Is children’s literacy in jeopardy? OMG LOL!

February 28, 2013
Gail Sidonie Sobat

Today’s young readers and writers are multiliterate

Children’s and youth’s facility with language in the 21st century is just fine, TYVM [thank you very much]. I do know whereof I speak—I’ve had 15 years of field research experience as the creator and coordinator of YouthWrite, a camp for kids who “love to write … just about anything!” 

YouthWrite began B.C.—Before Cellphones—and before young writers brought laptops, smartphones and iPads to camp. Originally, most brought a notebook (a paper writing journal!) and a Discman (Sony’s first portable CD player); later they brought iPods. Only recently have some writers brought more sophisticated writing tablets and phones, which we openly embrace in our courses. But we also provide each participant with a journal and a pencil, and everyone at YouthWrite uses these things with considerable aplomb, despite differences in class and the state of cursive writing these days. Pen and paper remain the great levellers, and our creative writers know how to use these tools.

But they know how to use other tools of the trade as well, and we applaud their adroit thumbs on smartphones. Youth are smart to make use of available technologies—whether through schools and libraries or in their own homes. Those lucky youth who love to read and write ride the crest of the wave of this century’s multiple literacies, because they understand not just print text, but a plurality of other modes of communication as well: visual, graphic, hyper, Twitter, messaging, cinematic, graffiti and texts written on the body, to name but a few. Young readers and writers today are multi-literate, and being so can only bring greater access to power and possibility.

But don’t take my word for it. Consider the 2011 results of a 10-year study funded by the British Academy that examined the effects of text messaging use on children aged 8–12. The study found a “strong association between text abbreviation use and literacy skills,” and that “text use was actually driving the development of phonological awareness and reading skills in children,” enabling them to practise spelling on a frequent and repetitive basis and to use abbreviations to become better readers and writers.1  

I have one important literacy caveat, however. One of the key elements in this discussion is “the reader.” Writing does not happen without reading. I posit, as do many others, that reading, writing and thinking are inextricably linked. These days, neuroscience is adding empathy to that link as recent neurological research finds that reading sparks compassion. Reading bears the rich fruits of expression and creativity when a child picks up a pen or tablet or brush. Story patterns and symbols, turns of phrase and language, are absorbed as by osmosis by a reader. When he or she creates something on the blank page, all these unconscious riches come tumbling out. The key to the whole multiple literacy puzzle is reading.

Something integral is missing for the non-readers who too often end up in a remedial high school English class, struggling to make meaning from seemingly nonsensical words, symbols and narratives. When stories and language do not matter because they have never been savoured and absorbed, something is taken from the non-reader’s life, even if he or she uses technology with passing dexterity. He or she will likely not be a writer or a creator. With or without technology, the non-reader has been robbed of the ability to make full sense of the world, to write about his or her own part in the human dance, to say something important or political or poetic, and to say it well.

I trumpet the use of technology. But I urge those who use it to read—whether e-books, graphic novels, e-zines or the printed page. That’s how we build dreamers and poets and compassionate scientists, and the world needs more of all of those.

Footnote

1 “Children Who Regularly Text Message Have BETTER English Than Those Who Don't (Even If Thy Use Txt Spk).” Daily Mail, February 4, 2011. www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1353658/Children-regularly-text-message-BETTER-English-dont-thy-use-txt-spk.html#ixzz26SmHGHn8

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Gail Sidonie Sobat is the author of the YA fantasy series Ingamald, A Winter’s Tale and A Glass Darkly, a novel for adults, and the award-winning The Book of Mary and a collection of poetry, Aortic Caprice. Her latest novel for young adults is Not With a Bang. For more information, visit www.gailsidoniesobat.com.