Rainbow over Galileo Lane, Tucson

Friday, December 7, 2012

Literacy learning among digital natives

December 4, 2012

In the process of getting  together a collection of our work for Routledge educationalist series I came across this list contrasting learning of oral and written language  written in 1983. And I was struck by a remarkable change made possible by the digital revolution that blurred the distinctions between oral and written language.

1.   While both  oral   and  written language are  transactional  processes in  which  communication between a language producer and a language receiver takes place, the interpersonal  aspects of  oral   language are  more pervasively evident  than  those of written language. Productive and  receptive roles  are  much more interchangeable in a  speech act  of oral  language than in  a literacy event of  written language. The  contribution of  listening  development to  speaking development is  easier to  identify than the  similar contribution of  reading to  writing. One reason is that oral  interaction  is more easily observable than written.
2.  Both   reading and writing  develop in   relation to  their specific functions and   use. Again there is  greater parity for  functions and  needs of listening and  speaking than for  reading and writing.
3.   Most people need  to  read   a  lot  more often  in  their  daily lives than  they   need  to write. Simply, that means they get a lot  less  practice in  writing than reading.
4.  Readers certainly must build a sense of the  forms, conventions, styles, and  cultural constraints of written texts  as  they become more proficient and  flexible  readers. But there is no  assurance that  this  will  carry  over into writing  unless they are  motivated to  produce themselves, as writers, similar types of texts.
5.  Readers  have  some  way   of  judging  their  effectiveness immediately.  They  know whether they are  making sense of  what they are  reading. Writers must  depend  on feedback and response from   potential readers which is  often quite  delayed. They may  of course be  their own readers, in fact  it's impossible to write without reading.
6.  Readers need not  write during reading. But  writers must read and reread  during writing, particularly as  texts  get  longer and  their purposes get  more  complex.  Furthermore, the   process of  writing must result in  a text  which is  comprehensible for the   intended  audience. That   requires that   it  be  relatively  complete,  that   ideas be well   presented, and   that   appropriate  forms, styles, and  conventions be  used.  As writing proficiency improves through functional communicative use, there will  certainly be  a pay-off  to reading since all of the schemata for  predicting texts  in  reading are  essentially the  same as  those used in  constructing texts  during writing.
7.  Reading and  writing do  have an  impact on  each  other, but  the  relationships  are  not simple and isomorphic. The  impact on  development must be  seen as  involving  the function of reading or writing and the  specific process in  which reading and  writing are  used   to  perform those functions. (Goodman and Goodman 1983)

The gist of this is contrst is that what makes learning oral language different was that in oral language there is a continuous alternation of roles as speaker and listener. But in written language reader and writer are seldom in the same place and time.

Think about how widespread text messaging has become. Anybody, child or adult, with access to a cell phone can engage in a written conversation with someone across the room or across the world. Social networks make it easy to connect with “friends” on a computer, a phone or an ipad. The distinctions I carefully drew no longer apply. In the digital world readers and writers alternate roles as they do in oral language.
 What’s more it appears that very young children, digital natives, are learning these new forms of literacy often before they come to school. And certainly without any instruction.. Julliette  my great-grand daughter at 2 ½ took control of my ipad and was looking at pictures and listening to music in about 2 miinutes.

Let’s put this all into a theoretical framework. The most significant characteristic of the human species is our ability to create language. We alone among the animals can think symbolically. That makes language possible. And we need to connect with each other for survival. This need to connect with each other is rapidly increasing and is  being met in more and more varied ways.

New technology makes possible new ways of connecting but the need to connect is what causes the development of the technology. Historians like to say Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press made mass literacy possible. But if there had not been a need for more widespread access to literacy there would have been no market for a printing press.

The notion form architecture that form follows function applies equally well to language. New functions lead to new forms. But the reverse is also true, For example the computer was originally created as a device for crunching numbers. But this technology made new language functions possible.

And in the 30 years since I laid out the list above, as technology has become more and more facilitative people are creating new functions and adapting the technology into highly efficient means of connecting with each other. We can not only  “talk”  with each other through our thumbs as we “text” on our phones, we can send pictures while we talk or we can see each other as we connect. We can hold conferences or fall in love without being face to face.

Some linguists have argued that oral language is innate and that written language is a technology for transcribing speech. But now it is clear that what is universal is not oral language but the ability to create language using any of the senses. We argued for several decades that language is easy to learn when it is useful –even necessary- and functional. It is hard to learn when it serves no personal  need or function for the learner.

 And we have argued that all forms of language are essentially learned in the same way and for the same reasons .With the new technology both oral and written forms of language are becoming both accessible and socially necessary. That makes  equally easy to learn.

So here is a new reality for our schools. Schools have always resisted new technology- whether it was the typewriter, the ball point pen, the slide rule or the calculator. But the changes in access to literacy require a much more pervasive change in literacy education. We cannot educate 21st century learners with 1980’s curriculum.

We need to welcome and use the new technology- cell phones, ipads ,laptops but we also have to build on the literacy even the youngest of our students bring with them to school.

That means s curriculum  that does not treat literacy as an autonomous skill to be learned  before it can be used but as a natural part of language development. It means expanding on the social functons of literacy that motivate learning outside of school to honing that literacy for learning inside of school.

It also means making the instruments of the new literacy widely  and inexpensively available. In our capitalist society access to technology is controlled by multinational corporations. The air we breathe belongs to all of us. Sending messages through that air should also belong to all of us.  If some children do not have access to the technology that makes the new literacy connections possible they will not be able to develop literacy. Access  is key and schools must provide it if it is not in the homes.

It is an exciting time for literacy.  Quite literally  we can stop teaching kids to read and write in school. Rather we can expand on the literacy they learn out of school, and help them to connect through their developing connections to literature, to the access to information , and to full participation in the digital age.

But what a time: the common core  embodies an anachronistic view of literacy learning which treats literacy as a difficult abstract  and autonymous skill. Children happily texting on their cell phones will be failing skill sequences and remediated for their inability to do what they already know how to do.

Maybe someone  can convince Bill Gates that instead of meddling in schools he could make the technology universally available to all kids and jump start easy to learn literacy.

Article quoted: Goodman, KS and YM Reading and Writing Relationships: Pragmatic Functions,  Language Arts 60:5 May 1983 pp 590-599