Not as Easy as ABC

Diane Barone examines the complexity of literacy in the digital age

There is no permanent, fixed definition of literacy. In fact, right now, there are rapidly broadening ideas surrounding the topic.

Shifts in the thinking include moving from a print-based literacy world to one that is dominated by image and multimodal composing. These shifts are also surrounded by changes in social connectivity.

Surprising as it may be, Maryanne Wolf writes in her book, Proust and the Squid, it took humans over 2,000 years to learn to read with an alphabet. Today, we expect children to accomplish this skill in about 2,000 days. The understandings of literacy are very different from what they were when the U.S. first began to instruct children in reading. At that time, being able to pronounce words was sufficient, and to be an accomplished reader, a literate person just needed to sound good to his or her audience.

What a shift to today, where pronunciation or phonemic awareness and phonics are taught in the earliest grades. Even from children’s first days in school, we expect them to talk about what they read and create interpretations of it.
When considering early instruction for the youngest children, we often visualize them using a pencil and paper as they learn to read and write. While this image may have been accurate ten years ago, today young children come to literacy through the use of smart technology. They use their fingers to copy a letter or hear its sound, change a screen, or interact with a story.

Children’s use of the internet is connected with the use of smart technology. In fact, 50% of children in kindergarten use the internet to interact with other people, outside of their immediate family. Perhaps surprising, very young children are already familiar with social media before they even enter kindergarten, often through programs like Disney’s Club Penguin or Webkinz.

There is certainly an expectation for children to learn the foundational literacy elements of phonemic awareness, phonics, and decoding with fluency. However, foundational knowledge may not result in instruction that looks like that from several years ago. Young children have the opportunity to use smart technology to support more traditional ways of gaining this knowledge. In the children’s book, It’s a Little Book by Lane Smith, characters still in diapers talk about the differences between a print book and social networking on a computer. This epitomizes today’s reality that young children now come to understand the affordances and limitations of each medium through exploration at home and at school.

Paper and Screen
From the very beginning of schooling, children now interact with both page and screen. Students spend more time today reading on the screen and move effortlessly from one medium to another. An intermediate student doing research,moves from a computer or tablet to paper to a book, and then this process continues recursively. Students do not see the form of print as a separation; rather, they are aware of how different forms work synergistically.

The Power of the Visual
While visual literacy has always been important, it is even more so today. Think about the ways we interact visually: Instagram, Snapchat, and other apps. These communications are all grounded in the visual. It is reminiscent of advertisements and how the visual is so important within them as it is used to convince a viewer to buy a product. In school-based literacy, students are learning how to interpret pictures and film to determine how the creator used artistic elements. Gunther Kress, who researches current understandings of literacy, suggests that today the screen is the central medium of communication and the screen is grounded in image, not words.

This way of thinking about literacy results in a huge shift for teachers. In the past, teachers were grounded in print, and in particular print on paper. While text is still important, it often becomes part of a multimodal composition that could include visual images, sound, and film. Creating multimodal compositions requires knowledge of the visual and textual elements, and how to connect them to form meanings. Therefore, teachers need to have expertise in text, visual, sound, and technology, which is infrequently a part of their teacher-preparation programs. The challenges are huge for teachers as they shift from a single, dominant mode of communication—print—to multiple, intersecting modes.

Social Engagement
Social engagement is potentially the largest shift in understanding literacy. Often, in classrooms, learning to read was a singular event. A student might participate in small-group or whole-class instruction, but the primary goal was the individual student’s development as a reader and writer. Today, students share their reading and writing in small and larger groups; however, they also share with others through blogs and social media networks. Literacy is now embedded within social practices that are often connected with the internet. Social connectivity results in high levels of student engagement. The challenge for teachers is to find appropriate ways for students to connect socially and focus on academic content. Soon-to-be teachers should learn how to work with small groups and support social ways of learning. They can then take what they learn in class and apply it to work in practicum experiences in schools.
The changes and broadening ideas surrounding literacy are interesting, exciting, and daunting. Teachers need to be aware of the shifts in understanding and willing to take on the challenges of supporting students in traditional and 21st-century literacy understandings. If not, students will perceive classrooms as limiting and the world outside the classroom as ever-expanding with the use of new technologies. What an exciting challenge!

“Survey of Internet and At-risk Behaviors.” Rochester Institute of Technology, NY, 2008.
Leu, Donald J., Elena Forzani, and Clint Kennedy, “Income Inequality and the Online Reading Gap: Teaching Our Way to Success with Online Research and Comprehension.” The Reading Teacher, Feb. 2015.
Leu, Donald J. and Elena Forzani, “New Literacies in a Web 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, ...[infinity] World.” Research in the Schools 19, no. 1, spring 2012, 75–81.

Diane Barone is a foundation professor of literacy at the University of Nevada, Reno. She was inducted into the Reading Hall of Fame in 2014, and her research focus is on children’s literacy development and instruction in high-poverty schools. Barone can be reached at 775-682-7870 and