Article links:

“Why Study Rhetoric? or, What Freestyle Rap Teaches Us about Writing” provided by Writing Commons

“Reading Academic Texts” provided by Lumen Learning

“Active Reading” provided by Writing Commons

“What are New Literacies?” provided by Writing Commons

Chapter Preview

  • Explore the purpose of academic reading.
  • Explain active reading strategies to use when reading academic texts.

Why Study Rhetoric? or, What Freestyle Rap Teaches Us about Writing

provided by Writing Commons

The website eHow has a page on “How to Freestyle Rap” (“Difficulty: Moderately Challenging”), and I’m trying to figure out what I think about it. On one hand, it seems like it would be against the ethos of an authentic rapper to use a page like this to brush up on freestyle skills. After all, the page is hosted on a corporate website owned by Demand Media, Inc., the same people behind, among other things, a golf site.

But on the other hand, the advice seems solid. The eHow page encourages me to follow an easy, seven-step model:

  1. “Learn the basics.”
  2. “Just start flowing.”
  3. “Write down some good rhymes ahead of time.”
  4. “Work on your wordplay.”
  5. “Practice at home in your spare time.”
  6. “Have a rap battle.”
  7. “Rap what you know.” (“How to Freestyle Rap”)

The page treats freestyling as an art that can be practiced effectively by anyone, as long as the rapper is willing to research, take risks, spend time developing the craft, practice with a community and for an audience, and stay true to him/herself—i.e., to keep it real.

And here’s the thing: I think rhetoric is the same way. That is, it’s an art that can be practiced effectively by anyone, as long as the rhetor (the person who is communicating rhetorically) is willing to research, take risks, spend time developing the craft, practice with a community and for an audience, and stay true to him/herself.
You don’t hear me though.


That’s right: rhetoric is an art. But not necessarily art the way we think of it. The ancient Greeks called rhetorictechne, a word they used to mean “a craft or ability to do something, a creative skill; this can be physical or mental, positive or negative, like that of metalworking or trickery” (Papillion 149).

Other examples of techne? Ship-building, for one. You’d better not muddle your way through the art of building a ship, or you’ll ruddy well sink.

Rhetoric developed as an oral art, the art of knowing how to give an effective speech—say, in a court, in a law-making session, or at a funeral speech. And if you muddled your way through a speech, not convincing anyone, not moving anyone, looking like a general schmuck in a toga, you’d ruddy well sink there, too.


So rhetoric is an art. But of what? The shortest answer: it’s an art of communication, whether written, spoken, painted, streamed, or whatever.

But how do you judge when communication has worked, when it’s effective? In other words, how do you know when someone has used rhetorical skills well?

That’s easy: when an audience says it’s effective. So:

  • An anchor on a conservative news show makes a jab at President Obama. Conservative watchers thought the jab was well-deserved and well-timed; it was rhetorically effective for them. Liberal watchers thought it was a cheap shot; it wasn’t rhetorically effective for them.
  • A student writes an essay arguing that advertisements are so pervasive in the U.S. that he can’t even go to the bathroom without seeing Coke’s logo. His roommate reads it and doesn’t think advertising is a big deal; he’s not convinced, so it’s not a rhetorically effective essay for him. But his teacher reads it and thinks it’s cleverly argued and bitingly true. It works for her; it’s rhetorically effective for her.
  • Eminem ends a rap battle to raucous applause from the people in the room, but the old grandmother in the back of the club thinks it was all a lot of noise. To her, Eminem’s rapping wasn’t rhetorically effective.

So rhetoric can’t be judged completely objectively. It wouldn’t make sense to say that someone’s rhetoric was “right” or “wrong” (though it can be “better” or “worse” for specific audiences). It all comes down to the audience.

Also, notice that all of those examples describe situations where the rhetor is being persuasive in one way or another. That’s a common definition of rhetoric—that it’s the art of persuasion. And persuasion is important—we’re constantly trying to convince people, either subtly or overtly, to understand our points of view, and people are constantly trying to convince us of their points of view.

But I like to think of rhetoric as being about more than just persuasion, which starts to sound all bossy and manipulative when I think of that way. Instead, I think rhetoric is the art of making a connection with an audience. It’s a series of techniques to help me share the way I see things with someone else. And depending on who I’m sharing with, I’ll use different techniques. I wouldn’t communicate my views to my wife in the same way that I would to the U.S. president, or to Jay-Z.


The best rappers are surprising. You lean over laughing at wordplay that you didn’t expect. You smile, get into the groove, listen more carefully, and later you remember how much you enjoyed it. The communication was effective.


I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in my senior year of high school, but I didn’t really get it. The author kept talking about rhetoric, and even after I looked up the definition, it didn’t make any sense to me.

Looking back, I think that’s ironic: the beating, blood-pumping heart of rhetoric is a consideration of audience. Speaking or writing or composing something that works the way you want it to for the audience you want it to work for.

But I don’t think senior-year me was the intended audience of Zen. If I had been, the author was pretty lousy at being rhetorical, because he didn’t explain well enough what rhetoric even means. The concepts he wanted his audience to be convinced of after reading his book didn’t leave me convinced and riveted; instead, I was glassy-eyed and dreaming about angsty 90s rock. He was thoroughly un-rhetorical in his discussion of rhetoric.

I read the book now and I’m moved and touched. He shared his views effectively with me. Without the text changing at all, I became his audience. I get it now. So he was being rhetorical after all. It’s both.


Why study rhetoric? It’s the same as if you asked, “Why study freestyle rap?” Both are a set of skills and techniques that often come naturally, but which people can learn to do better by studying the methods that have proven effective in the past.

“Why study painting?” Because by studying how other people paint, you learn new techniques that make you a more effective painter.

“Why study business?” Because by studying how other people do business, you learn new techniques that make you a more effective businessperson.

Why study ship-building, or basket-weaving, or trickery, or anything else that you might be able to muddle through but which you’d be better at with some training and practice? Isn’t it obvious?

It’s the same with rhetoric, but in realm of communication. Why not learn some techniques that will increase the chance that your audience will think/feel/believe the way you want them to after hearing/reading/experiencing whatever it is that you’re throwing at them?

And that’s only thinking about you in the composer’s role. What about when you’re in the receiving end, hearing/reading/experiencing things that have been carefully crafted so that you’ll buy into them? A scary of list of rhetorically effective people: politicians, advertisers, super-villains. (You want rhetoric? Just listen to the slimy words of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi or the words Voldemort beams into everyone’s brain in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two.) Studying rhetoric has the uncanny effect of opening your eyes to when people are trying to be all rhetorical on you, wielding their communication skills like an evil weapon.


My friend to me, the other day: “Ugh. Carrie just wrote something inappropriate on her fiancée’s Facebook wall again.”

Me: “What’d she say?”

My friend: “I don’t even remember. It was something all gushy and uncomfortable. I skimmed back a bit and saw she’s been doing that a lot. Doesn’t she know that she can write messages that go just to him and not the rest of us? She doesn’t have to post that stuff on his wall!”

As I thought about this conversation, I realized that Carrie (not her real name) was in some ways being a rhetorical failure. Yes, her fiancée (one person), who was certainly the primary intended recipient of her message, probably found the wall post very rhetorically effective. That is, he surely felt the gushy emotions that she meant for him to feel. Her message worked. How rhetorical!

But because a Facebook wall is to some extent public, there are others who will read her post too (hundreds of people). What is the intended message for them? If we trust and like Carrie (and if she’s lucky), then we may think, “Oh, it’s sweet when people are public about their love for each other!” If we’re kind of sick of Carrie, we might think, “She just plain doesn’t get that we don’t care about her digital smooches and hugs.” And if we’re mad at her, we might think, “She’s publicly declaring her love to him because she wants us to feel bad that we don’t have the kind of true love that she has!”  In short, the message to most of us is either A) that’s nice, B) oh, gross, or C) that hussy.

Why study rhetoric? Because so many people so often seem to have no no no idea about how to communicate well.


We’re still beating around the bush when it comes to what rhetorical skills actually look like. Up to this point, you could say, “You keep talking about all these different collections of skills, but besides freestyling, I barely have any idea how to go about being effective at this stuff.” Fine—pass the mic.

Mic passed. Among lots of other things, some of the skills practiced by rhetors (and composition students) include:

  • Basics that effective communicators keep in mind (like discovering the best time and place to communicate, clarifying what the communication is about, and learning about your audience)
  • Techniques for deciding the best kinds of ideas and evidence to use for a given audience (like freewriting, open-minded research, and other forms of what we call “invention”)
  • Techniques for deciding on the best way to organize material for a given audience (like models for organizing information into a business report, or a classical six-part speech, or a thesis-driven research essay)
  • Suggestions for how to shape your style in ways that will be both understandable and exciting for your audience (like using rhetorical figures to liven up your sentences or varying sentence length and type)
  • Considerations on the best way to get your communication to your audience (like a speech, an essay, a video, a recording, a painting, a sticky note, a letter made from words cut out of a magazine)

Yes, I keep writing the word audience over and over. That’s because it’s the core of any rhetorical endeavor. Remember? All those bullets can be summed up in one sentence: thinking rhetorically means thinking about your audience.

And that means communicating in a way that doesn’t make you look stupid, mean, or confusing.

And that means you should communicate in a way that makes you look smart, nice, and clear.

It sounds obvious, right? I think so too. But then, why are people so bad at it?


The failures of a failed rhetor are those of a failed freestyle rapper, too. He gets up to start a rap battle and seems impressive at first (i.e. he has a strong ethos—a word we use a lot when analyzing communication from a rhetorical angle), but then things go badly when he gets the mic.

He starts out blundering around, looking like he’s never done this before. (He should have followed eHow’s advice to “Write down some good rhymes ahead of time.”)

In desperation, he lashes out at the other guy with attacks that seem like low blows, even for a rap battle. The audience groans; he broke an unspoken rule about how mean to be. Rhetorical failure.

He can tell that he’s losing the audience, so he changes his tactics and starts blending together all kinds of words that rhyme. But he fails at this too, since nothing he says makes any sense.

Eventually, he’s booed off the stage.

Why study rhetoric? So you can succeed in rap battles. I thought that was obvious.

[1] Thanks to Dr. Debra Jacobs for pointing out this to me.


Works Cited

How to Freestyle Rap.” eHow. Demand Media, n.d. Web. 15 July 2011.

Papillion, Terry. “Isocrates’ Techne and Rhetorical Pedagogy.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 25 (1995): 149-63. JSTOR. Web. 19 July 2011.

Pirsig, Robert M. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: Morrow, 1974. Print.

Reading Academic Texts

provided by Lumen Learning

Why Evaluate Academic Reading Strategies?

Reading is fundamental to writing and research at University, but often gets overlooked – lecturers assume that students know how to read, and students assume there’s only one way to read – but neither of these things is necessarily true! There are ways to read that can improve information processing, can help with building an argument, and importantly for many students, can save lots of time!! — Academic Literacy Workshops, University of Cape Town, (Hurst Ellen)

The passage above makes an important point: most of us assume we know how to read for school. However, methods that may have been fine in the past (skimming, quick reviews, relying upon class lectures or notes) won’t hold up well as we move further into higher education.

Academic reading is a specific category of reading.  It’s helpful to remember that academic reading is an act of performance. Rather than sitting back and passively receiving information we read in college, we will be asked to directly act upon that information in some way. We will be quizzed or tested. We will be asked to debate, analyze, or critique what we read. We will need to read closely, remember the text accurately, and compare it to other texts for style and content.


Photo of woman lying on grass, reading "How Ottowa Spends 2009–2010"

Purpose of Academic Reading

Casual reading across genres, from books and magazines to newspapers and blogs, is something students should be encouraged to do in their free time because it can be both educational and fun. In college, however, instructors generally expect students to read resources that have particular value in the context of a course. Why is academic reading beneficial?

  • Information comes from reputable sources: Web sites and blogs can be a source of insight and information, but not all are useful as academic resources. They may be written by people or companies whose main purpose is to share an opinion or sell you something. Academic sources such as textbooks and scholarly journal articles, on the other hand, are usually written by experts in the field and have to pass stringent peer review requirements in order to get published.
  • Learn how to form arguments: In most college classes except for creating writing, when instructors ask you to write a paper, they expect it to be argumentative in style. This means that the goal of the paper is to research a topic and develop an argument about it using evidence and facts to support your position. Since many college reading assignments (especially journal articles) are written in a similar style, you’ll gain experience studying their strategies and learning to emulate them.
  • Exposure to different viewpoints: One purpose of assigned academic readingsis to give students exposure to different viewpoints and ideas. For example, in an ethics class, you might be asked to read a series of articles written by medical professionals and religious leaders who are pro-life or pro-choice and consider the validity of their arguments. Such experience can help you wrestle with ideas and beliefs in new ways and develop a better understanding of how others’ views differ from your own.

Reading Strategies for Academic Texts

Effective reading requires more engagement than just reading the words on the page. In order to learn and retain what you read, it’s a good idea to do things like circling key words, writing notes, and reflecting. Actively reading academic texts can be challenging for students who are used to reading for entertainment alone, but practicing the following steps will get you up to speed:

  • Preview: You can gain insight from an academic text before you even begin the reading assignment. For example, if you are assigned a nonfiction book, read the title, the back of the book, and table of contents. Scanning this information can give you an initial idea of what you’ll be reading and some useful context for thinking about it. You can also start to make connections between the new reading and knowledge you already have, which is another strategy for retaining information.
  • Read: While you read an academic text, you should have a pen or pencil in hand. Circle or highlight key concepts. Write questions or comments in the margins or in a notebook.  This will help you remember what you are reading and also build a personal connection with the subject matter.
  • Summarize: After you an read academic text, it’s worth taking the time to write a short summary—even if your instructor doesn’t require it. The exercise of jotting down a few sentences or a short paragraph capturing the main ideas of the reading is enormously beneficial: it not only helps you understand and absorb what you read but gives you ready study and review materials for exams and other writing assignments.
  • Review: It always helps to revisit what you’ve read for a quick refresher. It may not be practical to thoroughly reread assignments from start to finish, but before class discussions or tests, it’s a good idea to skim through them to identify the main points, reread any notes at the ends of chapters, and review any summaries you’ve written.

The following video covers additional active reading strategies readers can use before, during, and after the reading process.

Reading Strategies for Specialized Texts and Online Resources

In college it’s not uncommon to experience frustration with reading assignments from time to time. Because you’re doing more reading on your own outside the classroom, and with less frequent contact with instructors than you had in high school, it’s possible you’ll encounter readings that contain unfamiliar vocabulary or don’t readily make sense. Different disciplines and subjects have different writing conventions and styles, and it can take some practice to get to know them. For example, scientific articles follow a very particular format and typically contain the following sections: an abstract, introduction, methods, results, and discussions. If you are used to reading literary works, such as graphic novels or poetry, it can be disorienting to encounter these new forms of writing.

Below are some strategies for making different kinds of texts more approachable.

Get to Know the Conventions

Academic texts, like scientific studies and journal articles, may have sections that are new to you. If you’re not sure what an “abstract” is, research it online or ask your instructor. Understanding the meaning and purpose of such conventions is not only helpful for reading comprehension but for writing, too.

Look up and Keep Track of Unfamiliar Terms and Phrases

Have a good college dictionary such as Merriam-Webster handy (or find it online) when you read complex academic texts, so you can look up the meaning of unfamiliar words and terms. Many textbooks also contain glossaries or “key terms” sections at the ends of chapters or the end of the book. If you can’t find the words you’re looking for in a standard dictionary, you may need one specially written for a particular discipline. For example, a medical dictionary would be a good resource for a course in anatomy and physiology.

If you circle or underline terms and phrases that appear repeatedly, you’ll have a visual reminder to review and learn them. Repetition helps to lock in these new words and their meaning get them into long-term memory, so the more you review them the more you’ll understand and feel comfortable using them.

Look for Main Ideas and Themes

As a college student, you are not expected to understand every single word or idea presented in a reading, especially if you haven’t discussed it in class yet. However, you will get more out of discussions and feel more confident about asking questions if you can identify the main idea or thesis in a reading. The thesis statement can often (but not always) be found in the introductory paragraph, and it may be introduced with a phrase like “In this essay I argue that . . .” Getting a handle on the overall reason an author wrote something (“to prove X” or “to explore Y,” for instance) gives you a framework for understanding more of the details. It’s also useful to keep track of any themes you notice in the writing. A theme may be a recurring idea, word, or image that strikes you as interesting or important: “This story is about men working in a gloomy factory, but the author keeps mentioning birds and bats and windows. Why is that??”

Get the Most of Online Reading

Reading online texts presents unique challenges for some students. For one thing, you can’t readily circle or underline key terms or passages on the screen with a pencil. For another, there can be many tempting distractions—just a quick visit to or Facebook.

While there’s no substitute for old-fashioned self-discipline, you can take advantage of the following tips to make online reading more efficient and effective:

  • Where possible, download the reading as a PDF, Word document, etc., so you can read it offline.
  • Get one of the apps that allow you to disable your social media sites for specified periods of time.
  • Adjust your screen to avoid glare and eye strain, and change the text font to be less distracting (for those essays written in Comic Sans).
  • Install an annotation tool in your Web browser so you can highlight and make notes on online text. One to try is A low-tech option is to have a notebook handy to write in as you read.

Look for Reputable Online Sources

Professors tend to assign reading from reputable print and online sources, so you can feel comfortable referencing such sources in class and for writing assignments. If you are looking for online sources independently, however, devote some time and energy to critically evaluating the quality of the source before spending time reading any resources you find there. Find out what you can about the author (if one is listed), the Website, and any affiliated sponsors it may have. Check that the information is current and accurate against similar information on other pages. Depending on what you are researching, sites that end in “.edu” (indicating an “education” site such as a college, university, or other academic institution) tend to be more reliable than “.com” sites.

Pay Attention to Visual Information

Images in textbooks or journals usually contain valuable information to help you more deeply grasp a topic.  Graphs and charts, for instance, help show the relationship between different kinds of information or data—how a population changes over time, how a virus spreads through a population, etc.

Data-rich graphics can take longer to “read” than the text around them because they present a lot of information in a condensed form.  Give yourself plenty of time to study these items, as they often provide new and lasting insights that are easy to recall later (like in the middle of an exam on that topic!).

Photo of a man lying on the ground, against a tree, holding a book and a pencil in hand

Vocabulary-Building Techniques

Gaining confidence with unique terminology used in different disciplines can help you be more successful in your courses and in college generally. In addition to the suggestions described earlier, such as looking up unfamiliar words in dictionaries, the following are additional vocabulary-building techniques for you to try:

Read Everything and Read Often

Reading frequently both in and out of the classroom will help strengthen your vocabulary. Whenever you read a book, magazine, newspaper, blog, or any other resource, keep a running list of words you don’t know. Look up the words as you encounter them and try to incorporate them into your own speaking and writing.

Make Connections to Words You Already Know

You may be familiar with the “looks like . . . sounds like” saying that applies to words. It means that you can sometimes look at a new word and guess the definition based on similar words whose meaning you know. For example, if you are reading a biology book on the human body and come across the word malignant, you might guess that this word means something negative or broken if you already know the word malfunction, which share the “mal-” prefix.

Make Index Cards

If you are studying certain words for a test, or you know that certain phrases will be used frequently in a course or field, try making flashcards for review. For each key term, write the word on one side of an index card and the definition on the other. Drill yourself, and then ask your friends to help quiz you.

Developing a strong vocabulary is similar to most hobbies and activities. Even experts in a field continue to encounter and adopt new words. The following video discusses more strategies for improving vocabulary.

Words are sneaky, charming, and intriguing. The more complex our vocabularies, the more complex our thoughts are, too.

  1. Hurst, Ellen, Ed. Academic Literacy Workshops: A Handbook for Students and Instructors. U of Capetown. 2011.

Active Reading

provided by Writing Commons

Mapping the Territory

Reading is an activity integral to the writing process. You may not associate reading with the difficult task of writing a college essay. After all, it seems like a passive activity, something you might do at a café or sitting in an easy chair. But while you can read solely for entertainment, soaking in the plot of a good novel or familiarizing yourself with the latest celebrity gossip, reading also drives the act of writing itself, from the earliest stages onward. Reading can—and will—make you a better writer.

But first, you have to learn how to read in a whole new way, because college-level work requires you to read actively, a skill much different from the kind of reading you have practiced since elementary school. Active reading implies not only attention paid to the text, but also consideration and response. An active reader explores what she reads; she approaches the text as though she has entered an unknown territory with the intention of drawing a map. Indeed, the difference between passive reading and active reading is like the difference between watching a nature documentary and hiking through the wilderness. The film, although entertaining, doesn’t require much exertion from the viewer. By contrast, the hiker has to navigate the trail: she must look out for hazards, read trail signs, and make informed decisions, if she hopes to make it back home.

Before you can write a successful essay, you must first understand the territory you’re about to explore. Luckily, other writers have already scouted the area and logged reports on the terrain. These missives—the articles and books your professors will ask you to read—sketch their findings. But understanding these documents can be a daunting task, unless you know how to interpret them. The following sections detail the most essential strategies for active reading.

A Two-Way Street: Reading as Conversation

Think of every text your instructor assigns as one half of a conversation between you and the writer. Good conversations achieve a balance between listening and responding. This give-and-take process drives human discourse. While one participant speaks, the other listens. But while the listener appears passive on the surface, he’s most likely already preparing his response. He may evaluate what his partner says, testing it for how closely it matches his own ideas, accepting or rejecting part or all of the statement. When he does respond, he expresses his reaction, or asks a question about something he doesn’t yet understand. Active reading mirrors this process closely. An active reader “listens” to the text, evaluating what the writer says, checking to see if it matches or differs from his current understanding of the issue or idea. He asks pertinent questions if something remains unclear, looking for answers in subsequent sections of the text. His final goal, of course, is to make a statement of his own, in the form of the essay he will eventually produce.

Retracing Your Steps: Read Every Text (at least) Twice

In fact, reading is in many ways better than conversation, because, like writing, it is recursive: you can revisit a text over and over, whereas the spoken word, unless recorded, disappears into the past, often along with part—or all—of the message the speaker was attempting to convey. When you read, you can move forward and backward in time, making sure you’ve captured every nuance. You should read the text more than once, first for a general understanding, and then for a detailed analysis; your first read-through may raise questions only a second reading can reveal the answers to.

Marking the Trail: Annotation

An active reader views the text as a living document, always incomplete. She reads with pen in hand, ready to write her observations, her questions, and her tentative answers in the margins. We call this annotation, the act of writing notes to oneself in the blank spaces of the page. It’s not the same as underlining or highlighting, neither of which promotes active reading. A simple line underneath a passage contains no information; it merely indicates—vaguely—that you found a certain passage more important than the surrounding text. Annotation, on the other hand, is a record of your active responses to the text during the act of reading. A simple phrase summarizing a paragraph, a pointed question, or an emphatic expression of approval or disbelief all indicate spirited engagement with the text, which is the cornerstone of active reading.

Pace Yourself: Know Your Limitations and Eliminate Distractions

You can’t hike the Appalachian Trail in a day. Similarly, you can’t expect to sustain active reading longer than your mind and body will allow. Active reading requires energy and attention as well as devotion. Short rest periods between readings allow you to maintain focus and deliberate on what you have learned. If you remain diligent in your reading practice, you’ll find that you can read actively for longer periods of time. But don’t push yourself past the point at which you stop paying attention. If your mind begins to wander, take ten minutes away from the text to relax.  Ideally, you should read gradually, scheduling an hour or two every day for reading, rather than leaving your assignments until the last minute. You can’t hope to gain full or even partial comprehension of a text with a deadline looming overhead.

When and where you read can be as important as how long you read. Plan your reading sessions for hours when your mental energy is at its height—usually during daylight hours. Likewise, you should select an optimal location, preferably one free of distractions. Loud music, the flickering of a TV screen, and the din of conversation tend to divert your attention from the task at hand. Even a momentary distraction, like a quick phone call or a friend asking a question, can interrupt the conversation you are having with your assigned text.

What are New Literacies?

provided by Writing Commons


Something seems wrong

A few days ago, I tweeted tweeted something that wasn’t particularly funny, but I got this response:1

cory folse tweet

I don’t know anyone named Cory Folse, and I don’t know who this @jokesallnight person is, either. So I ignored the tweet, kind of glad I had made someone happy, but kind of confused.

But then a couple of days ago, I was still thinking about this weird tweet, so I decided to see who this Cory Folse person was. I clicked on his user name, which showed me a list of his most recent tweets, with the most recent ones on the top:

tweet 2

Ah. Now I see that Cory isn’t trying to be my friend at all. He’s a spammer, someone (or perhaps a computer program) who is trying to get people to check out the @jokesallnight user. He sends random tweets to random people all the time, trying to compliment people to soften them up and make them more likely not to see through his lousy advertising. (Whatever you do, please don’t reward this behavior by looking up @jokesallnight and following that account on Twitter. I reported Cory for spam and blocked him.)

So let’s think about the clues that Cory wasn’t really my friend. Something seemed wrong in a lot of ways: I didn’t know his name, his response didn’t make sense in context, and he never uploaded an image to represent his user name. I’ve used Twitter enough to know that those three things combined often mean that a response-tweet is spam. You could say that I’m “literate” in the ways of Twitter, so I recognize when people act in “illiterate” ways.

I’m sure you know people who seem surprisingly illiterate when working with digital technology. I get forwards all the time that claim Apple or Applebee’s will give me $2,000 if I continue the forwarding chain, and others that tell me about all the stupid luxuries Democrats or travel agents have insisted on when flying. Those who are email literate recognize the signs that these things probably aren’t true (and a quick search on usually clears up any lingering doubts about what’s a scam and what isn’t). There’s even a whole website,, chronicling people who read the fake news on and think it’s real.

What’s wrong with these email-forwarders and fake-news-believers? I suggest that they’re not literate in the ways of new media. They saw something that would be fishy to many readers who are better acquainted with the usual moves made in those contexts, but no alarms went off in their minds.

This article is an exploration of new media literacies, with the end goals of reminding you not to be a sucker who falls for illiterate silliness and encouraging you to rely on your new media literacies when composing with digital technology. To get there, I want us to think about why we use the word literacy to discuss these online issues, how literacy has been expanded in other contexts, and what new media has to do with it all.

The Traditional Model of Literacy

We usually think of a particular skill when we hear the word literacy—knowing how to read. When students can barely read, teachers complain, “They’re barely literate!” When politicians say, “Kids today are illiterate!” they mean that the kids can’t read—or perhaps more subtly, that they can’t read very well. That is, they don’t understand the complexities and nuances that practiced readers see in a big splattering of words on a page or screen.

The politician’s claim reminds us of another aspect of literacy that’s usually tied to the reading angle: the ability to write. When politicians rile up crowds by calling kids illiterate, they often mean, “Kids today don’t understand complex reading, and they can’t produce complex writing, either.” So implied in the skill of literacy is also the ability to write. This makes sense; if I can’t make sense of a piece of writing’s purpose, organization, figures of speech, and rhetorical moves, I probably can’t create a piece of writing that uses those aspects of writing in sophisticated ways.

And as you can hear from my examples of the teacher and the politician, literacy is often a word that shows up when people want to describe something that people don’t have. I’m unlikely to be praised for my literacy when I accurately summarize a tough essay in class, and I’m unlikely to read a particularly nice magazine article and say to the author, “Oh, you were so particularly literate in that piece!” Literacy is usually used more as a base-line for competence, something that we ought to have but that stands out most noticeably when it’s not there, like the space where a demolished building used to be, or when we see a person not wearing any pants.

New Models of Literacy

Why go into so much detail about the traditional model of literacy—the skill of knowing how to effectively read and write? Because when literacy is applied to new contexts—as it is all the time—it often retains the baggage of its traditional usage. Even in these new contexts, literacy is often used to describe a lack that we wish were filled, just as when we describe people who can’t read. Literacy is also often tied to effective reading and effective writing (though sometimes reading and writing are expanded to different forms of understanding and acting).

For example, I described myself as “literate” at the beginning of this piece because I saw through the Twitter spammer’s tricks. That’s because I was separating myself from the “illiterate” people who fall for his spam, and because I wanted to emphasize that communicating well on Twitter is tied both to reading and writing tweets effectively.

A quick Google search for literacy shows me various other ways that people use the word:

  • Financial literacy: the ability to understand complex financial information, and the ability to act wisely on that financial know-how
  • Information literacy: the ability to find the right information for a given task, and the ability to use that information in the best way (for an essay, work assignment, protest rally, or whatever)
  • Media literacy: the ability to read or view the various tricks used by the media to subtly emphasize one point of view, and the ability to compose messages that use media trickery effectively for a given rhetorical situation

In all three of those examples of literacies, I imagine the term developed as people began to realize how illiterate their friends and colleagues seemed to be. (Perhaps most terminology begins this way: as a way for individuals to draw attention to their own strengths in comparison to a rabble of “those other people.” I definitely feel kind of cool when I catch a Twitter spammer.) In that framework, financial literacy works as a helpful term because so many people seem to lack basic skills related to budgeting, managing credit cards, and paying off debt. To people who have financial literacy, those who lack it seem to be missing a set of skills so fundamental that to not have them is akin to a reading person’s feelings toward someone who can’t read. Along the same tack, information literacy works as a term because so many people seem to lack the basic skills necessary to finding the information they need, especially in our increasingly information-centered world. And media literacy is a helpful term because so many people are duped by the political and social messages embedded in the news, movies, and music we consume.

So what happens when we apply these same ideas to new media reading and writing contexts?

Important Concepts

academic reading

academic sources

purpose of assigned academic readings




scientific articles

thesis statement


graphs and charts

data-rich graphics

vocabulary-building techniques

new media literacies


financial literacy

information literacy

media literacy

Licenses and Attributions


Composing Ourselves and Our World,  Provided by: the authors. License: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)


This chapter contains an excerpt of Why Study Rhetoric? or, What Freestyle Rap Teaches Us about Writing:  by Kyle D. Stedman,Writing Commons, and is used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 license.

Reading Strategies. Authored by: Jolene Carr. Provided by: Lumen Learning. LicenseCC BY: Attribution

Reading on a Rock. Authored by: Spanginator. Located at BY-SA: Attribution-ShareAlike

This chapter contains an excerpt of Active Reading:  by Brogan Sullivan,Writing Commons, and is used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 license.

This chapter contains an excerpt of What are New Literacies?:  by Kyle D. Stedman,Writing Commons, and is used under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 license.

Video 1: License: Standard YouTube License Attribution: What is a Rhetorical Analysis? by Kyle Stedman.

Video 2: College Reading Strategies. Authored by: The Learning Center at the University of Hawaii Maui College. Located at BY: Attribution

Video 3: Vocabulary Reading Strategies. Authored by: Lindsey Thompson. Located at BY: Attribution

Video 4:  College Reading StrategiesAuthored by: The Learning Center at the University of Hawaii Maui CollegeLocated at: BY: Attribution

Video 5: Active Reading & Writing Teaching ExampleAuthored by: Karen Powers LiebhaberLocated at: License: Standard YouTube License



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