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Keeping up with the kids: The rapid evolution of literacy

The author, one of the nation's leading experts on literacy, addresses how new technologies are transcending the borders of traditional literacy

Surprising as it may be, Maryann Wolf writes in her book, "Proust and the Squid," it took humans over 2,000 years to learn to read with an alphabet. Today, we expect children to accomplish this skill in about 2,000 days.

Not too long ago, we visualized young children using a pencil and paper as they learn to read and write. The image of a young child misspelling a word on a chalkboard or piece of paper, as he or she acquires this knowledge, is vivid. While this impression may have been accurate 10 years ago, most young children today come to literacy through the use of smart technology. From computers to handheld devices, new technologies have allowed literacy to transcend the borders of pencil and paper to incorporate digital, visual, and social interconnectedness.

Despite the numerous resources available, students' literacy scores across the country are in a shocking state. On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a meager 36 percent of fourth graders and only 34 percent of eight graders scored at or above "Proficient" in reading. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), based in Paris, notes that the United States is second to dead last in the world among 16- to 24-year-olds in literacy proficiency.

Teacher evaluations, state standardized exams, Common Core, school vouchers, charter schools - all of these have been offered as partial solutions and have continued to be debated over and over. As technological advances continue at a rapid pace, our concerns as adults grow towards teaching literacy to today's and tomorrow's children and manifest in a single question: how do we improve?

Social Engagement: Literacy's Biggest Change?

When the U.S. first began to instruct children in reading, just being able to pronounce words was sufficient to be an accomplished reader, according to Nila Banton Smith's book "American Reading Instruction." There were pronunciation guides within reading materials to help students read orally and eloquently. The act of learning to read and write was largely a singular event. A child might participate in a class group instruction or read alongside parents, but the primary goal was the individual child's development as a reader and writer.

Today, students communicate using reading and writing through blogs and social media networks outside of school at an early age. Social engagement is potentially the largest change in literacy. Research shows that 50 percent of children in kindergarten use the Internet to interact with people outside of their immediate family. These very young children are already familiar with communicating on social media before they even enter kindergarten.

Individualized learning of reading and writing may still dominate classroom methods of teaching literacy, but students are going home and socializing through digital means and using a different set of vocabulary, popularly known as Internet slang. Despite this, social connectivity results in high levels of student engagement. The challenge for teachers and teacher certification programs is to find appropriate ways for K-12 students to connect socially and focus on academic content. For example, at the University of Nevada, Reno, we actively engage our soon-to-be teachers in supporting social ways of learning through working with small groups of students. They then apply these methods to their school practicum experiences.

The Synergistic Use of Page and Screen

From early childhood schooling, today's children will interact with both page and screen literacy endeavors. Students spend more time today reading on the screen than on paper. Young children have the opportunity to use technology to support more traditional ways of gaining knowledge.

Today's students move from a computer, to paper, to their smartphone, to a print book and then this process continues recursively. Rather than seeing print as a separation, students are keenly aware of how page and screen work synergistically.

This leads me to believe that when digital devices such as laptops or tablets are absent in a classroom, students are prevented from engaging as effectively with the course material because they are forced to interact with what they perceive as a restricted set of resources.

Multimodal Literacy or the Power of the Visual

While visual literacy has always been important, it is even more so today. We, along with our students, interact visually: Instagram, Snapchat, and so on. These interactions are all grounded in the visual. With the screen as a central medium of communication, and the screen being mostly grounded in image, Gunther Kress points out in his book "Literacy in the New Media Age" that this too is impacting literacy.

Now, more than ever before, adults who interact with children need to have expertise in text, visual, sound, technology and so on. Though, the challenges are huge as educators shift from a single, dominant mode of communication to multiple, intersecting modes.

This results in a huge shift for teachers, parents, and others who interact with children on a daily basis. While potentially media savvy, today's generation of adults have been largely grounded in print, and in particular print on paper. While text is still important, it often becomes part of a multimodal composition that could include visual images, sound, video and so on.

We are just beginning to understand the importance of the screen and digital literacies and how they will transform our current understandings surrounding literacy. To support next generations of children who are rapidly engaged in a technologically advanced society, we need to constantly be aware of these changes and their impact.

Not long ago, we fought to put every child in a classroom because schools opened up a world of opportunity for children to learn to read and write. Today, children are repressed in the classroom because many schools across the country are behind the times. Perhaps, then, we should stop reacting to the past and present and asking ourselves "how do we improve?" but instead start looking to the future and prepare ourselves for "what's next?"


Diane Barone is a foundation professor of literacy in the College of Education. She was inducted into The Reading Hall of Fame in 2014 and her research focus is on children's literacy development and instruction in high poverty schools. She also currently serves as the president of the International Literacy Association.

Diane Barone

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