Monthly Archives: January 2012

What is Literacy?

Traditionally, literacy is defined as the ability to read and write, but that definition is changing as digital communication becomes more prevalent. Scholars like Gunther Kress (Literacy in the New Media Age) and Phillip George (The Role ofFree and Open Source Software in Digital Literacy Education) argue that reading and writing in digital environments involve a visual element that changes the way we read and compose.

When you read something online, George points out, you rarely just read a block of text – there are normally images and hyperlinks, and often you find video or audio elements. The images contribute to your interpretation of what the text means, and things like links or videos change the way you experience the text – you may click away to another site or pause reading to watch a video. This method of reading makes it a nonlinear process – instead of comprehending layers of ideas that together build toward a conclusion, we comprehend multiple horizontal ideas and stitch together meaning.

Kress explains this in terms of composition by claiming writing is determined by the logic of time whereas images are governed by the logic of space. Composing in a digital environment requires an awareness of placement and design, and a recognition that the reader may not be reading linearly.

This changing understanding of literacy affects almost every aspect of our society. One response is of concern – kids today can’t seem to focus as well, they don’t read as much, they privilege the virtual world to the physical one. Another response is of excitement – kids today are consumers of vast amounts of information, they can use technology with an ease that’s impressive, and they are able to communicate virtually with people on the other side of the world.

Whether you think the shift toward digital is good or bad, it influences the way students learn, the way they communicate, and the way they are going to be required to communicate in the business world.

As composition instructor, this reality not only affects my understanding of how students learn, but it changes the content of my courses. My job is to teach literacy, and literacy now includes multimodal reading, social and collaborative writing, and an ability to adapt to the fast-paced development of new tools.

Like anything else, the first step is to being able to teach digital literacy is mastering it myself. I’m finding one of my biggest challenges is incorporating those visual elements, so I’d like to hear from you. Do you use images, videos, or audio elements when you “write” online? If so, how do you incorporate them? Why do you incorporate them?   

21 Pages a Day

I can’t remember a time when reading was not an important part of my life. My mom read to my brother and I every night before we went to bed, and as we got older we started rotating who did the reading. I always wanted to read Cat and the Hat; John preferred Bernstein Bears.

Eventually the group reading was replaced by visits to the library, where John and I got to pick out our own books. It was on one of these visits that we discovered the library’s summer reading program. They gave us worksheets with images of open books, and for every page we read, we got to color a page. After you read so many pages, you were eligible for a prize.

I don’t remember what the prize was, but I remember figuring out that I needed to read 21 pages a day to get it. I read every Babysitter’s Club and Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on that summer. The funny thing is I managed to lose the worksheets and never submitted them to the library – I got so involved with the stories that I forgot why I started reading them.

My love affair with reading never ended – to this day I’m guilty of staying up way too late when the plot’s good. The only thing I found to love more than reading was writing. I had a wonderful first-grade teacher, Ms. Frank, who had us write our own books. (I found a few of them when I moved from Texas to California, including, “The Talking Rug” and “When You’re Feeling Lonely Find a B-E-A-R Bear.”) 

Unlike many of my peers, beyond the books in first grade and a couple of poems in high school, my interest in writing was never creative. For me, the thrill has always been in finding the best words to make an idea crystal clear. At heart, I’m an editor, and this has led me to various technical writing and copy editing jobs, as well as a BA and an MA in literature. 

After finishing the MA, I started teaching an online composition course and found a whole new reason to love writing. Today, I’m at UC Davis pursuing my PhD in Education with an emphasis on writing. Specifically, I’m looking at how technology affects the way we teach and learn to write, and at ways to effectively teach writing in online environments. I’m interested in college-level writers and adult learners, and I’m increasingly fascinated with the cognitive processes required for digital literacy.

That said, most days I just feel like a kid who started reading 21 pages a day, got hooked on the story, and can’t put the book down.