mom and son with Kindle

Literacy, Financial literacy, Social literacy, Consumer literacy, Digital literacy – What is literacy? It seems we are encouraged to take any adjective and place “literacy” as the noun, thereby creating a new concept open to wide ranging definition, interpretation, and application.

As a former English major, English teacher, and K-12 principal, I understand the need or at least the pressures to include increasing numbers of literacies in our curriculum planning. I also undrestand the modern day appeal of business to pitch their topic by coupling it to the word literacy. Nonetheless, I still cling to reading as the fundamental literacy.

With grandchildren under five who beginning frighteningly early have been swiping screens of all types and sizes for years, I am passionately aware of the need to continue surrounding them with print, soft cover, hard cover, chewable, read-along, sing-along, turn the pages with me…books!

I’m also a self-proclaimed life-long-learner, so I have adapted to digital reading.  I have several news feeds on my iPod, read magazines on my Kindle, and have even recently downloaded actual books!  So, for me reading on a screen is still reading, though it sometimes carries potential distractions inherent to the platforms, and I have slowly realized I can make good use of various digital tools such as multiple bookmarks, copy/past passages, notes to email, and so forth.

But I’m a grandfather with highly developed reading skills across multiple genres whose education and career have always been immersed in reading, so what about those much younger, or not so enamored with print?  There are some cautions from those who study such things.

Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University states, “The fourth factor I would say in functional illiteracy is the fact that the digital world is in fact changing attention, especially in the young brain, which is very susceptible. So you have addiction problems, you have children who are literally developing a reading brain circuit that is short circuited, that doesn’t have the advantages because it’s moving its attention sometimes 27 times an hour, they are not developing concentration…” Click here to read more about this.

Wolf further suggests that there are, “…aspects to the digital culture that are changing us. They are changing attention, memory, reliance on external platforms of knowledge rather than building inside the children,” noting one key factor in successful reading comprehension, the vital foundation of prior knowledge.

Wolf, with perhaps a nod to the inevitability of digital reading gaining dominance, says, “…what I hope is a bi-literate brain that is critically able to use and know when to use a digital reading and when to use print at what developmental period. So it’s a bi-literate brain over time developmentally taught.”

kindle on books

Mark Seidenberg seems to agree with Wolf in his latest book “Language at the Speed of Sight” in which he acknowledges the emerging forces of digital literacy, but in which he also cautions us all, “Yes, being able to effectively use these technologies is important, but a person still has to be able to read. “Moby Dick” can be written with emojis, but not very well…My concern for the emphasis on multiple literacies is that it devalues the importance of reading and teaching reading at a time when they need more attention, not less.”

Click here to learn more about “Language at the Speed of Sight”

So, I think we ought not to conflate the original definition of literacy (reading) with the newer “digital literacy.”   Rather, let’s just agree that digital literacy is another of the growing list of literacies increasingly necessary for our success as learners and do-ers.  We must retain our sense of social responsibility, obligation even, to ensure a society of readers, but we must also deliberately address what it means to be digitally literate, to know as Daniel Willingham in “The Reading Mind” has suggested the two core skills of successful digital reading:  overall tech-savviness and the ability to evaluate the merits of information.

Click here to learn more about “The Reading Mind”

One example of addressing both forms of literacy is the Stern Center for Language and Learning and its recently launched eLearning platform. This new digital learning approach makes the Stern Center’s wide array of customized instruction available to all learners regardless of geography. Instructors teach learners how to access instruction digitally while using that mode to provide individual, customized instruction.  Thanks to a philanthropic partner, this new access is temporarily available at nearly half the usual cost of such instruction.

As Doug Belshaw has noted, “Digital literacies are not solely about technical proficiency but about the issues, norms, and habits of mind surrounding technologies used for a particular purpose.”  Click here to learn more about this.

It is those norms and habits of mind that so readily carry over to the workplace as evidence by this infographic from Time to Know.

Essential Digital Literacy Skills for the 21st Century Worker Infographic  

Our children, both those in our families and those in our care, need both the original definition of literacy; they need to read, and the emerging definition of digital literacy; they need to know how to use electronic information successfully.

So, use your Kindle, continue to surf the Web, and read “The Atlantic” on your phone, but keep your library card, have a stack of novels next to your favorite chair, and make sure that you model, promote, encourage, and teach by reading with your children and grandchildren in your lap.

Edward R. Wilkens, Ed.D.

Special Projects Advisor

Ed Wilkens served as a Vermont public school principal for 19 years across all grade levels pre-K through grade 12. He lives in North Ferrisburgh, VT with his wife and enjoys reading with his grand kids. 

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