ML2 – Second Language Literacies

A blog for the Second Language Literacies course from the MA in Learning and Teaching Processes in Second Languages (ML2) at UPB-Medellín

Considerations and Potential Pitfalls when Incorporating New Literacy Perspectives in the Colombian Context

“We must remain watchful about the uses (and misuses) of English in the curriculum. We must develop frameworks that remain respectful of local and (especially in Latin America) indigenous languages. Using critical literacy as a lens will enable us to profile language policies that really consider the cultural and linguistic diversity of a place like Colombia (where indigenous, creole, and dominant languages converge and interact on a daily basis) and understand that a language policy that favors one language at the expense of the others is unfair and detrimental to our society.”

Mora, 2014

Current world conditions pose new challenges for teachers as well as for students. The proliferation of new technologies, which are now part of our cultures and have been adapted as essential in most people’s everyday lives, have brought along new possibilities, new views of the world and have created new ways for people to interact; moreover, they have brought along new possibilities and therefore changes in our educational contexts. The burgeoning of ICT’S poses new possibilities for the learning processes of students, but at the same time poses challenges for teachers as they are expected to translate those possibilities into actual classroom practices that help transform students realities and in a wider framework transform society, since it is in school where students can learn to do so (Gainer, 2010).On teachers relies the task of promoting the comprehensive formation of students, helping them develop competences that will allow them to adapt and appropriate the new perspectives and possibilities, so they can establish a nurturing dialogue with the current world conditions that allow them to analyze and critique dominant narratives (Gainer, 2010).

Learners need to be empowered so they can transform their own realities. In this perspective language education and education in general, must advocate to this purpose and must serve as one of the agents for the required social transformation. However, as The New London Group (1996) insisted in their manifesto, traditional language education, namely literacy  pedagogy,  has been reduced to formalized and ruled governed forms of language, a conception that even today, 21 years later, is still true in our educational context.

Literacy plays a key role in helping learners, and society in general, to establish a dialogue with the world. Nonetheless, in order for such dialogue with the world to be nurturing and transformative, literacy should not be seemed as just the process of coding and decoding words, a rather traditional view that has been kept current in many educational systems and in the set of beliefs of a lot of teachers. In this regard Grenfell et al. (2013) assert that this standard view of literacy in “schooling  and other development programs, works with the assumption that it is, in itself, independent and will consequently have effect in other social and cognitive practices”(p.4), meaning that developing the capacity to read and write well is what the poor, “illiterate” people or peasants need in order to enhance their cognitive skills, improving their economic prospects (Grenfell et al., 2013).

There are alternative traditions in considering the nature of literacy. Boche (2014) states that literacy is a social and cultural practice that is constantly changing, which enables people to negotiate meaning. However, there is not a straightforward definition to the concept of literacy; the standpoint from which it is defined has an effect in the possible definitions. There has been an expansion of the concept and new perspectives on the views of literacy have brought along new ways of approaching literacy. New Literacy Studies  (Gee, 1991; Street, 1996) is a school of thought that focuses not so much on considering literacy as just the acquisition of skills, as in dominant approaches, but rather on what it means to think of literacy as a social practice (Street, 1984 as cited on Grenfell et al., 2012), and within this perspective it is of great importance to also consider the new forms of literacy which implies that there is more than one way of approaching and reading not only the word, but as Freire and Macedo (1987) asserted, also reading the world.

It is undeniable that we are facing new forms of literacy, meaning that our students are used to different kind of texts; what used to be a “paper based education”, it is now “screen based”. The New London Group, (2000) and Alvermann, (2002), as cited by O’Byrne, (2014) state that “to prepare for this change, we need a broadened, expanded view of “text” to include visual, digital, and other multimodal formats.” (p.102) This aspect is leading to the creation of new frameworks that can adapt to the new reality in our classrooms, nowadays, the mediation that the different types of electronic devices have in our teaching and learning process is leading us to rethink our classroom practices. It is common that most teachers ban the handheld wireless devices students bring to the classroom because they are found to be interrupting (Cote, 2015). This is one of the reasons that are leading teachers and scholars to think about the ways in which electronic devices can be adapted as part of our everyday classrooms, and not as a distractor for students.

What English teachers used to be in the past, has faced huge changes. Some years ago, English teachers were the ones in charge of learning by heart a text book and then going to class and make students do the same, and one of the devices that were used the most by them, was a tape recorder. In the time I (Johny) was a high school student, I remember my English teacher carrying a small and round shaped tape recorder, I knew that when the teacher entered into the classroom with one of those, the class would be based on repeating a dialogue and the pronunciation of a list of words, especially verbs. Several years later, and after having graduated from high school, I realized that English teachers were the only ones who used this kind of devices, as if it were a piece of extension apart from their chalks and green boards; not even music teachers used them.

The previous example is just intended to demonstrate that throughout the time, English teachers have been committed with the use, adaptation and appropriation of technology within their classes, which it is a way to conduct a multimodal class in order to develop L2 literacies in the students. Multimodality refers then, to the different possibilities that there are for approaching, in this case, the learning and teaching process in our classroom. According to Bezemer (2012) multimodality assumes representation and communication always draw on a variety of modes, all of which contribute to meaning. Multimodality focuses on analyzing and describing the full repertoire of meaning making resources that people use; namely, written, oral, visual, tactile, gestural, spatial and representation of oneself.


As mentioned above, the new forms students are using to learn, must be taken by teachers as the new forms in which they should teach. These new perspectives on learning and teaching are being catalogued as multiliteracies and multimodal literacies. Literacies are understood as multimodal because they are interactive and informative and occur in technological environments with audio visual patterns (Boche, 2014). Literacy and technology go hand in hand, one depend on the other, and both, combined, are shaping and contextualizing the new understandings of the world. Undoubtedly, this is a process that needs to begin in our classrooms, that is why teachers need to be open to implement changes and to accept the new challenges of the 21st century students.   

In this regard, Colombian government has taken important steps in an effort to adapt to the current conditions in which the globalized world moves. Programs such as, Computers for learning (Computadores Para Educar) initially launched In 2001, was one of the first programs and actions undertaken by government to start including ICT’s in schools in the country. The program started after the then president of Colombia had an official visit to Canada and learned about the program Computers for School of that country. After seeing the possible benefits of it, he decided to implement a similar program for the Colombian case (official website). What is mandatory to consider is that the solely inclusion of ICT’s in the classroom is not the answer to the transformation of our educational panorama, much less to transform students conditions or empowering them to do so. in other words, the digital technology itself does not transforms the foundations that underpin our practices as teachers.

It is one the thought that technology itself will make the trick, where one of the pitfalls arises. (we invite you to read the following news Tablets for indigenous communities) One of the main considerations to make when intending to incorporate new literacy paradigms in the language classrooms in the colombian context is the scarce training teachers have and the lack of articulated and systematic teachers professional development programs, condition which would be the starting point to help teachers adapt these new literacy perspectives and translating them into actual teaching practices.  In countries like Canada, where the program Computers for School was implemented, there is a strong tradition in research in education, which represents better possibilities for a professional development and training accompanying the implementation of the project, giving it, if possible, a strong theoretical foundation and providing a pedagogical purpose behind the use of ICT´s in the classroom. Let us remember for a moment that the program Computadores para Educar launched by Colombian government was based on the principles of the Canadian program, it means it was adopted for the Colombian context. However, as part of the program it is necessary to strengthen and invest more of the efforts and resources in the professional development of teachers as a more crucial step before moving into the stage of supplying with devices, namely computers, tablets and video projectors, which will not “make the trick” by themselves. Put in more concrete words, the inclusion of ICTS in the colombian classroom must be accompanied by strong teachers development programs in order to strengthen our theoretical foundations.  

It is of great importance for teachers to have access to professional development programs that allow them to get the necessary skills to face the changes and challenges that technology brings with it. In words of Diaz-Maggioli (2003), “professional development has become increasingly important as a way to ensure that teachers succeed in matching their teaching goals with their student’s learning needs” (p.1). The relationship between teachers and students should allow us (teachers) to recognize what are those new form students are using to understand the world; and probably in that way, teachers will be conscious of the importance of not being set apart from the new forms of pedagogy.  

In our local context there have existed different types of programs related to professional development for in-service teachers, especially regarding Language Acquisition. These programs have shown different results, but one of the biggest problems related to professional development programs, has to do with the lack of continuity through the time. Most of these attempts for professional development programs, have ended up being considered merely as a “training” sessions (Álvarez, Cárdenas & González, 2015). As just mentioned, and connecting language with the appropriation of technology by teachers, the institutions, and even the Ministry Of Education should provide these kind of spaces for teachers to sharpen their ICT skills.

Another factor that is important to take into consideration, is the one related to coverage, meaning that the access to the programs or devices is not for everyone involved in education. In a way, this could be considered as one -among several- discriminatory aspect of the teaching/learning process of English in our country. Most of the programs are proposed for public education institutions, but Colombia is a country full of rural areas and regions where the teachers in charge and the students who belong to these types of schools, not even have access to internet, or even they do not count with electricity. The question here would be: Are we ready to teach and/or learn English in a multimodal environment?  

The new literacies, but even more in depth critical literacies, play an undoubtedly important role in the transformation and reconstruction of realities of those in a need to do so. Moreover, as asserted by Mora citing Nic Craith (2007); Ammon (2000) and Skutnabb-Kangas (2009)“Critical literacy is a necessary and powerful tool to discuss imperialism, equity and social justice in language education” (Mora, 2014, p. 16). However, research and interest on critical literacy in the curriculum in Colombia is a rather new mater (Mora, 2014) and therefore, one of the efforts should be in the construction of academic communities and networks that help reach more teachers and help transform the perspectives of language education in colombia.  The efforts undertaken by organizations such as ASOCOPI through their Special Interest Groups (SIG’s) in creating academic communities respond to the needs required in the colombian context to begin incorporating new literacy paradigms in our institutions. As stated in their website, through this strategy the organization seeks to strengthen Colombian ELT community (ASOCOPI, 2017). Within the topic proposed in the SIG’s, new literacy studies and critical literacy must have a central part, they really need to be in the agenda of any academic community of language teachers in Colombia adding efforts to give language education the empowering and transformative role it has.     

Let us be more specific on what critical literacies refer or what the imply. Mills (2016) states that critical literacy arises from a concern about social inequalities, social structures, power and human agency. She suggests that “power relations mediate thought and language, so that all language, textual practices and linguistic conventions are the product of relations of power and struggles for power” (Mills, 2016, p.41). Luke (2012) in an also socially implicated approached to the implications of critical literacy in language asserts that

“Critical literacy approaches view language, texts, and their discourse structures as principal means for representing and reshaping possible worlds. The aim is the development of human capacity to use texts to analyze social fields and their systems of exchange with an eye to transforming social relations and material conditions.” (p.225)

Then, one of the implications of a critical stance on literacy and its incorporation in the colombian educational system is the fact that if critical literacy implicitly implies questioning the world that surround us and the relations of power established, then we educator should not expect government to be the one supplying the conditions for the construction of academic proposal or programs in the light of critical literacy. Relations of power, which are partly mediated by government are questioned by a critical stances. Thus, it would not be on them to create conditions to might threaten the already given order. We therefore insist that, we as educator must really start strengthen our academic communities and giving space for the creation of agency.    

Regardless the above mentioned, there is one more pitfall to be consider in our particularity and it refers to teachers’ conditions in the colombian context. For the most part, teaching in Colombia is a profession that has been seen as not very rewarding, the betterment of teachers’ conditions has not really been among priorities for those who should care for it, at least not in actual actions. But, the claim here is not on the salary factors or on the necessity of efficient health programs for teachers; from our perspective the pitfall related to conditions refers to the time factor. Teachers have a great responsibility and in order to be able to cope with the demanding amount of work on their hands, our educational system has pushed teachers to invest a lot of their personal time in the development of responsibilities attached to their profession. This long-lasting issue has already drilled in a lot of teachers’ minds and has discourage many of them in regards of the way they perform their profession and are not willing to put more of their time in their professional development or participating in the construction of academic communities. In concrete words, we need different teachers conditions, recognition and status as a way to attempt a change in their set of mind.   

Words: 3028.


Álvarez, J., Cárdenas, M. & González, A. (2015). Cobertura vs continuidad: dos retos para el desarrollo profesional para los docentes de inglés en el marco de Colombia Bilingüe. In Fundamentos para el Desarrollo  Profesional de los Profesores de Inglés (pp. 169-221) (2a  Ed.). Pasto: Universidad de Nariño

Boche, B. (2014). Multiliteracies in the classroom: Emerging conceptions of first-year teachers. Journal of Language and Literacy Education [Online], 10(1), 114-135. Retrieved from

Cote Parra, G. E. (2015). Engaging foreign language learners in a web 2.0-mediated collaborative learning process. PROFILE Issues in Teachers’ Professional Development, 17(2), 137-146.

Díaz-Maggioli, G. Professional Development for Language Teachers. EDO-FL 03-03. ERIC Digest.

Freire, Paulo and Donaldo Macedo. 1987. Literacy: Reading the Word and the World. South Hadley, MA: Bergin & Garvey,

Gainer, J. (2010). Critical Media Literacy in Middle School: Exploring the Politics of Representation. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 364–373.

Grenfell, M. (2012). Language, ethnography, and education bridging new literacy studies and Bourdieu. New York (N.Y.): Routledge.

Luke, A. (2012). Critical Literacy: Foundational Notes.Theory Into Practice,51(1), 4-11. doi:10.1080/00405841.2012.636324

Mills, K. (2016).Literacy theories for the digital age: social, critical, multimodal, spatial, material and sensory lenses. Bristol: Multilingual matters.

Mora, R. A. (2014). Critical Literacy as Policy and Advocacy. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy,58(1), 16-18. doi:10.1002/jaal.329

O ’ Byrne , W. I. ( 2014 ). Empowering Learners in the Reader/Writer Nature

of the Digital Informational Space. In Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 58(2), pp. 102–104. October 2014 doi: 10.1002/jaal.337   .

By Hugo Mesa Ortiz and Johny Sanchez

ML2 – Literacies in Second Languages


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