Sunday, January 27, 2008

Internet and Literacy


Much has been written of late about the Internet’s effect on literacy. Dennis Baron, a world renowned linguist and a professor of English at University of Illinois, maintains a blog Web of Language. On this blog, he recently posted the following, which I quote nearly verbatim, and then invite you to read the full blog at this URL:


http://webtools.uiuc.edu/blog/view?blogId=25&topicId=1362&count=1&ACTION=VIEW_TOPIC_DIALOGS&skinId=286 L


Baron begins with the provocative titles, “Is the internet killing literacy, or pumping new life into it?”

He continues, “Every year there’s a sky-is-falling warning about the death of literacy in America. A 2007 poll found that 27% of American adults hadn’t read a book in a year. More recently, Caleb Crain, writing in the New Yorker, cites a worldwide drop-off in reading on the order of the shrinking of the polar ice caps. Crain documents a 50% decline in American newspaper readership since 1970 and flat book sales, all of which foreshadow a world where fewer readers means fewer thinkers, fewer voters, and far less objectivity."

Baron further notes that Steve Job, the guru of Apple computers is not all that disappointed by this decline, writing: “Steve Jobs rejected a suggestion that Amazon’s hot new e-book reader, the oddly-named Kindle, which sold out the day it went on sale, might eat into the iPod’s market, because – according to Jobs – 40% of Americans don’t read books, and for him fewer readers apparently equals more listeners and viewers.”


On the other hand, Baron is quick to let us know, Crain of the New York “even cites a Michigan State University study showing that children can improve their reading by going online for as little as half an hour a day, whether they surf to gather information or they’re just chatting with friends....But Crain also warns that the ‘synergies’ between surfing and reading will disappear as the popularity of YouTube moves the web away from text toward television.”

Summarizing Crain further, Baron comments: “...computer activities involve text, but...that computer literacy isn’t really literacy....Email or IM are simply ways to make text approximate speech, producing a kind of ‘secondary orality’ – a term made popular by Walter Ong that indicates a kind of modern move to recapture ancient oral culture – something almost tribal, rather than truly literate behavior (if taken to its extreme, such a view applied to drama, a literary art devoted to the approximation of speech, could push Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill into the world of soap opera)....”

Feel free to read the full post using the URL provided or simply to comment on what is excerpted here to provide your own response about how Internet use if affecting literacy as well at the implication for those of us who are teaching and aspire to teach literacy everyday.
Photo is of Dennis Baron and is from his Web of Language site.

8 comments:

Sherri said...

Yesterday, my son informed that he could text his friends through the internet via his PSP game console. I respond "or you could just call him?" I am concerned about the reduction of person to person to communication. I want my kids to know how to effectively listen to others and communicate their ideas. The opportunities to practice these skills are being replaced with how fast you can text message. Pretty scary.

Judy Arzt said...

Even if you don't read all of Dennis Baron's blog on the pros and cons of the Internet promoting literacy, what is your opinion on the issue? Post your comments.

Sherri said...

The other day my 13 year old shared that he can text his friend over the internet via his PSP game console. I responded, why don't you give him a call instead.
I want my children to effective communicators. Instead of listening and talking, they are seeing how fast they can text in their abbreviated language. I have no doubt this has an negative impact on their literacy.

mary beth said...

What do people mean when they say "literacy" today? Is it reading and writing? This topic makes me wonder what literacy in the 21st century is. I think I read a lot on a daily basis: newspapers, magazines, Internet, email, recipes, instructions for various gadgets. As for books, I don't reserve a large chunk of time on a daily basis to read a book...I have 3 or 4 partially read books on my nightstand but my lifestyle is too busy to really "get into" a long book. It is something I truly enjoy and look forward to doing when I am on vacation. But if literacy has anything to do with communuication, I think there is a lot of that going on these days with cellphones and the Internet. I guess the question I have is what are people communicating about? In my own life, I would like to talk more with my kids, friends and family, about what is going on in the world. Ideally I would like to have more indepth conversations about people, places, events outside of our daily experiences. I don't have that at home which is why I enjoy taking courses because in school we do engage one another in conversations with depth and breadth that I don't get anywhere else. In these same classes I also read books which help to inform these in-depth class discussions and the writing of papers, so books are connected to writing and discussion, and I think literacy is all of it: being able to read(learn), discuss(share what you learn and learn from others), and write(apply and extend what you learn). So to wrap up my thoughts on this, I guess my daily adult life is spent on more superficial and logistical concerns, keeping physically fit, feeding my family, volunteering, watching reality tv, etc., which have their place but I still feel the need to maintain a place in my life for higher order thinking, reading, writing, discussing. I'll probably do that by being a teacher and a student the rest of my life. Maybe our kids do it too, in school, which leaves them time at home for less worthy but fun activities like texting, IM, you tube and watching Hannah Montana...let's just hope they never resort to texting their homework to their teacher or getting credit for commenting on their teacher's blog :) TTFN

Gayle said...

I do believe the internet is killing literacy and personal communication between people. I am not that old (late 30's) and remember when you had to read a book or article to research information. A phone call or a letter was the form of communication. Now in the internet age, people communicate via email. No more phone calls or notes, so impersonable. My husband even suggests that I email him to remind him of important dates. Many people lack communication skills because they no longer have to talk to anyone face to face. Good writing skills are no longer necessary because of the email/text vocabulary.
Many people tell me, I need to adapt to the computer age. It is very difficult for me. I enjoy having conversations with people face to face. I am a people person, not a computer person.

As for reading a good book, I must agree with Mary Beth. I too have a couple of books on my night table I need to finish reading. Life is too busy to stop and enjoy a book. It is amazing how some of us make time to read a good story online!

Anonymous said...

Gayle, I see your point. My husband uses email to reach me at work because he knows I am less inclined to answer the phone. On the other hand, I do believe that some computer tools have made people more reliant on writing as a form of communication, which overall I perceive as a good thing, because it does help build literacy skills and gives people more practice with writing skills. Nevertheless, I realize some people are lazy in their emails and posts to blogs. I wish we could use computer literacy more often to showcase the importance of writing in today's world. In fact, I don't blame the technology as much as I do people's proclivity to find the lazy way out. This could occur in any time period, when an innovation revolutionizes the way we function. Think of how the automobile changed a society from walkers to drivers, cutting down on the exercise we get. Still, this technology helped to link people in other ways, drawing people together by closing the distance gap. Each new innovation brings with it sociological changes; it is not the innovation in itself that is the villain, but how people respond to it. In the end, I see the situation as more of a matter of human behavior. Even the printing press at its inception was bemoaned as the decline of humankind.

gayle said...

Your point is well taken. You are absolutely right, we all must adapt to change. I guess I just have difficulty adapting to change. The internet is not all bad! I have learned to shop on it!
As for using the internet as a tool for communication, I still prefer a phone call or note!
Thanks for responding!

Margaret H said...

Literacy is a very hot topic at my school. As a district we are working on improving our students literacy skills even though we have not been told how to do this. I do feel that many students don’t read as much they once did. In addition because of the IMing and texting many students use abbreviations for words instead writing them out. This then comes through in their writing in school. I know I am guilty of this at times but how do we fix this? I wouldn’t want students not to stop communicating with their friends. Communication is an important quality for life.

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