Monday, March 5, 2012

Guest Lecture from Professor Sue Thomas

Transliteracy: what is it and how can we measure it?

Hello everyone, it’s a pleasure to work with you this week. I’m writing from the heart of England, where I live in a small cottage about 15 miles from the city of Leicester. Spring is about to start here, so the first flowers are starting to appear and the days are getting longer. It’s great that the internet allows us to communicate so easily across the world and I’m very much looking forward to talking about transliteracy with you this week!

Transliteracy is the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks. To put it another way, being transliterate involves being open to difference and prioritising what unites us rather than what divides us.

From your point of view, transliteracy is especially important in terms of your learning experiences. A 2010 article said this about my research at De Montfort University:

The media's teenage stereotype is that of a girl watching Hollyoaks on television while simultaneously discussing its plot lines on the social networking site Facebook, listening to music on MySpace and texting her friend to discuss home study. Sue Thomas is exploring the impact that transliteracy is having on higher education and pedagogy. In transliterate terms, many academics are in essence illiterate, which matters if their teaching relationship with hyper-transliterate students is breaking down because of an inability to communicate fully with each other. If academics cannot show themselves to be transliterate, will they lose the respect of their students?

It continues:
Meanwhile, a committee looking at the impact of the "Google generation" on HE (Higher Education) has found that 95% of students are members of an online social network and that more than 50% have a blog or website. These transliterate students arrive at university with a set of assumptions about how they will use these skills in their education, and have difficulty if such assumptions are questioned.Should tutors be expecting, even demanding, that students communicate with each other electronically? Communication tools such as Second Life, the web-based virtual world, involve creating alternative identities. Should students be expected or required to generate these for themselves? Professor Thomas believes that as transliteracy travels up the HE agenda, academics will be obliged to add new forms of communication to their portfolio of teaching methods. There is a debate to be had with applicants. The evidence is that students still want face-to-face contact, and value that. Some do not see new technology as the core of learning, even though they may spend two or three hours a day on the web. What do they expect? What do they want? What are they prepared for? A transliterate study style incorporates a range of learning modes, combining traditional face-to-face lectures, seminars and tutorials with online classes via the web and mobile media. [ from ‘Getting In Getting On! A Guide to getting into Higher Education’ by Rob Brown & Mike Chant 2010)

Do you agree with their conclusion that young people of today are transliterate?
Do you consider yourself to be transliterate?

This week I’d like to look at various different approaches to transliteracy and invite you think about how you might measure transliteracy in yourself and others.

I have some reading for you, some videos, and a task. I advise you do them in the following order but feel free to pick and mix if that suits you better.

Reading and Watching
1.     First, think about the article extract above in terms of some of the references. Social media has changed since it was written in 2010. Which of the platforms listed there do you use? If you were revising it to publish now, what changes would you make?
2.     Watch my Transliteracy lecture
3.     Dip into the Transliteracy Research Group blog
4.     Librarians are very excited about transliteracy. Find out why from Bobbi Newman’s slideshow Libraries and Transliteracy
5.     Bobbi’s work inspired librarian Brian Hulsey to make an amusing video about making a blueberry smoothie the transliterate way
6.     Transliteracy also inspired one of my former students, Mary King, an English journalist living in Japan, to make this very meditative film: Transliteracy - The Spirit of Kanji
7.     This journal article sums up much of what I say in the video lecture: Transliteracy: Crossing Divides by Sue Thomas, Chris Joseph, Jess Laccetti, Bruce Mason, Simon Mills, Simon Perril, and Kate Pullinger, First Monday, Volume 12 Number 12 - 3 December 2007
8.     Check out the #transliteracy tag on Twitter!/saved-search/transliteracy
9.     Tweet your thoughts and questions on transliteracy to me @suethomas using the tag #transliteracy
Imagine that you have been asked to measure the transliteracy levels of students and teachers at your school. How would you do this? Post your suggestions and we’ll discuss them. I look forward to seeing your ideas.


  1. Hello Sue,

    Really interesting post! I came into my teenage years in the early 00s, so I imagine I may be part of one the first truly transliterate generations.

    Growing up with the Internet and other digital technologies, I would definitely consider myself to be a transliterate person. As I'm writing this comment, I have my Twitter feed open on the screen all while I'm watching television in the background. To be honest, I didn't really pay much attention to that fact I do these things until I starting doing the course readings on transliteracy.

    I'm wondering if you think that the idea of transliteracy will become as important as ba person being traditionally literate. As more and more generations grow up, I can't help but feel that the traditional idea of literacy is going to become outdated as it doesn't necessarily include forms of media other than print, which is becoming less dominant as far as the tools we use to communicate are concerned.



    1. Hi Jarett

      Thanks for your question. It's a good one and I think you're right. Whether we call it literacy or transliteracy in the future, the important thing is to escape from thinking about communication in a linear fashion and to look at the issue holistically. You can try it by making a map of all of your own individual literacies and how you apply them - who do you talk to face to face the most and when? Ditto SMS and phone. Ditto email, Facebook, Twitter etc. When do you use simple non-verbal language - a glance, a gaze, a handshake? When do you use or 'read' images, video, audio? And so on. Each of us has a set of preferences which evolve and change over time. The fact that you are more aware of your own transliterate landscape will help you analyse the way you communicate and may show up some interesting opportunities to experiment with other literacies you may not be using very much.

      I'm curious to know - do you think your ability to multitask has changed your interaction with the world?

  2. Re: Testing transliteracy - ideas:

    Test the ability to complete specific tasks on various media – use the definition above for guidance, that is, "read, write and interact" over the range of "platforms, tools and media". Start with the very simple and common analog tasks then move on to digital media. Progress through a variety of common and simple applications and then to more complex and uncommon platforms or media. Test subjects would complete the ones they can and leave the ones they can’t (or do their best). This would be like an IQ test where there will always be some (more or less) that you can’t do. Also like an IQ test it would need to be culturally aligned to the subject group. This test would be subjective.

    Alternately or additionally: Test by assigning an outcome and asking the test recipients to use their literacies and creativity to deliver the outcome in as many ways as possible. Remixes and mashups would garner additional "points". Evaluation would also include the uniqueness of the solutions. This test would be subject to the values and (arbitrary) judgement of the judges.

    1. Hi Barb

      This sounds like a very good plan. Can you give me some idea of a typical set of tasks? What exactly would you ask someone to do in relation to, say, proving that they can write? Is it enough to be able to write your name? Or should you be able to write an entire page with perfect spelling and grammar? Likewise, re say being literate in blogging, should you be able to simply add a comment, as I am doing here, or should you be able to program the software which makes a blog? Or are there levels in between? How would you grade them?

  3. Sue, I think you've posed a really interesting challenge in asking how one would measure transliteracy levels in teachers and students. If the "transliterate lifeworld is highly subjective, diverse and complicated . . . not one kind of place but many" (Thomas et al. 2007) then the issues of individual experience and interpretation come into play. Not the stuff of standardized testing or easy measurement.

    My sense from my reading/listening/transliterate absorption of material this week is that the most important prerequisite for transliteracy is having an open mind about sources of information or knowledge. For those of us who completed most of our schooling in an era which prized print literacy above other forms, this means a paradigm shift, or, at the minimum, some reflection. In light of this, I appreciate the smorgasbord of sources for reflection that you've presented to us this week, Sue!

    I particularly appreciated the Spirit of Kanji video. I lived in Japan teaching ESL some years ago and learned to read the two syllabaries, or kana - comparatively easy stuff, given their phonetic nature. I also learned to read some easy kanji. Those related to geography, such as mountain, river, tree, water, and island show up in many place names and so are easy to learn from a railway map, just as those for fish, beef, tofu, and sake are easy to learn from a menu. The curious thing I've found about kanji is that, in many cases, I still know the meaning of a particular kanji even though I've forgotten the pronunciation. So, in an odd way, my literacy skills in Japanese exceed my speaking abilities. Or does knowing the meaning of a symbol, but not being able to speak its sound, even count as literacy?

    The Spirit of Kanji video also got me thinking about my 87-year-old father-in-law. As he eschews the computer and everything to do with it, he is not an obvious model of transliteracy. However, he has made a serious study of kanji for many years, and has extremely high literacy in that realm. He is also a passionate gardener who carries, in his head, encyclopedic knowledge of plants and the natural environment he lives in. Is being able to look at a plant and knowing what it needs to thrive, and when it will yield fruit, a kind of literacy, just as the Australian Aboriginal Dreaming songs can be seen as a form of literacy? If transliteracy "is not just about computer-based materials, but about all communication types across time and culture" ((Thomas et al. 2007) then does the sharing of gardening knowledge between my father-in-law and mother-in-law count as transliteracy?

    If transliteracy is as broad as I'm thinking it is, then measuring it would mean looking at all the ways a person interprets their world, and how they share it with others. Again, a difficult thing to quantify!

  4. Hi Komori, I'm very interested in your remark that 'in an odd way, my literacy skills in Japanese exceed my speaking abilities' and your question 'does knowing the meaning of a symbol, but not being able to speak its sound, even count as literacy?' I feel sure that the latter must be true, and is certainly true of people who have no facility of speech. As a side comment, I've heard that some deaf people who use sign language find it far superior to spoken language - although sadly I can't remember examples. So yes the symbol must have equal weight. And I think it's quite common for people to be more 'literate' in text than in words. I've noticed for example that some people who are very self-taught from books can sometimes pronounce words wrongly simply because they've read them but have never heard them spoken.

    I agree that transliteracy is difficult to quantify, which is why I asked you all that question! Or is it something we should not seek to measure at all? What do you think?

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Sue. The study of kanji requires an understanding of culture, language, etymology, and technique, so I suppose there is an element of literacy even if one doesn't know the sounds associated with a character. (As an added perk, I can read bits and pieces of Chinese menus without speaking any Chinese - a transliteracy party trick, perhaps.) I appreciate your sign language reference - that helps to put the distinction between symbol and speech into context.

    In terms of how and whether we should seek to measure concern would be about finding measurement tools that don't reflect the biases of the tester.

    Someone who prizes visual literacy might measure those being tested on how easily they can communicate their ideas visually. However, that may not be a meaningful form of communication to the person being tested, and they may have developed proficiency in a range of other communication media that the tester hasn't even thought about.

    Similarly, because of our current (justifiable) fascination with new digital technologies for communication, testers might privilege newer, more novel forms of literacy above others.

    Ultimately, what would be the purpose of testing for transliteracy in students and teachers? In the past, reading and arithmetic skills were tested in order to place students into appropriate classes. Would that be the goal of transliteracy testing? Perhaps the time, planning, and energy that would be required for testing would be better spent giving students and teachers time to explore and engage with different media.

    1. One of the benefits of probing (I like that word better than testing)into the transliteracy levels would be the surfacing of them as desirable skills and giving students and teachers an opportunity to demonstrate the knowledge they possess that isn't captured in most testing. I have a child who is brilliant at conveying information if you ask him to create a poster illustrating a subject, but struggles if asked to write it in essay form.

    2. Komori, I'm not sure myself whether there would be benefits in transliteracy testing but you'd be surprised how often I am asked whether it is possible. Educationalists and policy makers like to be able to evaluate whether initiatives are working and that usually means measurement. But it does beg the question 'is measurement transliterate behaviour?'. Personally I don't see why it shouldn't be.

  6. Measuring the transliteracy levels of students and teachers might be different than measuring the skills they possess in order to be transliterate. Some of those skills would include knowing how to make and upload a video, how to distil information into brief paragraphs and write captions, how to choose photos and music and embed it into their presentations – these would be some of the entry level skills to transliteracy and could be likened to learning the alphabet as the entry level skill for reading. So that’s probably where I would begin in an examination of their levels of transliteracy beyond text.

    After that, I would look at their comfort levels with different social media applications and creating websites, using HTML, etc. Can they create a multi-media presentation that uses photos, texts, a soundtrack, etc? If they have those skills and are comfortable sourcing information on the Web, then I think that would be evidence of being transliterate.

    While on the Transliteracy Research Group blog, I stumbled upon Lane Wilkinson’s blog,, where he posted an illustration that shows transliteracy as part of literacy and not the same as evaluative literacy – the ability to make sense of the information found. So he sees transliteracy as the skills and information literacy as being “all about evaluation.”

    He also describes transliteracy as being about the containers and information literacy about the content. Having read what you and others were saying about the relationships between literacies and the connections both new and ancient, that I would describe transliteracy as being about more than the containers, but also about the relationships (in fairness to Wilkinson, I think he’d agree. I really liked the line in the essay “Transliteracy: Crossing Divides” that said, “Transliteracy is an inclusive concept which bridges and connects past, present and, hopefully, future modalities.”(Joseph et al., n.d.)

    1. And I'd just add that there is a strong feminist undertone with the inclusion of the soft technologies of the past, building on relationships and culture and not on the bricks and mortar aspects of text.

    2. Judith, I appreciate that you've brought information literacy into this discussion. UNESCO has identified information literacy as a "basic human right" and notes that "the ability to navigate in cyberspace and negotiate hypertext multimedia documents requires both the technical skills to use the Internet and the literacy skills to interpret the information" (UNESCO, N.d.)

      I find UNESCO's distinction between technical skills and literacy skills a valuable one. In my (casual and admittedly unscientific) observation of my teenagers and their friends, it seems that the entire group has fairly developed technical skills in navigating various media.

      However, there are some differences in how fully they interpret and make sense of content - which I think is what Wilkinson terms "evaluative literacy," and which UNESCO considers "literacy skills" within a larger definition of information literacy. So in evaluating transliteracy skills, it may be valuable to remember that technical proficiency in navigating particular platforms - using the tools - is only half the equation. The other half of the equation is being able to understand the context of the content being consumed and created within a broader media ecology.

      UNESCO (N. d.)

    3. Judith,
      I agree with you that transliteracy is also about relationships - in fact maybe they are one of the most key elements. The feminism is an interesting aspect too, maybe wrapped up with the characteristics of sensitive listening which we tend to attribute to men, though of course that is always a delicate road to go down.

      The distinction between technical and literacy skills always draws my attention to the fact that some individuals are keen technical problem solvers, and some are not. Some might be, but have learned to be afraid of technical problems. I know someone who has huge difficulties with using computers and also with reading and writing, yet she skilfully handcrafts the most intricate machine embroidery I have ever seen. I can't figure out whether her skill in that area has pushed out the potential for other skills, or whether she was told at an early age that whatever skills she displayed then had no value because they did not comply with what was being measured. What I'm trying to say is that for the most part one can only make serious headway with learning if it engages one's curiosity and involves confidence somewhere along the line. It's very complicated.

  7. Thanks Sue,

    The information you’ve given us this week was very interesting and I love how you capitalized on multiple modes of media about transliteracy to get your message across.

    While watching the videos and doing the readings, many ideas popped into my head. I apologize for jumping from idea to idea, but your presentation and clips sparked many ideas for me.

    For example, I recall watching a video of Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author of Blink and The Tipping Point, where he was asked where he finds his stories. Gladwell responded that he tells everyone he meets what he’s working on and people naturally share their stories. He works as a “connector”, which is a term he helped to coin in The Tipping Point, and makes connections between previously separated people and their stories. You can find a version of this question and his response on his site.

    When you were were describing N. K. Hayles’ concept of different cognitive styles, I was listening to it with my partner. He turned to me and said, “that’s me and the other one’s you”. And, he was right. He works as a bike messenger and has trouble reading for long periods. He loves video games, navigating traffic while speeding downtown and hates to be bored. He is the epitome of hyper attention, but I can move from hyper attention to deep attention when needed. I can read for long periods and I rarely get bored. However, I do like to listen to music or the television while I work and can easily multi-task. But you were right that age is not responsible for these differences; he's nine years older than me.

    When you mentioned the earliest forms of writing, I couldn't help but recall the Narmer Palette. The Narmer Palette is one of the earliest records of hieroglyphic writing in Ancient Egypt. There's a replica of this stone palette at our Royal Ontario Museum and you can see it here.

    To answer your question about how to test transliteracy, I would use a method similar to other students, where I would give them a task and see how many ways they could convey the meaning. For example, I would tell them to tell someone else what the weather is like outside and then count how many ways they could do it. They could call, Tweet, email, blog, record a video, and more ways. If we wanted to test efficacy of his or her work, we could ask an outsider to explain what the person was trying to tell them to see if they received the message.

    1. Hillary,
      Thanks for your very interesting series of responses. I'm a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell but hadn't seen that interview. It's personally interesting to me because I started researching the book I'm working on now by asking people questions but it didn't really work for me often as my questions were too obscure, I think. As time has passed I've realised that my problem is that my background is in fiction rather than journalism, so I am somewhat trained to privilege my own thoughts over those of others (I hope that makes sense!). So in writing this book I'm trying to learn how to make stories out of what other people think. That's a bit of a diversion from your point but thought I'd share it. I really like your weather example by the way - do you think you might give it a try?

  8. Sue, first of all, a thank you to a very interesting lecture and posting! You posed the questions “Do you agree with their conclusion that young people of today are transliterate?Do you consider yourself to be transliterate?”

    Your lecture provided two key pieces to this answer and an important caveat. If being transliterate is the ability to navigate across a multitude a communication forms, I would position that very few are not transliterate relative to their environment. It would rather be the degree to which any one person is transliterate. I have encountered students who are extremely adept in many of the most recent technologies but fail to understand body language cues. Likewise, there are those who excel at presentations but struggle to capture the same knowledge in written form. If transliteracy involves being able to read, write and interact across multiple modes, the more versed one is in across a number should correlate to one’s ability to better gain, share, and move knowledge.

    Another salient point from your lecture (of the many) was the presentation of N. Kathryn Hayle’s cognitive styles of deep attention and hyper attention.

    Deep attention, the cognitive style traditionally associated with the humanities, is characterized by concentrating on a single object for long periods (say, a novel by Dickens), ignoring outside stimuli while so engaged, preferring a single information stream, and having a high tolerance for long focus times.

    Hyper attention is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom. (Hayles, 2007, p.187)

    I am drawn to these concepts as they tie well to the value of transliteracy. There are distinct situations that are best served by the ability to negotiate across multiple stimuli whereas others demand the ability to focus uniquely to the task at hand. My thought is that hyper attention provides an opportunity to be exposed to an event and that deep attention provides the greater insight into the concept. I see that these are not tied to any one medium. Take for example the recent Kony 2012 campaign. A deep attention cognitive style might watch the video and would then move to use the resources at their fingertips to better understand the entirety of the situation. A hyper attention style may move between watching and listening to the video while looking for Web 2.0 supports, blogs, RSS feeds, and twitter, to see what is a foot or both might go to look to uncover the real story by going to sites like Guardian with its Kony 2012: what's the real story?: but negotiate the content in their respective styles.

    Valuing one attention style beyond the other is shot sighted. Hyper attention is essential to respond to the immediate of a situation whereas deep attention may be the tool to deter the event from reoccurring. Globally speaking: the medium is simply the method.

    In summary, the term transliteracy creates an opportunity to recognize the value of a multitude of communication mediums be they past or present practices long with their cultural relevance. Tranliteracy does well to recognise that information sharing need not be qualified across its medium of sharing. The underlying factor is that of competence. Messages will be shared through pictures, story-telling, be it verbal or wriiten. How do you know the level to which someone is transliterate? Employ a variety of communication approaches to see who is proficient with what. The tool is only medium. The value of one’s great idea(s) is limited without a mechanism for dissemination. In the same token, the merit of sharing ideas across a number of mediums is best served if competence is place.

    Hayles, N. (2007). Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes. Profession, 187-199. doi:10.1632/prof.2007.2007.1.187

    1. I am reposting - my apologies, I did not post this correctly the first time.
      Am I transliterate? (based on this, not very!)

      Sue - thank you for a very engaging lecture; you really made me stop and think several times. 7,000 years of no writing? Aboriginals sending YouTube videos to communicate. Tribes that exist without writing and reading - really forced me to reconsider my definition of transliteracy.

      If we include signing, then that is an area where I am not literate. I taught a student whose parents were both deaf. This student's first language was signing. When she wrote, she would often neglect to include connecting words like 'the' because they don't exist in signing.

      I would consider myself only marginally transliterate. I can read and write in English; I speak only English (some very limited highschool French and enough Spanish to say hello and order a beer at the resort!). I recently learned to include audio and images in my writing through the use of i-movie and felt I had significantly grown in my literacy skills. It has actually opened a whole new door leading to numerous ideas for 'literary' projects (after I get through this masters!)

      We do tend to think of transliteracy as our ability to read, write and to use new media (computers, cell phones) but perhaps it has made us smug and to forget the value of previous literacies.

      Maybe this is silly, but I was wondering if you would include intuition as a form of literacy?

      I have often felt that I need to sharpen my skills in listening to my intuition. As an example, I can think of many instances when I forgot to bring something with me to work; when I arrived at work I would discover I forgot the item and then I would realize that the nagging 'something' that I ignored on my way out the door was trying to remind me but I ignored it.

      Some people would argue this was a default of my brain at that moment, in that it was not bringing a memory forward. Others would argue about the source of the "intuition."

      Either way, is it possible that 'intuition' is a literacy we have lost touch with because we have become so dependent on language and writing?

    2. LJ,
      I'm glad you enjoyed it! Kony is a great example of something which requires multiple literacies to fully understand. And your mention of the Guardian reminds me of their current campaign about digital literacy - have you see the video? very timely in the light of the Kony campaign.

      Oh dear! Well you got there eventually! I love the idea of intuition as a literacy. One could go even further and count things like ESP as literacies. After all, who knows which other literacies we don't even recognise? The literacy sets of, say, bees or bats, are invisible to us yet they undoubtedly exist. So yes, let's add intuition to the mix.

  9. Thank you for a great lecture Sue; the readings, videos and task were very informative.

    I would consider myself transliterate, in both my personal and professional spheres. I keep track of my schedule using Microsoft Outlook (office computer), my blackberry calendar and a purple agenda (Yes, I enter appointments and meetings in all three). I do a lot of work on the computer whether its graphic design, web maintenance or event coordination; I’m always on the computer; MS Outlook has reminder pop-ups. For example at work this week there is a 2012 Conference Planning Committee, I’ve sent out the meeting notice via email, people RSVP to me via email, I keep track of RSVPs, food orders and location in my MS Outlook calendar. I’ve also entered this meeting into my blackberry calendar so that I will remember to notify my children that I will be working late on Wednesday. Who will then write it on our wall calendar, “Mom works late”. My purple agenda is a recent re addition to my scheduling; I missed writing little notes, doodling and colour coding my appointments with coloured pens and highlighters. Work appointments are highlighted in pink but my assignments for NMN are highlighted in blue.

    As a parent I have witnessed my sons’ transliteracy; while my eldest son has been slow to adopt technologies like cell phones he participates on Wookieepedia: the Star Wars Wiki (, creates YouTube clips about Star Wars and chats endlessly on MS about Star Wars. His younger brother is more of a social butterfly and has embraced social media with both hands and can still text messages to 3 or 4 people at the same time. I would not be surprised if he and his friends are texting one another while they are skateboarding in real time, together.

    I think transliteracy comes naturally to people whether it involves handwriting notes, talking and texting on a phone (mobile or land line), blog posting, videos or podcasts. It’s the medium that is changing how we communicate with each other but as more and more people adopt “modern” technologies will those who don’t be left behind in the communication revolution? It’s a question I ask myself a lot.

    1. Ilona
      Ah it was you who tweeted me! I like your purple agenda idea. I have become quite addicted to using Evernote because it is so multimodal but you can't beat a good notebook too! Re your comments about children - yes, I have 2 grandsons aged 2,3 and 4, and their advances in literacy are fascinating. I do wonder though whether their teachers can keep up with them. But then I guess kids have always had their own private literacies too, so maybe if teachers can't join in the kids will just continue to use their iPads etc out of school...

  10. Dear all, thanks for so many lively and interesting comments. I hope you find my answers useful. It sounds like you're a great class!