More on the Changing Face of Literacy

  • Encouraging Reading
  • 07 December, 2007

The Chicago Sun-Times editorial of December 6, 2007 is a thoughtful and helpful response to the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) recent report on reading. The Sun-Times “informal survey” reveals much that NEA missed. The NEA report claims reading has disappeared from the lives of young people and that this loss limits educational attainment as well as the economic, social, and physical health of the nation. The Sun-Times shows that the picture is more complicated than that.

Reading hasn’t necessarily disappeared, but it certainly has changed, and technology is the culprit in either scenario. One image of this is the familiar one… the new technologies are diverting kids’ recreational time from reading. According to that view, kids use to read a lot, but now they are diverted by I-PODs, computers and the like. This new argument really picks up where the previous one left off: in that version, it was television that stole kids’ reading time (and, truth be told, the television argument was the replacement for the one about radio preventing reading).

  However, the Sun-Times story suggests an alternative and far more complicated picture. According to their interviews, young people may be trading their book reading for computer time, but most of that time in front of a screen appears to be spent reading. Not surprisingly, when students are asked about their pleasure reading, they don’t even think of the time they are working with text on a computer. Unlike television and radio, computer time does not necessarily reduce the amount of reading… perhaps it even extends it. You don’t have to read to watch “Heroes,” but it is hard to find out what you want to in Facebook without reading. That means kids may be reading no less than in the recent past (though given how busy we all are with so many things, it wouldn't surprise me that reading--even computer reading--could be down a bit, just like exercise, eating with the family, or getting sufficient sleep time may be down).

  Information technology sure complicates the reading picture. It is the increase of technology in the workplace that has been such an impetus to increasing the demand for skilled workers; workers who can read well enough to do all that is needed on a computer screen. Increasingly, policemen, nurses, factory workers, truck drivers, tradesmen, farmers, and mechanics need to have literacy skills beyond anything required a generation ago. So technology is increasing the demand for reading skills at the same time it is steering kids away from traditional forms of reading.

  In my view, technology is demanding that we increase our instructional efforts to ensure that more kids leave our schools prepared to participate fully in the social life of the community. And, while I suspect that the "reading practice" they get from working on a website is every bit as good as the practice in a book if the point is making sure kids can respond to print in a skilled fashion, I doubt that computer reading is supporting the same level of intellectual energy and depth that more traditional reading can. There is value in having to deal with the extended arguments that books often provide. Historically, when literacy shifted from the reading of brief messages (graffiti, signs carved into buildings, tablets with royal inventories) to the reading of extended philosophical treatises, histories, and stories, human culture--and maybe even the human mind--were changed. Now we may be shifting our reading time back to those kinds of short messages.

  Our goal shouldn't be just to push more reading practice--or even to get kids off the computer and into books--but to steer their attention to the reading and use of complex texts wherever they may be and whatever form they may take. I do not fear kids reading on computers, I fear that too much of that reading time is superficial (just like a lot of reading time in books is superficial). Kids need to understand that the brain and the heart are a lot a like; if you want a healthy heart you have to get off your butt, and if you want a healthy brain you need to do some heavy lifting. That means reading and writing more extended works that are hard to understand, talking with others--including IM’ing--about what you read, and trying to use what you read to accomplish other goals


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