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Digitally Relevant Literacy Instruction for the 21st Century

It was only my fifth year or so of teaching when I first heard myself say…“Kids today are different!”  I was startled to hear it come out of my mouth, since this was a phrase that I had—until that point—associated with eighty-year-olds who wore socks with sandals and screamed at kids to get off of the well-manicured lawn. In the years since that fateful day, I have heard a number of other educators and researchers make similar comments about today’s youth—not just in moments of teaching frustration, but on numerous occasions when we have all struggled to understand our students and to make learning real and engaging for them.

During a recent presentation to an auditorium full of educators, I quoted a few lines from Marc Prensky’s (2012) book, From Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom where he stated that, “Our students have changed radically”…and that “today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach” (p. 68).  While no one really argued with the first part, it was apparent that many people in the room had never contemplated the latter portion—the possibility that we might all need to update our instructional methods.

A number of literacy studies have been done lately that examine the changes underway in regards to both what and how we read. Seemingly concrete terms such as ‘book’ and ‘text’ have evolved to include digital siblings and cousins that include e-readers, iPads, and even phones that are used to create and view e-texts, digital documents, and texts that incorporate images, links, and sound.

Recent, comprehensive reviews of the research in regards to reading comprehension have concluded that while the Internet has likely spurred many more students to read for fun on, the process of reading on the internet requires additional reading skills beyond those that have served us on traditional print texts (Castek, Zawilinski, McVerry, O’Byrne, & Leu, 2011).  Online reading is often different in that it requires readers to simultaneously extract and construct meaning from a variety of alternative, non-linear texts. These texts often combine varied degrees of multimedia and hypertext, and include content, mental models, and structure that may or may not coincide with the readers’ ability, experience or culture (RAND Reading Study Group, 2002).   I often hear teachers comment that ‘kids today just aren’t readers.’  But it might very well be that our students are readers.  Perhaps they just are reading in ways that are a bit different from what you or I might be used to.

It comes as no surprise that the impact of ebooks on literacy has been examined in ‘new literacy’ studies by researchers such as Felvegi and Matthew (2012) and by Larson (2012) who are seeking to explore and better understand the literacy challenges, changes, and advantages brought about electronic books.   Such work asks me as an educator to rethink my notions of what counts as literacy…as well as my approach to help foster digitally-relevant literacy in the lives of my students—lives that are often permeated by hours and hours of informal reading and writing activities.

But it is not just the reading process that is be explored as of late.  Our students’ widespread use of information and communication technology is steadily changing the ways in which they write and otherwise communicate. Both in and out of school, young people are experimenting with ways to create and share their own original anime, manga, and fanfiction.  Might there be a way for them to do something similar in my classroom?

Many students also spend enormous chunks of time posting updates on a blogs and social networking sites, writing and revising documents in collaborative workspaces with their classmates, filming and distributing 6 second video loops, and sharing hundreds of short messages a day of only 140 characters or less as they microblog and tweet.   Might these activities provide engaging avenues for young people “produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to a variety of tasks, purposes, and audiences?” (National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010).

These new forms of writing have emerged that often do not follow formal writing conventions, but are beginning to be explored as a vehicle for writing instruction that engages students beyond the traditional, printed page and to allow writers to control the mode and medium used to shape their message (Sweeny, 2010).  Studies have already taken place concerning student use of ‘textisms’ in order to investigate the relationship between texting behavior and the attainment of written language skills (Plester, Wood, & Bell, 2008).  The bottom line—researchers are seeking to explore reading, writing, and other communication practices that transcend the national, cultural, linguistic, and conventional norms that have traditionally defined literacy (Black, 2008).  Perhaps it’s about time for teachers like me to explore instructional methods that seek to do the same.



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