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Literacy for a New Generation

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.)

Digital_literacy_sam_2Sunday'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

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To see really exciting new multimedia literacy try out Inanimate Alice. http://www.inanimatealice.com And its a free online resource!
More an interactive piece of fiction than a traditional game, Inanimate Alice: Episode 4 continues the story of the young game animator as she leaves her home in Russia and travels abroad. Inanimate Alice serves as both entertainment and a peek into the future of literature as a fusion of multimedia technologies. The haunting images and accompanying music and text weave a remarkably gripping tale that must be experienced to be believed.
And better still for schools there is a piece of software now available that allows learners to create their own stories. Valuable for all forms of literacy and this is being sold as a perpetual site licence for schools at £99 ! http://www.istori.es

I enjoyed this thoughtful blog.

The new short-attention-span technology raises plenty of questions. Great works of literature continue to disappear forever from required reading lists, replaced by new works in new formats delivered through new technologies. I wonder what we will sacrifice in the tradeoff between old and new. How will it affect our thinking? How will it alter our view of the world and of our identity?

This rapid transformation of what and how we read makes me think about other aspects of culture that have been swept away by changes in technology, economic systems, and concepts about time and leisure. I think about the Renaissance patrons who paid artisans to spend their lives creating immense friezes and paintings on vaulted ceilings, and the colonial women who lovingly hand-embroidered all their linens and clothing. Lost arts...

A friend of mine read about a professor in the 1950s complaining that his most advanced students weren't up to the complexities of Homer's Greek, while his successor in the 1970s complained that his students couldn't cope with Homer in ENGLISH. lol

Oddly, I don't find myself mourning the change too much. It wouldn't do much good! I appreciate that we still have relics to study and admire. I'm in awe of the human drive to create and eagerly anticipate what will come next. As far as my own reading preferences, it would be impossible to replicate the perfection of Shakespeare. But I need only one Shakespeare for all time.

My hope is that we give full rein to children's natural curiosity and provide broad exposure to various old and new media. Give them an abundance of choices and freedom to choose. Maybe future generations will read ancient words in holographic books? ;-) As Macbeth asked the witches, "If you can look into the seeds of time,/ And say which grain will grow and which will not,/ Speak then to me..." Macbeth was talking politics, but the same question could be asked about the future of art and literature--even reading and thinking.

Thanks for this thoughtful summary of the educational landscape regarding the future of reading. As those of us who came of age when reading was regarded as essential linear, and time set off for rumination--this shift to the new media landscape, where reading is both more incidental and instrumental, can be difficult and painful. However, as you suggest, our task as engaged citizen is to find a way to use the methods and technologies available now to find a way to help today's students engage with complex texts-- and this may mean letting go of some of our assumptions about what reading looks like and even some of the abilities that it requires. . .


I find it funny and satisfying to not only have enjoyed this article, but I also clicked on every link and read more about the articles and people referenced within it. Then I read the comments below it.

If you'd asked me five years ago if I'd ever read off a computer screen, much less as much as I do, I would have said you're nuts. But now I do, regularly. And I comment on other people's writing, regularly.

Which is not to say I have given up books. In fact, I read more than ever. But I grew up with them and can't imagine a life without a good hardcover or paperback.

Reading and writing - speaking and listening. Reading and listening - writing and speaking. What to make of the advances to come in visual aural digital communication? Interesting times! Now, I'm off to read my book.

It seems counterintuitive that the avid online readers mentioned in the NY Times article haven't developed their reading skills at least partially through their online activities --- as well as other skills such as evaluating sources and synthesizing different points of view. If people would rather play video games or watch YouTube clips (or play sports or watch sunsets), the question changes from "Online or Print?" to "Why read at all?" And that is a topic for a whole other set of posts.

I think the only new wrinkles caused by the Internet are the generally minimal (or non-existent) standards of quality governing what may be "published" online. The excerpt from the piece of fanfiction quoted in the Times article --- "Just then I notice (Like finally) something sharp right in front of me. . . . I gladly took it just like that until something terrible happen” --- though hardly something most teachers would endorse as quality writing, gains a certain legitimacy simply by having been posted for all to see. The books we read --- however trashy their content --- have at least been edited for basic spelling, punctuation, and grammar. It seems equally counterintuitive to suppose that continued exposure to such poorly edited writing as can be found online does not make us more tolerant of it --- and more likely to repeat the same errors in our own writing.

As someone who works with words for a living and who aspires to see my novels published and read -- in any format that fosters an audience -- I found the original article and the many subsequent blog posts quite interesting. It seems safe to say that there will always be change and there will always be those who pine for the past while others yearn for something new altogether. I believe that kids who read often now, whether online or while slouching on a sofa, will naturally find their minds and imaginations grow. The key is to keep progressing, which may mean reevaluating and reintroducing what worked worked for previous generations. As long as people are making progress, there is hope.

It's heartening to read the comments and glean a common strand -- the recognition, acceptance, and openness to change. It's a fact that people today are reading differently than they did in the past and that access to and interaction with words increasingly involves various media. The excitement and the challenge of every new generation is to keep the engagement with words alive and to refine the tools to make that engagement pleasurable. But we can't just look back; we can and must look to the future. That's our collective responsibility in a world where more people are reading than ever before.

I find it reflectively interesting to note which blogs I read, which comments I find engaging, which online discussion threads appear interesting. By living as a netizen, you learn how to write for the netizen, and subsequently how to teach to a netizen, even if it means using dayglo colors and swinging a digital 2x4 at the head.

Concise is good. Combining humorous shock with a nugget of rare insight is better, but doing one without the other is doomed. Doing all three while inventing a new word now and again is guaranteed porsculisciency.

Digital literacy doesn't have to replace other types of literacy. There are plenty of kids who are still "bookworms" in the traditional sense of the word. Parents and educators can't just throw up their hands and blame a lack of interest in reading or writing on the influence of the internet. Kids do need to be led to the books—it's certainly more difficult to get to the library than to open a browser window.
We need to model the behaviors we expect of our kids—and I know plenty of adults who continually switch among Facebook, e-mail, and text messaging (hopefully not while driving).
We all have more options than ever before in terms of consuming and creating media, so naturally for most people there may be less hours spent pursuing any one media channel. Is that bad? Not in my book. I love having more options rather than fewer, more choices rather than less, and the option to interact or not. Makes life that much more enriched.

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