The Digital Literacy Debate: Are We Really Reading on the Web?

A new series examining the debate on 21st century literacy skills is beginning at the New York Times See: Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading? by Motoko Rich, July 27, 2008.

As teenagers’ scores on standardized reading tests have declined or stagnated, some argue that the hours spent prowling the Internet are the enemy of reading — diminishing literacy, wrecking attention spans and destroying a precious common culture that exists only through the reading of books. … But others say the Internet has created a new kind of reading, one that schools and society should not discount. The Web inspires teenagers who might otherwise spend most of their leisure time watching television, to read and write. …Clearly, reading in print and on the Internet are different. On paper, text has a predetermined beginning, middle and end, where readers focus for a sustained period on one author’s vision. On the Internet, readers skate through cyberspace at will and, in effect, compose their own beginnings, middles and ends. More Literacy_Debate_Online,_RU_Really Reading?  120KB pdf

Each medium of communications leads us to codify reality in unique ways. For example, oral communication is very mosaic – we communicate not only with words, but gestures, inflections, and tone. Over time we learn to read all these bits of information and merge them into a cohesive message. Print, in contrast, is very lineal. Writing forces our thinking into some sort of conceptual “meat grinder” that sequences our disparate thoughts together. Following rules of grammar and mechanics, we compose our message into the an equivalent of one long “fortune cookie” of text. The skill set needed to “literate” in speech and print very different as are the relative value we place on effective communicators in each media. A similar case could be made for the unique ways we codify reality in graphic novels, film, video, dance, ASL and so on. Searching and reading on the web is not the same as reading a book.

See the diagram below for distinctions between reading books and online sources (source NY Times). Click image to enlarge


The digital literacy debate will continue to rage on, in the meantime educators and parents need to learn more about how the new media are shaping the thinking and perceptions of our children. Students will forge ahead without us. As Carol Jago of the National Council of Teachers of English stated,  “Nobody has taught a single kid to text message. Kids are smart. When they want to do something, schools don’t have to get involved.” 

Note, I last commented on this subject in my post “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” 

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