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Next Step Reading: Information Literacy


I believe that our education system has achieved it’s purpose when a young adult steps out into society self aware, self confident, empathetic, socially skilled, with a positive attitude to personal learning, and empowered with the skills that enable them to be effective learners.

Not asking much am I? In one sense this sounds very reasonable and yet the reality is that it is a huge goal that will take consistent effort and work to achieve.

I can already hear people saying “What about literacy?”

The problem with literacy is that it is a dynamic and consistently changing concept that reflects the changes in our society. What was an acceptable measure of literacy 20 years ago is unlikely to be acceptable now. Alvin Toffler probably captured this best when he observed that “the illiterate of 2000 and beyond will not be the individual who cannot read or write, but the one who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”

At one point in time I would have considered an illiterate person to be one who struggled with basic ‘Functional Literacy’ skills like reading street names, writing personal details, reading instructions, comprehending newspaper articles, and following recipes. However, because of the changes in society, the rapidly increasing personal access to increasingly powerful information and communication technologies, as well as the dramatic change in the ‘half life of knowledge’ this traditional definition of illiteracy is no longer appropriate. The ‘half-life of knowledge’ is a major contributor to this change. In the past, the half-life of knowledge was measured in decades and centuries, certainly longer than most individuals’ life span. College and university students could learn skills and gain knowledge that would carry them through their careers. Today, we live in a world where this is no longer a reality.  In many disciplines, the half-life of information is now considered to be only 2-3 years. The Canadian Labour Market and Productivity Centre suggest that half the skills of technical workers become obsolete within three to seven years of completing a formal education. This has been supported by the futurist Futurist Mr. Kettle, who argues that in the most rapidly changing fields, such as biogenetics,  most of what a person knows will be wrong in four years and that unless one moves into a life long learning mode while keeping the job going, people will rapidly become hopelessly out of touch. Based on this concept I would agree with Alvin Toffler and say that the modern day literate is one who can identify their own knowledge, its short-falls and gaps, identify learning needs, recognise the difference between legitimate claims and spurious scams, be able to discern the strengths and weaknesses of opposing perspectives, are empowered with the skills of learning as well as having a willingness learn, unlearn and relearn.


I believe that a modern day literate is one who has a disposition towards learning and:

  •         Has the ability to receive and transmit messages across a range of media

  •         Can identify when they have a personal information need,

  •         Is an effective questioner

  •         Can locate, comprehend, evaluate and apply relevant valid information from a wide range of digital, textual, graphical, sources

  •         Can lucidly and creatively share their decisions, thoughts, justifications, opinions, argue their case and remain open to further learning.

A definition such as this goes beyond a traditional view of ‘literacy’ and incorporates the field of ‘information literacy’. On this basis literacy is a combination of attitudes and skills that empower people as learners in a rapidly changing world and as such becomes something that is very difficult to measure. At the risk of stepping on thin ice, I would go so far as to say that whenever we define a measure of good literacy we are likely to find that what we measure is no longer good literacy. Our diagnostic tools for measuring literacy, or  specific aspects of literacy, can be helpful; but we need to be aware that the full concept of literacy is immeasurable and if we confine ourselves to the measurable we risk losing the big picture and not really empowering our pupils as learners. There has been a huge focus on measuring the success of our literacy programmes through ensuring that our pupils demonstrate a link between their chronological and reading ages and comprehension, when we fail in this measure we step into a range of remedial and support programmes, as well we should. I suggest that this is only part of the picture. I suggest that if we have pupils leaving our system with positive links between chronological and reading ages without the skills and attitudes that enable them as learners then our literacy programmes are a failure and we are guilty of educational malpractice. 
Schools and teachers are under an ever increasing pressure to measure achievement, to identify the outcomes of our programmes, to demonstrate the ‘value added’ by our programmes. While there is some validity to this, surely it puts us at risk of channelling our efforts into aspects that are easy to measure but unrelated to other core factors of learning such as curiosity, engagement, collaboration, creativity, self-motivation, the desire to know more and the ability to question. These are the powerful aspects of a literate person and an independent learner, but because they are not easy to measure, we tend to ignore them.

A literate person should be like a two year old toddler, full of enthusiasm and unbounded curiosity, they will be a truth seeker, always reaching out to acquire skills, gain understanding and make meaning for themselves. They will be full of questions and will actively seek the answers. Beyond  ‘Functional Literacy’ these are the core aspects of literacy that we should be aiming to facilitate in our pupils. We need to be aware that the full concept of literacy is immeasurable and if we confine ourselves to the measurable we risk losing the big picture and not really empowering our pupils as learners. The Literacy we deliver to our pupils needs to go beyond ‘Learning to Read’ and equip them in the field of ‘Reading to Learn’.

This means it is time for another look at literacy. A number of world wide experts like Dr. Ross Todd have identified that Information Literacy is the bridge between ‘Learning to read’ and ‘Reading to Learn’.

It is important for us to realise that many teachers in our classrooms do not have a good understanding of what Information Literacy is, and this is not said disparagingly. It is said in recognition of the fact that Information Literacy has never been a static concept, and has constantly changed over time, leading to a confusion of texts threaded with contradicting approaches, definitions and practices. In fact Information literacy is so encumbered with contrasting approaches, opinions and concepts that Langford (1998) recognises that one could read through the documentation and research on information literacy and still be asking, “What is it I am trying to understand, let alone teach?” (p. 59).

Though the roots of information literacy go back to the period of the first printed books and development of public libraries, the term Information Literacy was first coined by Zurkowski (President of the Information Industry Association) in 1974. The following timeline gives a simple broad brush view of some of the major concepts that have emerged, impacted and continue to impact on the Information Literacy landscape.

In this shifting landscape there has been one other significant shift, sadly it is a shift that has gone unnoticed by many and hasn’t had the impact on classroom practice that it should have. Generally in teaching there has been a growing appreciation that understanding comes most powerfully through application. This concept has driven a shift in what information literacy expects pupils to do with information. This shift has been away from the traditional project based approach. This approach expected students to re-package and present found information, to shift information from one venue to another and display or present it attractively. Dr Jamie McKenzie suggests that the project based tradition in our schools is the killer of thought, and Dr. Ross Todd  (2000) suggests that the end point  of this approach is merely a “celebration of the found”. The shift has been to an approach that expects pupils to still find and comprehend relevant information but to go on and use or apply it in some way. Through that application they will build understanding. Dr. Ross Todd  suggests that the end point of this approach is a “celebration of the understood” rather than a ‘celebration of the found’. This is one of the central factors of the SAUCE Model ( http://ictnz.com/SAUCE.htm ) being used by a large number of New Zealand schools as the base for their information literacy and inquiry based approaches to learning. Unfortunately this change has only been slowly implemented in New Zealand.  Research carried out in 2004 (Bond, 2005, P52) into a tasks created by teachers that involved pupils in some form of research, indicated 73% of the tasks examined fell into the ‘celebration of found’ or ‘gather/present’ approach. The two major reasons for this slow uptake were suggested as being a need for professional development for teachers in the area of information literacy and the need for school wide implementation of sound information literacy processes and models.

Despite the changing landscape and resulting confusion, the field of information literacy has much to offer schools as they try and facilitate pupils in developing their skills in ‘reading to learn’.

An information literacy based approach to learning will target equipping learners to be able to read to learn, to read for information, to read to build knowledge and understanding. A person who is information literate is one who has the skills to:

  • Identify a problem or need and its component issues
  • Recognise prior and existing knowledge
  • Identify information needs
  • Clarify relevant language and vocabulary
  • Ask relevant questions
  • Choose appropriate information sources
  • Comprehend a range of material and genres
  • Extract the required information
  • Validate information and source credibility
  • Make links between concepts, ideas, information and existing knowledge
  • Build new understanding
  • Apply knowledge to create solutions


A range of strategies are utilised by schools to help pupils develop these skills. A good example is the deliberate targeting of pupils questioning skills as this is seen as a core and basic skill to thinking, learning, inquiry and information literacy.  A growing group of schools are at different points in implementing this approach, some are just starting while a few are twelve months and more along with their trial. Schools carry out a baseline assessment of pupils questioning skills by providing them with a problem based scenario and collecting a range of up to five questions from each pupil. These questions are analysed against a seven layered rubric of questioning skills and the data is collated and analysed to identify the highest and lowest levels of questioning across the school.

In response to the scenario 11% of the students created statements as their highest level of questioning. A further 13% created questions that were irrelevant to the problem and scenario. The result is 24% of the pupils could not create any sort of relevant useful question that would help them to find and locate information that would be useful in forming a better understanding, gaining further information or creating a solution. The school would say that they have a very small percentage of pupils who are reading at levels of concern and requiring remedial or special supporting reading programmes. The bulk of these children would score satisfactorily on current literacy measures, but they obviously are not being equipped with the skills and attitudes that support ‘reading to learn’. Perhaps we have been putting so much effort into supporting and helping our pupils in ‘learning to read’ that we are falling short on the other equally important aspect of ‘reading to learn’. As demonstrated a well developed Inquiry Learning or Information Literacy based approach tends to give schools an appropriate structure to focus with more clarity on a range of skills that may otherwise be taken for granted. This focus requires matching professional development and changes in classroom practice and development of different assessment approaches. 

I suggest that an effective literacy programme should address both aspects of ‘learning to read’ and ‘reading to learn’. Obviously the mechanical skills of literacy and reading are a necessary foundation for the wider skills of ‘reading to learn’. Perhaps though we should be creating literacy programmes that balance these two threads in conjunction so that in the early years there is a major focus on the ‘learning to read’ aspect and a minor focus on ‘reading to learn’ with the balance changing as pupils head to independence as learner/readers. It is interesting to note that ERO in ‘Student Learning in the Information Landscape’ ( http://www.ero.govt.nz/ero/publishing.nsf/Content/InfoLandscapeJun05 ) indicated that the process of preparing students to become life-long readers is closely related to the process of information literacy development, and that in the majority of our schools “Information literacy was a particularly weak area”.

The new draft curriculum with its vision of developing “life long learners” (Ministry Of Education, 2006, P8) who are literate, thinkers, and ‘active seekers, users, and creators of knowledge” and its Principle of ‘learning to learn’ (P9) clearly carries a strong focus on the skills of information literacy and ‘reading to learn’. Our New Zealand schools now have a prime opportunity to re-look at their definition of literacy and at the skill sets that make a literate person in today’s world. Yes we should have strong  programmes and practices that enable our pupils to ‘learn to read’ but this is only one side of the coin, we also need to ensure that our pupils are strongly supported and assisted in developing the skills, abilities and understandings that allow them to ‘read to learn’ and to be appropriately literate in today’s society.





Bond, T. (2005) Spice up Research with SAUCE: A Thinking Way to Use Information and Learn. Computers in NZ Schools, Vol 17 No.2, July 2005.


Langford, L. (1998). Information literacy: A clarification. School Libraries Worldwide, 4, (1), pp. 59-72.


Machlup, F. (1962). Knowledge production and distribution in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Ministry Of Education, NZ. New Zealand Curriculum: Draft for Consultation, 2006. Learning Media, Wellington. NZ.


Todd, R.  (2000). A theory of information literacy: In-formation and outward looking. In C. Bruce, & P. Candy, (Eds.). Information literacy around the world (pp. 163-175.) NSW, Australia: Centre for Information Studies, Charles Sturt University.


Zurkowski, P. (1974). The information service environment relationships and priorities. Washington, DC: National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, ED 100391.