Sunday, July 27, 2008

Defining Literacy in the 21st Century

While going through the feeds in my RSS reader, I noticed an article entitled "Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?" As I read the article, I was struck by how well the author, Motoko Rich, represented both sides of the debate.

As a language arts teacher, I have enthusiastically encouraged my students to read books. I typically get a good many students who really don't like to read. My assertion is that they just haven't found what they like to read yet. Case in point, I had a student one year who the first day of class came to me and said,"Mrs. Osteen, I know you mean well. But you should know that I don't like to read and you won't be able to get me to like to read either." I simply smiled and nodded, thanking him for his honesty. Around November, he came to me one day during lunch time and asked if he could eat his lunch in the classroom. "The cafeteria is noisy and I'm at a really good part in this book. I'd like to read while I eat lunch." My response? You could probably imagine that I was delighted to allow him to read and eat lunch in the classroom.

But what did I really want from this student? Was it the fact that he had a book in his hand? Not really. It was that he was totally engaged with the text.

My son purchased an iPod Touch this summer with some of the money he has earned from his summer job. One of the first things he did was to download some books on it. He sits and reads on his iTouch books like the Bourne series. He is reading with the aid of a technological device. He is engaged with reading in a way that he has to sustain through a story line. Is this better or worse than holding a physical book?

In the article mentioned above, the point is made that many teens are reading online blogs, facebook pages, etc. While I don't doubt this is true, is that all they are reading online? Maybe the responsibility for the trend of how kids are spending their time comes back to us educators.

You'd be hard pressed to find an educator that would argue against the value of reading. The question is what type of reading is most beneficial to students and in what format? Actually, maybe the format is not the issue at all. Maybe it's the "what" that's the problem. When kids choose to spend their time reading, it is because they are interested in what they are reading. The student I mention above, my son with his iTouch and Nadia from the article all chose to read something that piqued their interest. When my son is required to read books like The Great Gatsby and Our Town, he "manages" through the books. I'm not saying he shouldn't have to read some of the classics. I'm just saying that I have a hard time answering him when he asks why teachers don't let kids choose what to read for summer reading.

So what do we really want from our students when they read? Is it the fact that they have a book in their hand? Or do we want them engaged with text in a sustained and focused way?

While there will continue to be a debate of books vs. Internet on the literacy front for some time to come, I submit to you that maybe the best answer is not one or the other. Maybe what we really need is to come to a realization that both have a place in the lives of our students and that students need guidance with both types of reading. As Will Richardson states in his blog post Kids Prefer Reading Online: I think we have to help kids process and track and organize the things that they read, teach them to respond in effective ways, teach them to interact and become participants in the process in ways that don’t restrict their passion and creativity but also give them some context for what they are doing.

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