Literacy Development and Online Language Learning


The greatest strength of humans is their ability to learn, though not every person uses this ability. Long ago, learning was the privilege of particular levels of the population only, as well as only several decades ago women did not have a right to get an education. With time, however, much has changed, and being literate started to be perceived as a social norm in most societies. This is largely connected with the fact that literacy became more accessible and that no restrictions on its acquisition are placed with regards to genders or social classes. At present, literacy became one of the main goals in child development and the success of teaching literacy is, in most cases, rooted in the family.

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It is a primary objective of the parents to make literacy accessible to the child, as well as it is the number one objective of the educators to foster literacy development of the students. Modern society widely accepts the fact that “literacy development is embedded in social and cultural practice” (McKeough, 2006, p. 113). This being the reason, every society wishes its children to be literate, even though each nation has its approach to literacy teaching (Olson & Torrance, 2001). Consequently, every society differs in the ways of teaching literacy. Here, however, much depends on how developed a particular society is. The matter is that more developed societies provide more opportunities to learn literacy.

Thus, for instance, if the development allows, literacy may be learned even online, as is the case in the modern world. Such learning makes literacy accessible to all the layers of the population. Understanding the social foundations of literacy allows evaluating different aspects of literacy learning; in particular, special attention should be paid to the role of educators in literacy learning, online literacy learning and what it requires, language teaching and learning online, as well as the future of learning literacy with the help of the Internet.

The role of educators in literacy learning

First of all, it is necessary to define what exactly is meant by ‘literacy’. Literacy as such is a process that involves two main complementary aspects, reading ad writing. Concerning these aspects, literate people are expected to possess the following skills:

  • Read and write with confidence, fluency, and understanding […];
  • Know and understand a range of genres in fiction and poetry […];
  • Understand and be able to use a range of non-fiction texts;
  • Be able to orchestrate a full range of reading cues (phonic, graphic, syntactic, contextual) […];
  • Understand the sound and spelling system and use this to read and spell accurately;
  • Have fluent and legible handwriting. (Wray, 2002, p. 2)

Considering this range of skills, it can be stated that teachers have an extremely responsible role in literacy learning. The task of every teacher is to “embrace intelligence, allowing students to leverage what they know and what they can accomplish” (Schultz, 2008, p. 4), thus fostering literacy development of students using all the available resources at this. The most important with regards of this task is to take into account varied social and cultural contexts in which literacy education is promoted.

The educators who teach literacy should be aware of several issues that this work involves, including “language diversity, race, ethnicity, social class, and gender” (Many, 2001, p. 23). Realizing the importance of the sociocultural context when it comes to literacy education is vital because “too often, teachers understand only their cultural perspective regarding the status, acquisition, and application of literacy skill and fail to recognize other cultural traditions that give impetus and form to literacy development” (Many, 2001, p. 23).

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This results in students’ either having negative emotions about literacy learning or their misunderstanding of what such learning involves and, correspondingly, their lagging behind or not reaching the necessary level of literacy, which is why the importance of culture in learning should never be underestimated by the educators (Lee, 2007).

Quite often, even those students who express a desire to learn reading and writing lose this desire as a result of poor literacy instruction, and changing the attitude of such students towards literacy education is extremely difficult. The consequences of an inappropriate teaching approach, therefore, may be rather serious; the whole life of a person may be affected by the fact that once he/she has failed to succeed in literacy learning.

Online literacy learning

Technological development

Now that it is clear what exactly teaching literacy involves, it is worth discussing how literacy can be accessed. Modern society lives in the digital age which made it possible to access education from the farthest corners of the Earth and even without leaving one’s apartment. Technological development has reached the point when no innovations are possible to make; instead, what has been already discovered is perfected daily.

Computer technologies have proven that they can become an integral part of every person’s life. They have become so popular, that several people acquire computer skills far before learning to read and to write. Getting more and more modernized, these technologies have penetrated practically all the spheres of human activities. This is why there is no surprise that education has also been significantly affected by technological development. Computer-assisted learning gets more and more widespread enabling people around the world to get education simultaneously with their full-time studies in other educational establishments (Savin-Baden, 2008).

Besides, the Internet made it possible to obtain education from the world-famous colleges and universities without having to leave one’s country and, what is even more striking, to obtain several specializations at once. Non-traditional distant learning has become an effective way of teaching and learning literacy through different technological means (Daugherty & Russo, 2007). At present, anyone who has access to the Internet can learn literacy and choose the ways of learning that are the most comfortable for him/her personally. This made literacy accessible to a greater amount of people than it used to be earlier and, correspondingly, increased the number of literate people around the world.

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Effectiveness of online literacy learning

Apart from this, the effectiveness of online literacy learning has long stopped being questioned. Perhaps, when online education has first been introduced, it has not always been effective because neither students nor teachers knew exactly how such kind of education should be obtained and given. With time, however, new methods and strategies for online education have emerged due to the research carried out by several scholars.

Besides, quite contributive to online literacy learning have been different online learning resources the development and perfection of which took place together with the improvement of computer technologies (Doiron & Asselin, 2005). Currently, online tutorials are one of the most effective methods of delivering literacy instruction. Such tutorials account for the individuals skills of every learner and do not demand any assistance to complete:

Online tutorials allow information literacy instruction to take place virtually in a systematic, affordable, convenient, and flexible way. For example, the online tutorials may function as lab work attached to an existing class or as independent learning modules that are hosted by the library Web site. Many online tutorials are aimed at minimal exit competency and can be self-paced to lower frustration levels for students. (Rijlaarsdam, Bergh, & Couzijn, 2005, p. 450)

This and several other methods have made online literacy learning of the same quality as live learning. Considering the convenience of such type of learning, more and more students get involved in it and get convinced of its effectiveness. Taking into account the fact that technological progress never stops, it can be assumed that soon online literacy learning will become even more effective, though, of course, no matter how great and convenient it is, it will never become a significant threat to living learning.

What does online literacy learning require?

Diversification of modern education with online learning has entailed tangible changes in the skills and means required from effective educators and effective learners. It is hard to disagree with the idea that online teaching demands new skills from the educators who earlier could deliver knowledge in the course of the simple communication process (Bradshaw & Lowenstein, 2007). Strange as it may seem, but online literacy teaching demands more skills and efforts from the educators than face-to-face teaching: “Those teaching in the traditional classroom can change their assignments and lectures the night before class, but the online curriculum can not be altered at such short notice” (Lyons, 2009, p. 5).

Educators who teach literacy online need to have great computer acquisition skills because one of their responsibilities is creating and updating online Web sites where course elements for the semester can be found. Additionally, online instructors are expected to collect all the necessary information about the students before the classes begin. This information is needed for designing the online classes: “Instructors require knowledge of how students learn, ought to master the basics of using a course management system, should obtain some critical information about the students they teach, and need to understand the challenges of online learning” (Lyons, 2009, p. 5).

To be able to evaluate this information and use it properly, the educators have to review relevant literature on online student learning and acquire sufficient background on how to make learning effective for students. In this way, educators who get involved with online literacy teaching diversify their skills and have to constantly upgrade them to cope with all the tasks that online literacy education sets up for them.

As far as online literacy students are concerned, this kind of education also demands the change of their skills. To begin with, any online student should have a permanent and stable Internet connection to succeed in learning literacy online. Though online education is less time-taking than the live one, it still requires a student to “attend” the classes regularly and to perform a definite set of activities during each class. In addition, online literacy students have to acquire several important skills that replace regular communication. Interaction between students and tutors is vital in online education as well this is why students should know how to access different means of communication with their instructors.

To make the communication process successful, the students should not only have basic computer skills. Their skills should extend to the knowledge of specific computer programs and tools that enable them to exchange information with the instructors and, perhaps, even other students because online learning often presupposes group work (Hiltz & Goldman, 2005). Though the majority of the online courses “provide introductions to the use of basic word processing, spreadsheets, databases, presentation software, using e-mail and the Internet” (Fry, Ketteridge, & Marshal, 2003, p. 175), the students themselves need to acquire IT skills to be able to complete tasks properly.

Finally, the most important, online literacy demands improved communication and writing skills, especially from students whose native language is not English. Here, however, namely computer skills can compensate for the absence of sufficient English speaking and writing skills, because there is modern software enabling the students to avoid spelling and other types of mistakes in writing. Thus, online literacy learning demands much from both educators and learners because it involves a range of completely different teaching and learning processes.

Language teaching and learning online

Special attention should be paid to language learning when it comes to online literacy learning. According to Comings, Garner, & Smith (2004), “language and literacy development are social processes that depend on interaction with others” (p. 134).

This suggests an idea that to learn a language, constant oral communication with native speakers and other learners is required. This is why the main purpose of online education with regards to teaching language literacy lies in creating an environment that will be maximal close to face-to-face teaching. Language learning, above everything else, contributes to literacy development because it deals with the improvement of the person’s reading and writing skills; at this, the skills are improved in the both native and second language. Nevertheless, language learning with the help of the Internet has its advantages and disadvantages.


Discussing its advantages, it is worth stating that language learning online is advantageous to students even though it may be problematic. The main advantage of such learning consists in its accessibility. Not every international student has a desire to move to another country to study its language. The Internet, however, gives such students the ability to study a second language when obtaining specialized education in their own country. Besides, such learning facilitates their process of socialization (Lipson, 2008). It may be complicated for international students to overcome the language barrier.

Online language learning will help them to gradually get used to the foreign learning environment. There is also a chance that, in this case, their academic achievements will be better than if they studied live. Perhaps, after this, the student will be eager to continue the education in a live classroom environment.

Moreover, language learning online is also a chance to study another language for those who are not able to obtain live education due to health problems (for instance, physically immobile people). Students with these and a range of other disabilities are still physically capable of learning this is why learning the language through the Internet is their only chance not only to become literate but to widen their circle of acquaintance (Kearsley, 2005).

In addition, online language learning may help students with disabilities to deal with psychological barriers in communication with other people even in their native language. Several people with disabilities refuse the pleasure of communication because they do not dot wish to disclose to other people, as well as some of them do not wish to be perceived as disabled. Online language learning, which does not demand personal interaction with other students and teachers, is one of the not many ways for people with disabilities to feel that they are full-fledged members of society.

The final advantage of online language learning is that, during the online classes, any student has free access to online dictionaries. Unlike an ordinary classroom where dictionaries are sometimes unavailable (unless they can be accessed through cell phones, I-phones, etc), online language learning gives the students a great opportunity to use all the possible online dictionaries and other necessary resources to make the process of learning maximum effective (Hinton & Hale, 2001).

This is especially beneficial for students from developing countries where the level of education is rather low and facilities that most of the educational establishments have at their disposal are not numerous. Most of the universities and colleges in such countries are not able to ensure their students with everything necessary for studies, which significantly affects the quality of education. This is especially crucial in the case of second language learning in which access to different resources is obligatory to make the learning effective. In this way, online language learning becomes advantageous to a great number of students.


It cannot be stated that online learning has a great number of disadvantages that make it not worth trying. Just like in case with live learning, online learning is belonging to a particular discourse community, though not an in-the-moment grouping, but an ideational grouping that shares a “way of knowing, thinking, believing, acting, and communicating” (Lewis, Enciso, & Moje, 2007, p. 16). The relations within the online discourse community are almost the same and learning online is also constituted by the movement “from legitimate peripheral participation to expertise or central participation” (Lewis et al., 2007, p. 17) in the process of learning. Nevertheless, some drawbacks significantly distinguish it from face-to-face learning and, therefore, make it less beneficial.

One of the greatest disadvantages of online language learning is that it affects the production of power within a discourse community. Those are namely power relations that shape learning because the struggle over identities, cultural tools, and resources triggers competition within a community, thus, making the learning process more effective. If applied to language learning, online learning makes all the students equally able to access cultural tools and resources, which is good on the one hand, but completely disadvantageous in terms of power relations on the other hand.

In a live environment, “power is produced and enacted in and through discourses, relationships, activities, spaces, and time by people as they compete for access to and control of resources, tools, identities” (Lewis et al., 2007, p. 17). For language learners, this means that one student’s level of language acquisition may serve as a standard to which other learners will be striving, thus producing power relations within a discourse community. In the case of online language learning, the establishment of such relations is impossible because the students often do not have access to the academic achievements of their classmates.

Apart from exercising power, online language learning makes it impossible for the students to exercise agency. The role of agency in any kind of learning process is huge because it serves as “strategic making and remaking of selves, identities, activities, relationships, cultural tools and resources, and histories, as embedded within relations of power” (Lewis et al., 2007, p. 18). Ordinary language learning classrooms allow the students to exercise agency through speaking, controlling, and redefining relationships between the pair of languages that they study because, in such classrooms, the students can transform themselves from social actors into social agents (Hadi-Tabassum, 2006).

Online language learners, however, are deprived of such a possibility. This is connected with the fact that interactions between the online language learners are less numerous, which accounts for their non-ability to exercise agency through personal involvement in encounters with other learners (Magnan, 2008).

Equally important is the fact that no construction of identity takes place during online language learning. In face-to-face learning, students move across different discourse communities, and, owing to this movement, the enactment of identities takes place through the recognition of students by these communities. According to Lewis et al. (2007), “features of a person – age, ethnicity and race, gender, and social class, to name a few, shape how people are recognized. And those recognitions shape how people see themselves” (p. 20).

Consequently, no construction of identity takes place if a student does not disclose his age, ethnicity, etc to his/her classmates and knows nothing about their features as well, as is the case with online language learning. Thus, the main disadvantage of online language learning is that it may be not as effective as live learning because online learners are unable to exercise power and agency and to construct identities to the same extent as face-to-face learners.


Literacy is nothing more than the ability to read and write. It is namely this ability that allows people to become educated because only through reading and writing can a person become broad-minded, learn about other cultures, and study the world around him/her. Becoming literate is an obligation of any citizen who wishes to work and contribute to the welfare of his/her country. Hence, literacy learning should be accessible to everyone. To teach literacy, an educator should understand its social foundations and apply only those teaching methods and strategies that ensure the delivery of reading and writing skills to the students taking into account their different social and cultural backgrounds.

Learning literacy is possible through face-to-face and online learning, like, for instance, language online learning. Learning literacy online is quite effective provided that students and instructors acquire definite skills needed for online learning and teaching. Online language learning, however, is not purely advantageous. Though it makes language learning accessible to a bigger amount of students, it may be less effective than face-to-face learning. After all, it makes the students unable to exercise power and agency, as well as to construct their identities because it lacks direct social interaction between students. In any way, however, the Internet still has significantly increased the number of literate people and will continue increasing this number in the future.

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