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In Search of the Meaning and Purpose of 21st-Century Literacy Learning: A Critical Review of Research and Practice

Nicole Mirra 

Antero Garcia


In response to widespread interest in 21st-century learning across the educational landscape, the authors explored the extent to which the concept possesses clear definition and coherent meaning within both research discourse and K–12 classroom practice in the United States, particularly with regard to conceptualizations and enactments of literacy. This research review offers descriptive data about the subject areas and grade levels in which 21st-century learning efforts are concentrated, analyzes the literacy frameworks employed to guide pedagogy, and describes instructional practices most frequently associated with the concept. Further, this research review explores the role of digital tools in the enactment of 21st-century learning, including how often teachers are leveraging the collaborative and interactive affordances of those tools. By leveraging a critical analytic framework, findings indicate a dearth of classroom-based research emphasizing democratic engagement and equity within 21st-century learning, as well as a hesitancy to use digital literacies to connect with wider publics. Analysis suggests a weakly defined understanding of what literacy learning in the 21st century means in classrooms today, which speaks to the need for a stronger focus on social futures.

Literacy in the 21st Century

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Redefining Literacy in the 21st Century


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21st-Century Readers

Developing Literacy Skills in a Digital World


Literacy in the 21st century is about constructing and validating knowledge. Digital technologies have enabled the spread of all kinds of information, displacing traditional formats of usually more carefully curated information such as encyclopaedias and newspapers. The massive information flow of the digital era demands that readers be able to distinguish between fact and opinion. Readers must learn strategies to detect biased information and malicious content like fake news and phishing emails. What the PISA 21st-century readers report reveals is that students’ access to digital technologies and training on how to use them greatly vary between countries and students’ socio-economic profiles. This report explores how 15-year-old students are developing reading skills to navigate the technology-rich 21st century. It sheds light on potential ways to strengthen students’ capacity to navigate the new world of information. It highlights how countries need to redouble their efforts to combat emerging digital divides. It also explores what teachers can do to help students navigate ambiguity and manage complexity.

Published on May 04, 2021

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Defining Literacy in the 21st Century: A Guide to Terminology and Skills

Jodi Pilgrim University of Mary  Hardin-Baylor

Hardin-Baylor Elda E. Martinez University of the Incarnate Word


In the twenty-first century, literacy skills increasingly reflect technology use and the abilities necessary to problem-solve, collaborate, and present information through multimedia. As technology becomes more readily available to all students, concepts of literacy change. Researchers and theorists from various disciplines define and describe 21st century literacies using many terms that are inadvertently interchanged and/or unfamiliar to teachers. The purpose of this article is to review contemporary definitions of literacy to clarify what is currently known about 21st century literacy skills.

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