New Definition of Literacy?

Stephen's Web features an article today entitled The New Literacy.

Academics are wringing their hands over the decline in student literacy. Professors lament that their charges can't write a sentence, follow the rules of grammar, or read a complex passage. Last year researchers found that most of the students on the campus of a California State University lacked the skills to read the textbooks in their heavy backpacks.

Perhaps the current crop of students fill in for reading with other forms of literacy. They are "polyfocal."

That is, very rarely do they direct their attention in a focal, concentrated way to any single text or medium. When they watch television, they also listen to music and read or carry on conversations; traveling on the bus or Mass Transit Railway they read and listen to music-most commonly they 'read' while chatting, watching television and listening to music on CD." Observe a teenager, and you'll see what we're talking about.

Stephen Downes says,

It seems to me that for an information age student the most definiing characteristic of written text is that it is slow. Not quite as slow as listening to voice mail messages, but when compared to the rapid-fire pace of information transfer most of us are used to, it is achingly slow. The words struggle to pass from one to the next, a disappointingly linear presentation of what would more usefuly be a multi-streamed layering and threading of information, context and content. Today's students see no reason to wait. If there is a lull in the information stream coming from one direction, they quickly shift focus to another.

Stephen purports that

What the critics of new media are missing is what may be called hyper-grammar. Textual language is bound by rules of syntax and semantics, with reference and meaning tightly constrainted by systems of representation. It is not a thought, in text, if it cannot be articulated without a subject and a predicate. It is not related to another thought, in text, if it cannot be logically conjoined. Waves of meaning are washed aside when the experience is rendered into words. That experience, so quaintly called "filling in the gaps with your imagination" by the literati, is lamented by the older generation when it is lost. And frustrating for the young, who would like to know what the author really meant with just that turn of a phrase.

Today's reader works with a much wider grammar. Even such simply typographic conventions, such as the use of italics, bold and capitals, can add new meaning to a text. The addition of symbols, such as smileys, convey emotion or sentiment. The breaking of linguistic rules - like this - can add urgency or clarity. The dropping of nouns, verbs or pronouns can express coreference (essentially, placing two separate thoughts into a single context). True, the haste with which people type online can result in a myriad of interesting typos and other errors - but then the error rate in a message also designates its degree of formality (conversely - to remove the errors reduces all text to the same sterile state of formality).

Perhaps taking in many short bursts of information in parallel is superior to the text-only communication we are accustomed to. Stephen concludes, "The new literacy may not be an even greater grasp of the fine points of language, but rather, a capacity to move beyond the limits of text and to manipulate experience directly."

Robert Horn tells the story of a medical student at Stanford who whizzes through medical texts, taking in their messages by reading only the pictures.

There's not so much wrong with having a short attention span for a person who can grok deep meaning in tiny bursts of time.

Posted by Jay Cross at October 4, 2002 01:55 PM | TrackBack

I'm just testing this out.

Posted by: Les Klassen at January 29, 2003 10:04 AM

Readers of LiteracyNow! ( is how a blog works. And ideas is created and the community builds on the blog. Everyone can contribute to the orginal idea and the page grows as the discussion grows.

Posted by: Les Klassen at January 29, 2003 10:06 AM

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