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

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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.

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