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Aural Literacy Definition Essay

Aural Literacy
Originally published in the Australian Education Times, September 2015, by Anne Shaw

Aural – relating to the ear or sense of hearing.

Aural Literacy refers to critical listening skills and the analysis of sounds and their impact on our emotions and our actions.  This includes creating messages using sound, and incorporating sound into the design of products.  

In the July column we explored ways to develop Visual Literacy.  This month we will be exploring Aural Literacy.  Aural literacy is connected to visual, information, social/emotional and media literacies.   Because this literacy involves “sound” we have created a special page online which you will want to access to make this article more meaningful – you need to be able to actually listen!  

Why is Aural Literacy an important 21st century skill or literacy?  Messages, or “texts”, in the 21st century are now created in multiple forms of media, many of which are created and received via sound.  Everywhere we go we are literally bombarded with messages from people trying to get our attention – from family and friends who want to communicate something to us, to politicians trying to persuade us to vote for them, to advertisers who want us to purchase their products and services.  We need to develop Aural Literacy skills so that we can be better at understanding the messages, to improve communication, and to be able to analyze and critique these messages. 

But that’s not all – we must become more skilled at producing messages using sound.  Having moved on from a world in which messages are mostly based in print, we now have an enormous range of tools at our disposal.  We, too, can create more powerful, accurate and appealing messages by incorporating sound.  As a student you can now create products which demonstrate your understanding of everything from basic content and skills to important social issues.  You can now easily create messages for the purposes of informing, persuading and entertaining.  Why write a paper/pencil research report when you can create a short film, documentary or a musical piece communicating the same information?  Why create a paper poster when you can create an interactive, digital poster which not only integrates video, music, and sound effects, but your own voice?

As a student you are also specifically targeted by advertisers in an effort to get you to purchase their products and services.  They no longer just use colors and images to encourage consumers to buy their products; they use sounds and music to affect consumers' emotions and actions. 

Aural literacy is not just related to music and sound effects, however; it encompasses a wide range of skills of interpreting what you hear - this includes critical analysis and evaluation of television, radio and Internet commercials – not just the music, but what words are being spoken, listening to a teacher or a classmate, or walking around a bustling city, interpreting what you are hearing, and deciding what is relevant and what is not. 

The video above is a short film which illustrated just how the old-time radio shows were produced.  You will see a little boy sitting on his bed listening to the radio.  The television scenes illustrate what the boy would have been seeing, or imagining, as he listened to the program.
See this link for specific questions to ask yourself when analyzing a speech.  These will guide you through analyzing the purpose of the speech, it's content and structure, the delivery techniques employed (voice, gestures, etc.)  visual effects, use of the stage and use of the invocation of emotions.  Use the questions to analyze this speech by Adolph Hitler.  Use them when evaluating candidates during the next federal election on or before January 14, 2017 in Australia and November 8, 2016 in the United States.
Apps - integrate music, voice and sound effects into the products you create!

This app, Glogster, is a fun way to show what you know or what you are passionate about in a creative and fun way.  Glogster can be used to create a "poster" or "collage" which includes music and other sounds.

History, Culture and Sound - The didgeridoo is a wonderful way to introduce a discussion on Aural Literacy.  Click the video to the left to enjoy ten hours of didgeridoo music!

Humans have used materials from nature to create instruments for millennia.  These instruments have been used to communicate, celebrate, worship, entertain and inspire.  

Create an historical or cultural timeline through the study of sound.  Conduct a geographical study to create a world map based upon the study of sound.

Think about African drumming, the India sitar, the ancient Egyptian harp . . .  here is a sample of ancient Egyptian music.

The sounds of Halloween - this holiday is not complete without some scary music and sound effects.  Listen to this video for a sampling of what you can find online free.  Do a Google search for free Halloween sounds effects and you'll find plenty including evil laughs, witches cackling, chains rattling, screams and more!

You can also find those that are appropriate for young children - not scary, just fun!

These are great to play for trick-or-treaters coming to your door or at your Halloween party!

Sounds of Nature

Just "Google" sounds of nature and you will find videos such as this one, called Woodland Ambiance.  You will also find sounds for birds singing, rainforest waterfalls,  ocean waves, creeks trickling and thunderstorms.

These are excellent to have playing while you are relaxing, sleeping, reading, studying or creating.
Good Vibrations - the Science of Sound

This video is from the World Science Festival.  We look around us - constantly.  But how often do we "listen around us"?  Sound is critically important to our bodies and brains,and to the wider natural world.  In the womb, we hear before we see.  In this presentation the artists take us on a fascinating journey through the nature of sound.  How we perceive it, how it acts upon us and how it profoundly affects our well-being - including a demonstration of sounds as varied as the human inner ear and the creation of the universe itself.

Sounds in Film and Television

Click the video to the left to listen to an instrument known as the theremin.  The images are from the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Think about the sounds effects and music in the movies and television shows you watch. How do they create an impact on the viewer?  Do they add to or subtract from the story or the message?
Create an Old-time Radio Show

Before we had television people listened to their favorite shows on the radio!  It would be a lot of fun to plan, then create and present your own radio show.  You will have to think about music and creating various sound effects!

The shows were not like most radio shows today - mostly music, news and discussions.  They were all kinds of shows like those that later broadcast on television -  westerns, or cowboy shows, murder mysteries, love stories, comedies.  

You can still listen to many of the most popular radio shows, such as this one, entitled The Shadow, a murder mystery.  
Critical Listening Skills

You've heard that you cannot believe everything you find on the Internet.  So, too, you must listen critically to what is being said - listening critically to speeches made by politicians, to news reports, to spoken opinion pieces online, on television and on the radio.

Practice analyzing what is being said in a speech, much as you would a television commercial.  Remember the article on Media Literacy?

What is the speaker's goal?  To educate, to motivate, to persuade or to entertain? 
How do you feel?  The emotional impact of music and other sounds!

For example, with your class at school, or just with a group of friends, listen to a variety of sounds such as those below.  Then talk about how each made you feel:


Gregorian Chants


Australian National Anthem

Tell Me Your Story! Oral Histories

See this video created by the Australian Writer's Foundation  Oral History Project entitled - Australian Identify.

Begin your production of an oral history by interviewing family members - parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents!

Spend Money and Buy Their Product!

This video is one of the top all-time favorite songs from a commercial for Coca-Cola.  This video was originally aired on television in 1971 - they created a reunion 20 years later with these same singers, and included their children and grandchildren!

Watch and listen to the top 18 commercial jingles of all time.   How many do you recognize?
Compose a Musical Score or become a musician!

You can frequently identify the composer of the music for a film.  Each composer has a signature style.  John Williams, for example, wrote the musical scores for many popular movies including Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Jaws, E.T., Indiana Jones, Lincoln and many, many more!

You do not have to be a John Williams or a Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (who began composing at the age of five ears old) to develop your talent and love of music through composes or learning to play musical instruments!  

You will no doubt recognize the music of Mozart as being featured in many films still today - over 300 years since his death in 1791.
This Glog is entitled Legacies of the Greeks and was created for a social studies class.  See the original glog here.

It is thorough and organized in the information presented, and it is quite attractive.

However, if this student had incorporated video, music and speech it would have been it an excellent Glog.

Here is a Glog about Australia.  It does have video and music.  And notice that the heading such as Nature, Animals, People, Cities and Beautiful Glogs all take you to additional Glogs on those topics.

Definitions of Literacy

According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary online (, literacy is "the quality or state of being literate."
Literate, according to this same source, derives from Middle English and Latin terms meaning "marked with letters" and "letters, literature." Two definitions are provided:

1) "able to read and write," and
2) "versed in literature or creative writing...having knowledge or competence <computer-literate><politically-literate>."
This dictionary source also provides an entry for visual literacy, defined as "the ability to recognize and understand ideas conveyed through visible actions or images (as pictures)."

The Literacy Development Council of Newfoundland and Labrador ( defines this term in the following: "Literacy not only involves competency in reading and writing, but goes beyond this to include the critical and effective use of these in peoples' lives, and the use of language (oral and written) for all purposes."  This definition involves critical thinking about what one reads, as well as expanding the term to encompass oral forms of literacy.

According to the National Institute for Literacy (

"The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 defines literacy as 'an individual's ability to read, write, speak in English, compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual and in society.' This is a broader view of literacy than just an individual's ability to read, the more traditional concept of literacy. As information and technology have become increasingly shaped our society [sic], the skills we need to function successfully have gone beyond reading, and literacy has come to include the skills listed in the current definition."
This definition is important as it looks at literacy, at least to some extent, from a more contextualized perspective. The definition of 'literate', then, depends on the skills needed within a particular environment. Of note, also, is the emphasis on English.

In academia, the definition of literacy has also evolved from an exclusive focus on reading and writing to encompass a more inclusive and expansive perspective. Some of that work has come from researchers involved in exploring literacy among diverse populations and across cultural/political/socioeconomic boundaries. In the introduction to their edited volume, Dubin and Kuhlman (1992) discuss the changing definition of literacy:

On the way to becoming a book, the 'literacy' part of our title has taken on meanings that go beyond the simple definition of 'reading and writing' as we had conceived of it in 1984....we acknowledge that the word literacy itself has come to mean competence, knowledge and skills (Dubin). Take, for example, common expressions such as 'computer literacy,' "civic literacy,' 'health literacy,' and a score of other usages in which literacy stands for know-how and awareness of the first word in the expression. (p. vi)
The authors go on to state that:
The past decade has been marked by significant new directions in literacy research brought about by questions which seek to discover how literacy functions in communities...and in workplaces... What does it mean to be 'literate' as a member of a particular culture? What are the patterns of literacy use within fields of work, within professions, within age-groups? (p. vii)
Hiebert (1991) takes an explicitly constructivist perspective to the definition of literacy:
For some time now, a new perspective on literacy, and the learning processes through which literacy is acquired, has been emerging. This new perspective does not consist of old ideas with a new name, but rather it represents a profound shift from a text-driven definition of literacy to a view of literacy as active transformation of texts. In the old view, meaning was assumed to reside primarily within text, whereas, in the new view, meaning is created through an interaction of reader and text. (p. 1)
Langer (1991) takes this notion of interaction of reader with text a step further, contrasting "literacy as the act of reading and writing and literacy as ways of thinking" (p. 13). This author brings up the notion, alluded to in the Workforce Investment Act definition provided above that the standards for literacy depend on the context within which one functions: "...literacy can be viewed in a broader and educationally more productive way, as the ability to think and reason like a literate person, within a particular society" (p. 11). The author argues that:
It is the culturally appropriate way of thinking, not the act of reading or writing, that is most important in the development of literacy. Literacy thinking manifests itself in different ways in oral and written language in different societies, and educators need to understand these ways of thinking if they are to build bridges and facilitate transitions among ways of thinking. (p. 13)
Yet this definition may be problematic when considering what literacy means for individuals with intensive communication needs and/or significant cognitive impairments. Discussing individuals with cognitive impairments, Beukelman, Mirenda, and Sturm (1998) stated
Because of these individuals' cognitive  limitations, educators may not consider literacy learning as an educational goal. As a result, individuals with cognitive impairments are at risk of being held to reduced expectations and lacking exposure to literacy materials, both at home and at school. If educators believe that reading does not begin until individuals possess certain prerequisite skills, and if educators think of literacy as an 'all or none' ability, they will not consider the potential for varying degrees of literacy learning by individuals with cognitive impairments. In truth, individuals with cognitive impairments can and should engage in the same emergent literacy activities as their peers without disabilities (e.g., listening repeatedly to stories, having access to writing tools). We cannot overemphasize the importance of intensive exposure to literacy materials in the early years. (p. 361)
Other authors have also pondered the complexity of applying definitions of literacy, whether traditional or evolving, to individuals with disabilities. While most authors in this area have recognized literacy as "interactive, constructive, strategic, and meaning-based" (Steelman, Pierce, & Koppenhaver, 1994, p. 201), they also typically maintain the notion that comprehension and use of written text is central to literacy. Steelman, Pierce and Koppenhaver's definition is a good example: "To be literate is to be able to gather and to construct meaning using written language" (p 201).

Others emphasize the importance of oral language development to written language by highlighting both in their definition of literacy. An example of this comes from Foley (1994): "[f]or the purposes of this discussion, the term 'literacy' will be used broadly to refer to the mastery of language, in both its spoken (or augmented) and written forms, which enables an individual to use language fluently for a variety of purposes" (p. 184). Yet this author also cautions that while "[t]here is general agreement today that spoken language abilities are closely related to the development of literacy skills in the normal population" (p. 185), "[l]inguistic ability, as opposed to speech production ability, appears to be the more critical factor" (p. 186).


Beukelman, D. R., & Mirenda, P. (1998). Augmentative and alternative communication: Management of severe communication disorders in children and adults (2nd ed.). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Dubin, F., & Kuhlman, N. A. (1992). The dimensions of cross-cultural literacy. In F. Dubin & N. A. Kuhlman (Eds.). Cross-cultural literacy: Global perspectives on reading and writing (pp. v-x). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Regents/Prentice Hall.

Foley, B. E. (1994). The development of literacy in individuals with severe congenital speech and motor impairments. In K. G. Butler (Ed.),  Severe communication disorders: Intervention strategies  (pp. 183-199).  Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen.

Hiebert, E. H. (1991). Introduction. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed.), Literacy for a diverse society: Perspectives, practices, and policies (pp. 1-6). New York: Teachers College Press.

Langer, J. A. (1991). Literacy and schooling: A sociocognitive perspective. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed.), Literacy for a diverse society: Perspectives, practices, and policies (pp. 9-27). New York: Teachers College Press.

Steelman, J. D., Pierce, P. L., & Koppenhaver, D. A. (1994). The role of computers in promoting literacy in children with severe speech and physical impairments. In K. G. Butler (Ed.),  Severe communication disorders: Intervention strategies (pp. 200-212).  Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen.