Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

The Way We Read Online Has Changed. As Literacy Teachers, We Need to Keep Up

By Chris Panell — June 20, 2018 5 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

Even as a technology teacher, I often have no idea what students are talking about when it comes to their digital worlds. I know I’m not alone—even many younger people who grew up with computers and mobile phones have expressed shock at how fast our world is changing.

While many teachers want to do their best to keep up with technology, there has been a battle waged against students’ personal use of electronic devices in the classroom for as long as I’ve been a teacher. But these attitudes are changing. If you’ve been in any 21st-century school with 1-to-1 device initiatives, you already know the electronics have won.

I understand the competing pressures. On the one hand, I want my students to stay up-to-date. On the other hand, I am frustrated when students prefer to look down at their devices rather than at what I am writing on the board. It is hard to adjust to the new ways in which students receive information. Ask them to research and they head to the laptop, not the library. Tell them to send a note home to their parents, and they start thumbing on a virtual keyboard without ever considering pen and paper. Tell them to find out what an expert has said on a chosen topic and they’ll head to YouTube.

Technology hasn’t only changed the way students find information—the way students can create texts has changed as well. They can use digital languages, including coding, to add video and sound or even make texts that change in response to commands by the readers—no two readers of the same text might ever see the same sequence of words, for example. Increasingly, for our students who are fully literate, writing is becoming about creating an experience for the reader. This must lead to changes in our approach to literacy in schools.

A New Definition of Literacy

The definition of what it means to be “literate"—the ability to understand and create meaning through static symbols—has been fairly stable over time. There was no Google translator for messages received in Roman times, and the hardware of the scroll—and, later, the book—carried symbols from place to place. The symbols did not link or jump to other symbols, and the receiver of the symbols didn’t have the option to change the size of the text that they received, to answer questions within the text, or to personalize the experience of viewing the text in any way.

That is the legacy that technology has overthrown.

Thinkers like Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman, two 20th-century professors who worried about students being controlled by technology, understood the significance of the coming changes long before their peers. They recognized that emerging technology was pushing aside the printed word; they believed images would dominate.

What might surprise these soothsayers, were they still with us, is the sheer abundance of words that still frame the landscape of this new literacy. As of January 2016, there were about 100 trillion words on the Internet, according to the calculations of one Reddit.com user. By comparison, a 2014 Internet Trends report found there were 657 billion photos uploaded online per year. The digital-literacy picture that is emerging is one that uses words, facts, images, and ideas to create an experience. Students who are fully digitally literate in the future should not only be able to read the surface of the text, but also the programming behind it.

A Digital Language Curriculum

Digital languages are an extension of the spoken languages we already use, as I contended in a Tech Directions magazine article in 2003. This premise, I wrote, should “guide the activities used in our [computer] programming courses.”

Since then, much evidence in favor of my argument has accumulated. In one 2014 study, researchers imaged the brains of students learning to program and found that, as they wrote in code, the portions of the brain “related to different facets of language processing” were activated. Another set of researchers found using second-language-acquisition techniques promising in teaching entry-level computer programming classes.

The recognition that digital coding languages are an extension of other spoken and written languages has significant implications for how we approach literacy. Coding languages can be incorporated across the curricula, giving children the chance not just to use provided digital texts but to create texts of their own.

We should provide our students with a collaborative environment in which the language of technology is integrated into everything that they do—as will be the case for the remainder of their lives outside of school. To do otherwise is to consign significant numbers of our population to simply respond to the prompts created by those who know how to tell our technology what to do.

Where Can Teachers Begin?

Students in math classes could learn to program their own calculating apps. Students in science classes could build programs in which they care for a simulated population of microorganisms. History students could explore alternate endings to famous events by programming them into a game.

In my own classes, I’ve found that an easy entry point is to let students create YouTube videos to support different sides of a topic in classroom debate. This allows kids to incorporate a wide variety of technologies at a pace of their own choosing. Students also enjoy creating animated story boards, and this helps them gain more knowledge about how to integrate words and images in a dynamic way.

As students advance, teachers can also incorporate game creation into their curricula. For example, in my school, we have used games in science classes to simulate hunter and prey behavior. This year, in literature discussions in my English class, I have had students analyze both the story and programming of an existing game app.

It is not fair to relegate any young person to the role of the listener in our emerging digital conversation, condemning them to silence. We might, as teachers, not always understand what children are saying—but I want them to have the chance to try to say it.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Safe Return to Schools is Possible with Testing
We are edging closer to a nationwide return to in-person learning in the fall. However, vaccinations alone will not get us through this. Young children not being able to vaccinate, the spread of new and
Content provided by BD
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
Meeting the Moment: Accelerating Equitable Recovery and Transformative Change
Educators are deciding how best to re-establish routines such as everyday attendance, rebuild the relationships for resilient school communities, and center teaching and learning to consciously prioritize protecting the health and overall well-being of students
Content provided by Campaign for Grade-Level Reading
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Addressing Learning Loss: What Schools Need to Accelerate Reading Instruction in K-3
When K-3 students return to classrooms this fall, there will be huge gaps in foundational reading skills. Does your school or district need a plan to address learning loss and accelerate student growth? In this
Content provided by PDX Reading

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Opinion I've Studied Teachers for 20 Years. The Pandemic Was Their Ultimate Challenge
Researcher Lora Bartlett wondered what was happening behind the scenes as teachers' cheerful voices radiated from her daughters' computers.
Lora Bartlett
4 min read
Opinion Bartlett1 KNOW THYSELF LINCOLN
Lincoln Agnew for Education Week
Teaching Profession Q&A Teachers' Union President: Say 'No to Censorship, and Yes to Teaching the Truth'
National Education Association President Becky Pringle discusses some of the challenges and priorities for the nation's largest teachers' union.
8 min read
National Education Association President Becky Pringle delivers a keynote address.
National Education Association President Becky Pringle delivers a keynote address at the union's representative assembly in early July.
Moses Mitchell/National Education Association
Teaching Profession Opinion How to Improve Teaching After the Pandemic
Figuring out how to let individual teachers do more of what they’re already good at is a powerful place to start the improvement process.
4 min read
Conceptual image of finding finding a different approach or path.
Eoneren/E+
Teaching Profession Teachers' Unions Vow to Defend Members in Critical Race Theory Fight
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are preparing for litigation as states restrict teaching about racism.
7 min read
In this photo illustration, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, left, and Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, right.
In this photo illustration, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, left, and Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, right.
Courtesy photos