December 4, 2012
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