My wife, who is a high school communications teacher, came home from school the other day quite irritated. A publishing company had visited her school to field test a presentation. The presentation was to encourage students to think about taking up a career in the field of IT (Information and Technology). However, she felt that this group of presenters failed for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, their mode of presentation was with a PowerPoint—which in and of itself is not a bad thing, however, the presentation, which had supposedly been designed for teenagers, was nearly all bulleted text with few visuals. They made use of a few video shorts, but they too were just “talking heads” of corporate people talking about the excitement and joy of working in the field.
The presenters had to navigate in and out of the PowerPoint to run the video so they lost credibility with an audience that is quite savvy with technology. To make matters worse, the presenters played clips of corporate leaders who made claims about how students leaving high school today do not know how to read or write. Therefore, colleges and even businesses are left to train more and more people.
In general, we have come to accept this assumption. Reading scores today are stagnant and although 75% of eighth graders are above “basic,” only 32% are considered “proficient (National Center for Education Statistics, 2009). Yet, as I often question, how can this possibly be the case? Our students, from every class and ethnicity, are surrounded by more text today than at any point in the history of the world. Kaiser Family Foundation (2010) found that 7th–12th graders report spending about an hour and a half (1:35) engaged in sending and receiving texts in addition to an hour and a half on the computer where they spend most of their time social networking, instant messaging, and emailing. If one considers these activities, it is unarguable that they experience more words today than their parents did. And consequently, they write substantially more as well. For years, research suggested that access to text was an extremely important indicator of future reading success (Ivey & Broaddus, 2001; Neuman 1999). So by those standards, why isn’t this generation meeting the expectations that this society has of it?
In the past, reading researchers discussed whether the true culprit in low reading scores of many students is not illiteracy (meaning that students can’t read) but “alliteracy” (indicating that they can, but simply won’t). From this perspective, researchers suggest that the problem is not so much technical as it is emotional or social. And so they examine topics like motivation, engagement, self-efficacy, and socio-cultural factors like community, race, gender, and power.
I wonder if the same can be applied to this new phase of the reading debate. I disagree with the assertion that students today do not know how to read or write. I believe they are quite capable of doing so. They spend tremendous amounts of time communicating back and forth in written text and they exert a great deal of effort in reading online. The breakdown occurs when they are asked to do specific types of writing: formal, academic, business, etc. The book The Dumbest Generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future (2009) argues that our youth are growing more ignorant in this age because of their interaction with digital technologies. I disagree. I believe these students offer the same potential and promise of past generations. Acknowledging this does not release us from our responsibilities to help them “read the word and the world” as Paulo Friere suggested years ago. But it does mean that we may need to re-think how we have characterized them and their digital lives. Perhaps we should adopt a mentality where we try to bridge the gap between their out-of-school literacies and their in-school literacies.
In closing, I think about the presentation those students saw. I think about how the message of the presentation suggested that those students needed to start learning how to read and write to become more employable. I think about how the presenters read their speech off the slide like it was some huge notecard. And I think about how 91% of Inc 500 companies reported using a social media channel in 2009 (Schoenfield, 2010). And I wonder if those students are actually closer to entering the business world than people assume.
Bauerlein, M. (2009). The Dumbest Generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future. Jeremy P. Tarcher / Penguin, New York.
Ivey, G., & Broaddus, K. (2001). “Just plain reading”: A survey of what makes students want to read in middle school classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 36(4), 350-377.
Kaiser Family Foundation. Generation M: Media Use in the lives of 8–18 Year-Olds. Menlo Park, CA: Kaiser Family Foundation: 2010.
National Center for Education Statistics (2009). The Nation’s Report Card: Reading 2009 (NCES 2010–458). Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C.
Neuman, S. B. (1999). “Books make a difference: A study of access to literacy.” Reading Research Quarterly, 34(3), 286-311.
Schoenfield, A. (2010). Social media for business: 31 states and anecdotes.
Scott Voss is a reading specialist at Apple Valley High School, Apple Valley, Minnesota, who is currently on sabbatical to work on a doctoral degree from the University of Minnesota in reading research. He is also a Bush Foundation Fellow and the vice president of the Minnesota Reading Association.
This article first appeared in the Minnesota Reading Association Highlights, June 2010.