No question about it. Literacy is critical to student success, during school and beyond. But what about digital literacy? Why is digital literacy important? And what is the role of digital literacy in K-12 classrooms? Is it something educators should be teaching? If so, at what ages and how? 

Questions about digital literacy are common among educators. For many, the answer is clear. In the 21st century, digital literacy is as important as traditional literacy. 

We want our kids to be digitally literate to maximize their effective use of digital tools. Like iPads, Smartphones and Chromebooks. We want them to be digitally literate so they stay safe. We want them to be digitally literate citizens that contribute positively to the online landscape. 

Our world is increasingly digital. The wide range of skills required for digital literacy are necessary to succeed. As necessary as reading and writing. Students who lack digital literacy skills are likely to face significant hardship. Challenges on par with – or greater – than those lacking the ability to read and write.  

These insights are driving curriculum changes. From early childhood education through high school, digital literacy is a hot topic. In some cases, digital literacy has become an identified subject. Ideally, the merits of being a responsible digital citizen are talked about often. Especially during any lesson that has a digital component – and even during some that don’t. 

Most students are fluent in basic digital literacy skills like navigating the internet. Sharing on social media. Searching Google for info. The critical aspects of digital literacy go deeper than this. In fact, there are many different aspects of digital literacy. So many that some experts recommend using the term “digital literacies”. 

What is digital literacy?
Digital literacy is a lot of things. For one, it’s complex. Digital literacy is a broad term, covering reading and writing skills and so much more. Digital literacy calls for tech skills. And cognitive skills. Critical thinking is, well, critical. 

To paraphrase the American Library Association's digital literacy task force, digital literacy is the ability to find, evaluate, create and communicate information using digital technology and the internet. To be digitally literate requires both cognitive and technical skills. 

The key components of digital literacy are: 
Finding, assessing and using digital content
Creating digital content
Communicating with and sharing digital content
Behaving in safe and appropriate ways 

Within each of these areas are many additional skills and literacies for students to learn and master. 

Digital Literacy is the Ability to 
Effectively Find, Evaluate and Use Digital Content

Not so long ago, the process of finding content for an assignment was much different. K-12 students went to the library and used the card catalog (physical or digital) to locate potential resources. Then browsed books by table of contents and index to assess usefulness. There may have been videos or other resources. But books, newspapers and magazines were the main sources of content. Importantly, these content sources were vetted as appropriate and reliable by the library. 

In some ways, the “use” aspect of digital literacy is similar to traditional literacy. Reading some digital content is almost like reading printed books and magazines. That is, if the digital content is read on an eReader or as a pdf. 

Reading content on the internet calls for new skills. For example, reading a newspaper article readers cam encounter hyperlinks and ads.  Videos, audio clips and interactive graphics. Share buttons and comment requests. All of which interrupt the start-to-finish reading process and interject decision-points. Follow the link? Share the article? Click on the ad? The distractions are relentless.

Because of this, consuming content online is a personal experience. No two readers will follow the same path. Or go down the same rabbit hole of hyperlinks. Practicing restraint and focus is no small part of learning to master the maze of the internet.

Digital literacy calls for developing new skills for sourcing content. Thanks to Google, searching is easy. Choosing the right search terms to find the right content is a skill that can be taught and mastered. To be digitally literate, students need to know how to assess the quality of the content options they’re served up. 

Content for schoolwork is only part of the picture. Students seek out massive amounts of digital content simply for fun. These pursuits can expose students to a good deal of risk. Knowing how to mitigate that risk is a critical digital literacy skill. 

Digital literacy curriculum learning points: 
Using search engines to source relevant, appropriate content
Critical thinking to evaluate the quality of content
Focus and restraint to resist the lure of links and ads
Ethical use of digital resources

Digital Literacy is the Ability to Create Digital Content

Basic writing skills are foundational to literacy. On top of that foundation, students learn expository, narrative, descriptive and persuasive writing. Digital literacy content creation includes all of the above. Plus writing email, blogs, tweets and developing videos and podcasts.

One big change is that students mostly learn traditional on their own. The creation of digital content is often a collaborative process. The ability to cooperative and create as a team is a critical digital literacy skill. Students use personal computing devices like Chromebooks. Connect via cloud-based tools like Google Classroom and Schoology. Then work together to develop reports, blogs, science projects and more. 

Digital content is often meant for a mass audience. Digital content creation demands greater courage and risk taking than the private world of putting pen to paper. This, too, is a skill to be practiced and nurtured. 

Digital literacy curriculum learning points: 
Basic writing skills, plus 
Working together to create content 
Using digital tools like Google Classroom and Google Docs
Defining roles
Confidence and risk taking 
Digital formats: blog, email, video

Digital Literacy is the Ability to Communicate with and Share Digital Content

Students learn how to share digital content at an early age. Parents in 98% of all households with children under 8 own a tablet. Texting with mom and dad from the family tablet is often a child’s first digital communication. Content sharing can also begin quite early. In 2016, kids on average got their first phone at 10.3 years old. Today, it’s probably earlier. 

As with other digital literacies, the “how,” can be the easiest skill to learn. And the least critical to effectively navigating the digital world. Learning how to share digital info in an appropriate way is vital. These skills impact student safety, privacy and reputation. Now and in the future. To be digitally literate, students need a strong sense of what, when and where to share digital information. And, critically, what, when and where not to share. 

Digital literacy curriculum learning points: 
Tech skills for sharing a variety of content types across a variety of digital locations
Etiquette for posting, sharing and commenting
Critical thinking to assess what, when, and where to share digital content
Knowing the risks of interacting digitally

Digital Literacy is the Ability to Behave in Safe and Appropriate Ways 

This may be the most critical digital literacy for students to develop. It’s a key focus for advocates of including digital literacy in K-12 education. It’s naïve and risky, they say, to assume “digital-natives” are digitally literate. Often, students’ digital awareness extends only so far. Typically, it’s limited to using digital media for fun and social connection. Plus the ability to work with basic school-related digital tools. 

The internet as the wild west is a familiar analogy. Teaching digital literacy to K-12 students means helping them learn how to manage this untamed world. From pornography and false information. To cyber bullying and digital footprints. The risks are prevalent and potentially severe. 

Educators at every age and stage can contribute to helping students develop digital literacy.
Early childhood education

Including digital literacy training early starts students down a positive path of digital safety and citizenship. Preschool and even earlier isn’t too soon. Kindergarten and first grade are some students’ first structured classroom experience. Early childhood is the best time to introduce ideas about internet safety and privacy and beginning skills. 

At this age, storytelling is a primary teaching tool. Teachers and parents can use picture books about common early childhood subjects like bullying, friendship and strangers. Talk about how these topics extend to using an iPad or other digital device. Bring it up while reading and/or in a post-book discussion. For an even more direct approach, check out books with a digital theme. Titles like Chicken Clicking and  Once Upon a Time Online are good options. This  Nerdy Book Clu b list includes options from both categories. Plus guidelines on how to incorporate each book into a lesson that builds digital smarts. 

Grades 3-5

Books are still a great way to reach students in grades 3 to 5. There are fun books for introducing topics like digital footprints Not believing everything you read on the internet. And the risks of plagiarism

This age is an ideal time to introduce many digital literacy topics. Like leaving digital footprints. Media balance and wellbeing. Plus thinking about content quality. And building more awareness of how to stay safe online. 

Middle School 

The dynamic middle school years are an important time for educators to jump in with high-impact discussions. Talk about cyberbullying and digital drama. Discuss how to stay safe while having fun chatting online. Digital footprints and managing students’ online identity are important topics to focus on as well. 

High School

Ideally, students will have a good foothold as digital citizens by the time they reach high school. This is where educators can really dig into every angle of digital literacy. From how your internet presence can impact your college and career goals. To the mental and emotional risks of excessive digital media use. 

Digital literacy curriculum learning points: 
How to stay safe online 
How we leave digital footprints
Creating strong passwords
Using privacy settings
Knowing what information not to share
Cyber bullying awareness
Etiquette for sharing, commenting and posting
How to critically evaluate digital information 

Resources for teachers

These are just a few ideas to get you started. Check out the resources below for tips. tools and templates for integrating digital literacy learning into your classroom.

Common Sense Education, offers a large database of digital literacy content for K-12 educators. The site includes free. research-based lesson plans designed to help students take ownership of their digital lives. 

The  Edutopia Digital Citizen Resource Roundup offers a large selection of digital literacy materials. Resources include articles, videos, infographics and more, and cover a wide range of topics.

Make learning about internet safety fun, with Google’s Interland online safety game. It’s part of the company’s Be Internet Awesome campaign. In Interland, students set out on a “quest to become a fearless explorer of the online world.” Kids combat hackers, phishers, over sharers and bullies. All skills they need to succeed in the real virtual world of the internet. 

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