter, and not an academic paper?

    What is it about the format of this layout which tells us that this is a letter, and not an academic paper?

  • The outline of a newspaper.

    Where is the first article?

Usage of Lists.

In this last part in the section of on listening with our eyes, I want to address the importance of lists in conveying semantic meaning. To do this I will use a verse from Hebrews, a letter written in Koine Greek to ethnically Jewish Christians around the first century A.D. Hebrews is part of the Christian scriptures, therefore its translation is of vigorously tested and critiqued. The particular verse which I have in mind to illustrate from is Hebrews 7:26. So to get a feeling for the semantics of the verse I have included several translations below:

Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. – New International Version (NIV)[ref 5]

He is the kind of high priest we need because he is holy and blameless, unstained by sin. He has been set apart from sinners and has been given the highest place of honor in heaven. – New Living Translation (NLT)

For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; – King James Version (KJV)

Τοιοῦτος γὰρ ἡμῖν καὶ ἔπρεπεν ἀρχιερεύς, ὅσιος, ἄκακος, ἀμίαντος, κεχωρισμένος ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτωλῶν, καὶ ὑψηλότερος τῶν οὐρανῶν γενόμενος· – SBL Greek New Testament[ref 6]

[gloss]Τοιοῦτος γὰρ ἡμῖν καὶ ἔπρεπεν ἀρχιερεύς, ὅσιος, ἄκακος, ἀμίαντος, κεχωρισμένος ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτωλῶν, καὶ ὑψηλότερος τῶν οὐρανῶν γενόμενος·
For-such for-hp3 to-us indeed was-suitable a-high-priest, holy, harmless, undefiled, having-been-separated from DEF.PL.GEN.ART-hp3 sinners, and higher-[than] the heavens becoming; [/gloss] – The interlinear KJV/NIV parallel: New Testament in Greek and English[ref 7]Those elements appended by [-hp3] were added by me.The Greek text in the NKJV Greek English interlinear New Testament[ref 8] was also consulted.

So the question to the presenter of this verse is How do the elements in the list relate to each other? and then, if they do relate to each other, How can these relationships be communicated in a list (also using English words) to the reader (or experiencer) of the message? At this point, does the arrangement of the text on a page in a list actually communicate more about the ideas and the various associations among those ideas than the the linear use of the comma (,) as is traditionally used to present these elements?

Lets diagram some of these as lists and then lets compare that with some of the helps from An exegetical summary of Hebrews[ref 9] .


    Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is:

    • holy
    • blameless
    • pure
    • set apart from sinners
    • exalted above the heavens

NLT 1 –

    He is the kind of high priest we need because:

    • he is holy
    • he is blameless, unstained by sin.

    He has been:

    • set apart from sinners
    • given the highest place of honor in heaven.

Alternative analysis of the NLT text:
NLT 2 –

    He is the kind of high priest we need because:

    • he is holy
    • he is blameless, unstained by sin.
    • He has been:
      • set apart from sinners
      • given the highest place of honor in heaven.

KJV 1 –

    For such an high priest became us,

    • who is holy,
    • harmless,
    • undefiled,
    • separate from sinners,
    • and made higher than the heavens;

KJV 2 –

    For such an high priest became us,

    • who is holy,
    • harmless,
    • undefiled,
    • separate from sinners,

    and made higher than the heavens;KJV 1 is the way that I would understand the KJV if I were to read it as is. KJV 2 is the way that Willis Ott suggests that it should be presented.[ref 10] His analysis is that these four elements really are a set of doublets, with the doublet being a hebrew structure and a double set of doublets showing emphasis. He further states that the last phrase or clause should not be connected with these other four elements.

As we see above there is several ways that this verse can be constructed into a bulleted list. Sometimes these are ambiguous, sometimes the punctuation supports the given ideas and sometimes not. But if we are to consider translating items into list we need to know the semantics behind how these items are related, in order to make accurate lists. In this particular case the semantics are difficult to clearly identify. (Heath 2011, p. 197-206)[ref 11]

Suggestion based on An exegetical summary of Hebrews, but interpreted by me to an list form. –

    Jesus, Christ was the exact kind of high-priest we (those of us who are saved) needed, none other would meet the need,

    • For the reasons already mentioned and the ones following:
      • holy, undefiled, innocent
      • forever, separated from sinners
      • Being exalted in his place of glory (having the dignity he deserves).An exegetical summary of Hebrews does also suggest that the discourse unit is Hebrews 7:26-28, so the whole discourse unit should be taken into account when creating such a list. The previous, discourse unit is listed as Hebrews 7:18-25 and Hebrews 7:23-25, as a subsection of the verses 18-25.

Suggestion based on My own understanding. –

    Jesus became our high-priest, which we needed:

    • Distinct from other humans: (A point needed to be made to contrast with an earlier point that Jesus is human. But also summarizing the following three supporting points)
      • Holy
      • undefiled
      • innocent

      (These three supporting points seem to also match the necessary description for a sacrificial lamb which is needed for under the “old” Jewish sacrifice system, and a Jewish audience should know that, and it also reinforces some other points about Jesus’ nature.)

    • Raised to heaven in a position of deity and glory.

One other point which is worth mentioning is the prominence of points made in an argument. That is, which points are the thesis points and which ones are the supporting points. In English we have a tendency to put the thesis points first and the supporting points following the thesis (or the most important point first and the less important points second). But it is my understanding of Koine Greek, that the tendency is the reverse.Professor Stephen H. Levinsohn helped me to establish this understanding when I was his student studying typology and discourse at SIL-UND. That is, supporting points are put first and are followed by thesis points later in the discourse unit, with abnormalities in grammar structures showing emphasis. This deserves some consideration when converting things to list formats which imply relationships. (This level of discourse was not accounted or in my above suggestion for Hebrews 7:26). Graphically, this could be handled in several different ways:

  1. More indented points (supporting points) could be more indented than their following thesis points:
      • Supporting point
      • Supporting point
    • Thesis point
  2. Or a list indented points (supporting points) could be less indented than their following thesis points:
    • Supporting point
    • Supporting point
      • Thesis point
  3. Or it could be more like an English way of presenting the content like:
    • Thesis point
      • Supporting point
      • Supporting point

    But this last way of presenting lists is probably the least likely to match the user’s expected sense of information flow in cultures and languages which present the supporting points first and the thesis last.

So, in considering the information structure and the list structure I am not willing to say that the Suggestion based on My own understanding as presented above is actually a good translation into list form. Further more, to get a good translation into list form, I would likely need to consult and evaluate the discourse unit as a whole, not just the individual verse. But one of the possibilities would be that the two points in my list would switch their order, if indeed switching the order would visually represent the desired emphasis the original author intended.

I this section titled We listen with our eyes I hope to have made clear some of aspect of information transmission which affect the message given to readers. I hope to have shown that the communicative act of reading involves more than just the comprehension of text and the ideas that the words the text represent would bring to mind. These ideas have relevance in both traditional non-digial reading materials and in digital reading materials.

New Literacy on Digital Devices

To this point we have looked at how content is arranged to show relevance visually. But now I want to ask some questions and begin to approach Literacy in a Digital Medium. One could argue that ever since the first computer monitor Literacy in a Digital Medium has existed. However, it really hasn’t been until the advent of the PDF (and now the .epub format) and the personal eReader that socially we have seen an increase in moving away from paper reading and a move towards reading from a digital platform. A society’s relationship with the medium from which it reads has an effect on what it reads, and the level of knowledge transmission it derives from reading said content.

Ideas which have traditionally dominated the landscape of literacy are beginning to change. Ideas like the page, and the book. These concepts have shaped the way we think about literacy and have through about literacy since reading became popular and it was common for the general populace to be literate. However, in today’s world of digital mediums, it is important to not only think of the message, but also how that message is going to be delivered. This means, respecting the mediums which are presenting the content.

Digital Reader for the Qur'an in the back of an airplane seat.

Digital Reader for the Qur'an in the back of an airplane seat.

Where has the page gone?

First we had scrolls, then we had pages, then we had web-pages, and then we had web-pages which scrolled. Yet today with eBooks and other media where the content flows from one screen space to the next, the page has given way to the screen. The page in print media was a solid reference point for deriving contextual information. A page had a number, it had content, it had layout and people with photographic memory could draw you the page after the book was closed. With eReaders this is all changing. Content still has containers, but the container is no-longer the page. Now with an eReader, if you cannot see small text easily, then make the font size larger with the click of a button. The extra text just flows to the next screen. The text may still be related in terms of semantic structure, but it is no-longer bound to a visual structure as it was in a non-digital page. It may not be helpful to consider the page as being important in literacy, but if we consider that literacy is one way to experience a communicative event, then now that the page has changed, we need to consider the communicative event anew. People rely on visual information for context, and for reference in interpreting the information asserted in the message.

Books? What are those?

The first eReaders, like the Sony eReader listed previously, did not have a high graphical element when compared with devices like the iPad today. But if we are going to consider the notion of the Book, then we need to consider What is a book on an eReader? I have a few examples blow in multi-media format showing a few books: Press Here,[ref 12] Wild About Books,[ref 13] Snugly ABC Flip Flap,[ref 14] .

Books, and literacy has always been about interaction. Children’s books like Press Here are no less about interaction. Press Here, is about interaction with the book itself, not just with the cerebral concepts contained in the text. What the iPad offers, that other eReaders, up to a point, didn’t offer is the reactionary feed back from the book itself. Books like Wild About Books shows this level of interactive and tactile feedback.

Different resources for different mediums and respecting the medium

When considering publishing in a digital medium i.e. to ebooks (.epub via ibooks) .vs. apps vs. scripture in texts, the iPad has changed the publishing, and the self-publishing world. It has also changed the user expectations for interacting with content and is a new medium for delivering a given set of semantic ideas and their relationships to each other. I am not talking about flash and bang or bling-bling. I am talking about the way that people expect to be able to interact with the content. For instance, Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit,[ref 15] might always be best interacted with as a story where it is assumed the engager with the content wants to start from the beginning of the story and then progress through to the end of the story in a progressive function as the author intended when composing the story and printing it piece mill in various volumes of a regular periodical. Now, in 2012, a user might want to jump to a page or a chapter (features which resemble and mimic the user experience of the original medium), but it is highly unlikely that a user will want to run statistics on the text to see how many times a certain word is used or which paragraph reference an event in a certain location of the story (features which more resemble the native abilities of the iPad).

Now take the user and experience around Little Dorrit and contrast it with SIL’s Ethnologue,[ref 16] which is also a book. However, the plot in the Ethnolouge is rather underdeveloped when compared with the plot of Dickens’ book. It is because the book (the Ethnologue) is really a database with a style sheet applied and printed to a bound PDF. However, a user would not (and dare I say should not) expect to interact with the content of a reference book in the same manner as they would with a novel, or even a news paper article. Dictionaries are full of meaning yet have very little plot. Similarly telephone books are full of interesting characters and yet don’t take the time to develop the characters’ depth.

This contrast between reference works and books with plots has some implications for publishing and literacy. If publishing approaches the iPad as simply another eReader then it will produce books like the Ethnologue in a static manner akin to PDFs on the iPad. Sure text may flow or the user might be able to change the font size. But this is not embracing the iPad as a change in medium. The iPad is actually a change in medium in the same sense that written and oral are in different mediums. The iPad moves from static to interactive-dynamic.

So a user of a database like book might actually be better off with an app where these features really can be harnessed and an appropriate user experience delivered. This has some really big implications for publishing – Like What will typesetting a dictionary look like? Well, if it is an app then one needs a whole different skill set than if one were to produce a PDF version of the dictionary.

The Christian scriptures are an interesting mix of reference and plot. It is used both ways, as book with a plot and as a reference book. And then power users also want to highlight, compare and cross-referece, share and export, and, and, and… I have downloaded and used the Bible apps by Olivetree, Logos Bible, and YouVersion. None of them have hit the sweet spot for me yet, through all of them boast some of the features I mention here.

So, while I am an advocate for using the iPad, I am also saying that we need to be mindful that when we publish to it we are publishing to a different medium and we need to respect that medium. We need to use that medium for what it is. If that means developing an app rather than a PDF or .epub, then that is what it means for production teams. But this does not speak directly to literacy, or does it?

Where does all this lead?

What is literacy? and back to my Facebook post question: What does digital literacy mean for a company who values literacy as one of its goals?

Is literacy the ability to interpret phonetic values from glyphs and characters? or is literacy the ability to comprehend semantic concepts as they are expressed by an author through a given medium?

If it is the later, then for every medium composers and authors need to be able to respect that medium and learn how it is affecting users, and in this case the message communicated. So, in a real sense, sometimes taking content from one medium to another is very similar to the translation of the content from one language to another language. This is a real and necessary step when we consider the position of literacy in a digital medium in U.S. culture. Here is how Bob Mondello states it:

And here we are, catching up to that vision of the future. Sales of physical books dropped 30 percent last year, while e-book sales more than doubled. Sales of DVDs fell during that same period, while online streaming rose. And in 2011, for the first time, digital music downloads overtook sales of CDs. It’s as if we’re deciding en masse that when it comes to the arts and entertainment, we can do without the actual object that is the object of our affection. Who needs real-world clutter in an age when everything streams? – National Public Radio[ref 17]

Some may say that, “In Africa, we don’t have to worry about digital readers because people can’t afford them yet. We will worry about them when people can afford them. And more importantly, the question is, are these issues relevant to readers of minority languages around the world?” I say they are. What does it say about my language if my langauge is not able to be used with modern technology? In response to Africa and developing nations and their populations (often minority language speakers), we saw that they jumped a human generation of technology. They went from not having electricity to having cell phones.[ref 18][ref 19]

Bekowe Skhakhane of South Africa uses her cellphone to talk to her husband, who works in a steel factory 250 miles away.

Bekowe Skhakhane of South Africa uses her cellphone to talk to her husband, who works in a steel factory 250 miles away.

It would seem to me that the potential is there for another jump to occur. It may be starting today with these tablets and eReaders, but my guess is that it will take another 3-4 generations (3-4x 18 months) of technology before we see products which are cheap enough to push into markets in developing countries. It is at that point that if minority language content is not available in the user’s language that technology will accelerate the loss of minority language use, rather than promote the use of minority language use.


  1. Laura J. Gurak. 2003. Cyberliteracy: Navigating the Internet With Awareness. New Haven: Yale University Press. [ISBN-13: 978-0300101577] []
  2. Wikipedia contributors. 25 March 2012 13:46 UTC. Digital literacy. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. [Link] [Accessed: 30 April 2012]
  3. Lane Smith. 2010. It’s a book. Roaring Brook Press. []
  4. Music video, including the adding of the text, on Youtube by: Kees Schafrat: schafrat01, Music: Primary Colors by french composers Paris & Fauret.
  5. Biblica, Inc. 1973. New International Version. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan.
  6. Society of Biblical Literature and Logos Bible Software. 2010. SBL Greek New Testament.
  7. Alfred Marshall. 1992. The interlinear KJV/NIV parallel: New Testament in Greek and English. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan.
  8. Arthur L. Farstad. 1994. The NKJV Greek English interlinear New Testament: features word studies & New King James parallel text. Nashville, Tenn: T. Nelson Publishers. []
  9. J. Harold Greenlee. 1998. An exegetical summary of Hebrews. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics. ISBN: 1-55671-073-9 []
  10. Willis Ott. 1997. Some notes for translating the written sermon that is commonly called Hebrews. A Consultant’s Notes for Translation Series. Vol. 10. Part A. Summer Institute of Linguistics — Sudan Branch: Nairobi, Kenya. [Published as a limited circulation Draft Edition]
  11. David Heath. 2011. Chiastic Structures in Hebrews: A Study of Form and Function in Biblical Discourse. Dissertation: University of Stellenbosch. [PDF] [Accessed: 2 May 2012]
  12. Hervé Tullet. 2011. Press Here. Chronicle Books. [Link]
  13. Judy Sierra and Marc Brown. 2004. Wild About Books. Knopf Books for Young Readers. [iTunes] []
  14. Regina Schwartz and Michael Schober. 2011. Snugly ABC Flip Flap. Esslinger Verlag J. F. Schreiber GmbH, Esslingen. [iTunes]
  15. Charles Dickens. 1855-1857. Little Dorrit. Bradbury and Evans.
  16. M. Paul Lewis. (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 16th Edn. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International.
  17. Bob Mondello. 20 February 2012. Our Media, Ourselves: Are We Headed For A Matrix?. National Public Radio. . [Link] [Accessed: 2 May 2012]
  18. Elisabeth Rosenthal. 25 December 2010. African Huts Far From the Grid Glow With Renewable Power. New York Times. [Link] [Accessed: 2 May 2012]
  19. Sharon LaFraniere. 25 August 2005. Cellphones Catapult Rural Africa to 21st Century. New Your Times. [Link] [Second Link] [Accessed: 2 May 2012]

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