July 31, 2008
(Amit Shah, a long-time publishing executive based in Somerville, Massachusetts, is an avid reader of print newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, and anything else written with verve and wit. This is his first post for PhilanTopic.)
Sunday's front-page article in the NY Times ("Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?") has already generated more than 180 posts. That there's interest in the topic should come as no surprise. The debate reflects the enormous changes that have occurred over the last ten years with respect to how we access information; what the meaning of "literacy" is in the 21st century; and what yardsticks we use to determine who is and is not literate. If, like me, you've spent a good portion of your career working for textbook publishers, have teenagers of your own, and have derived joy every day of your life from books, magazines, and newspapers, your interest in the topic is especially keen.
It also should come as no surprise that the single biggest issue today in any classroom in the country (and that includes college classrooms) is the inability of too many students to effectively decode text and glean information from age-appropriate materials. Or, as many of the teachers I have worked with put it: "My kids don't read; won't read; can't read.” Indeed, Isabel Beck, a professor in the Department of Instruction and Learning at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the most-respected reading researchers in the nation, has said that most students leave a text without any understanding of the author's intent or ideas.
Understanding and deriving meaning from texts is not only key to the enjoyment of literature -- it is an essential skill for anyone who hopes to succeed in the 21st century knowledge economy. But first you have to get people to read. Not just road signs and short informational pieces but narratives of various complexity.
It's not clear, however, that the digital media tools increasingly used to convey information and ideas -- text messaging, blogs, Twitter, PowerPoint, etc. -- provide the "keys to the kingdom" -- the ability to analyze, synthesize, compare, and evaluate ideas and draw inferences -- in the same way or as effectively as frequent exposure to print texts did for earlier generations. And while state, district, and private school curricula standards have started to specify proficiency levels for various types of informational texts, digital as well as print, the jury is out with respect to whether standards-based curricula can create proficient readers through strict adherence to text-based outcomes (i.e., paper-and-pencil tests).
At the same time, the literacy debate in pedagogical circles has already moved to the next stage: Defining and encouraging "21st century literacies." Or, as Sara Kajder, assistant professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, puts it: "[We need to expand] the technology toolset students use as readers and writers....We must teach them how to synthesize a range of texts that appear on a screen at lightning speed and communicate to authentic, wired, global audiences with the explosion of new tools, modes, and media now made readily accessible by Web 2.0."
The fact that standard secondary school literature anthologies contain graphic novel selections of a classic such as Beowulf simply underscores what many of us already knew: There are many ways to teach students about archetypes and epic heroes. Whether they are "writing" via digital storytelling formats, creating summaries via electronic portfolios, comparing hip-hop lyrics with poems by Langston Hughes, today's readers are indeed reading. And that gets to the key issue of literacy in the 21st century: Using any and every tool at hand to get students to engage with literature and complex texts. We need to do more of it.
-- Amit Shah