Musings on Transliteracy

Image: Ocean Flynn,

Transliteracy …

One of the concepts that we have touched on in the information literacy topic is this new term, ‘transliteracy’. According to Sue Thomas:

“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.


As a behavior, it is not new — indeed it reaches back to the very beginning of culture — but it has only been identified as a working concept since the Internet allowed humans to communicate in ways which seem to be entirely novel” (Thomas et al, 2009, 449). 


What has changed is not the activities – making connections, seeking information effectively, using information creatively and critically – these skills and attributes have not changed. However, what has changed is the amount of information at our disposal, the way in which is a stored and presented, and the ways we use and interact with it. Technology has changed the information landscape.

Transliteracy is a concept that allows us to discuss and analyse the learning needs of students who are growing up in this information environment. It is also a way of framing the pedagogies and approaches that educators need to develop to help students develop the skills and attributes implied in this model of information literacy.

Convergent technologies and Web 2.0 mean that students expect to be able to hop from one format to another and to contribute and ‘speak back’ to texts through their own creations.

The convergence of print, visual, sound and interactive media also means that students need the presence of mind to synthesise diverse information and perspectives and to critically evaluate sources. Once upon a time (as in, when I was a school student) the format demarcations were used as de facto demarcations between authoritative and relevant material suitable for a school research assignment. A an encyclopaedia or reference book was clearly favoured over more ephemeral material. Now, however, relevant, authoritative information sits alongside trivial, biased, and spurious material– on the web, in apparently the same format, in response to search queries typed into search engines. Students need more than ever to be taught to distinguish what they need and what they can filter out in this new information landscape. They can also be more creative in the way they interact with information.

Constructivist learning approaches and inquiry learning help educators meet the challenges of ‘emergent’ or ‘trans’ literacies by emphasising the student is at the centre of the learning process and must construct their own expertise on a topic.

According to Warlick, young people are “remixing content”, which means that they are “taking information raw materials and assembling them into something that is personally pleasing.” That is fine as far as it goes – but as educators, we want them to be able to be reflective about the content and to create meaningful as well as “pleasing” products. They need to develop their own mental constructs of their learning and a clear, reflective understanding of how they learn. These are essential skills for the 21st century.

However, the concepts I am coming across in the literature on information literacy and transliteracy are familiar to me from a different context – back when I was learning critical theory we read the work of a fellow called Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin came up with a concept called “the dialogic”. He argued that all language was, in our current argot, a “remix”. Julia Kristeva, in turn, turned Bakhtin to account in critical and feminist poetics: “Every text take shape as a mosaic of citations, every text is the absorption and transformation of other texts” (Kristeva in Freedman, 1992, 82.) So there is a certain element of ‘old wine in new bottles’ here.

What is new is the range and breadth of media which students use and interact with as they conduct information tasks. On the Transliteracy wiki ( Dr Gail Bush from the National Louis University Library states that there is still the need to think critically about information, especially now that we have so much of it. The learning process has in some sense become ‘hyperlinked’ as access to information has disseminated and networked to such an astonishing degree. And yet learning and literacy still retain core skills such as the ability to verify the source, detect perspective and bias, and to change one’s mind in light of new information. The key quote for me from Dr Bush’s reflection is that literacy now “transcends the format”.

For the teacher librarian, this means that they need to be able to teach students to use “remixed” content ethically and with a focus on creating meaningful as well as “personally pleasing” products. It is not just about collecting bits of information or just about using technology. It is about making sense of the information. It is also about scaffolding students into creating a personalised approach to managing their own learning, which can use technology and social contacts to create a Personal Learning Network or a Personal Learning Environment. McElvaney and Berge define the PLE [Personal Learning Environment] as “the sum of websites and technologies that an individual makes use of to learn.” In other words, convergent technologies, by their nature, can help students organise and synthesise their learning on the path from information to knowledge.

The concept of transliteracy prompts teacher librarians to reflect that the model of literacy they have in mind will inform their practice. So a TL needs to have a model of literacy that responds to the students’ use of technology. However, this has to go beyond “the kids are digital, so you should be, too.” Teacher librarians need to collaborate with teachers to design learning experiences and intervene in student learning to move them towards constructing their knowledge in meaningful ways. No matter what the technology, students need to develop mental constructs of how they learn that can be carried from task to task and into future learning situations.



Bakhtin, M. (1981). The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (ed.). Austin and London: University Press Texas.

Freedman, Diane P. (1992). An Alchemy of Genres: Cross-Genre Writing by American Feminist Poet-Critics. Charlottesville and London: Virginia UP.

Kuhlthau, C. (2004). Seeking meaning: a process approach to library and information services (2nd ed.). Westport, Connecticut: Libraries Unlimited.

McElvaney, J. and Berge, Z. (2009). Weaving a personal web: Using online technologies to create customized, connected, and dynamic learning environments. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 35 (2).

Thomas, S., Joseph, C., Laccetti, J., Mason, B., Perril, S., & Pullinger, K. (2009). Transliteracy as a Unifying Perspective. In S. Hatzipanagos, & S. Warburton (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Social Software and Developing Community Ontologies (pp. 448-465). Hershey, PA.

Transliteracy wiki:

Warlick, D. (2007). Literacy in the new information landscape. Library Media Connection. August/September, 20-21.


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