What Does it Mean to Lead a Literate Life?

 //  Aug 10, 2021

What Does it Mean to Lead a Literate Life?

Jessica Wollman is Senior Vice President, General Manager of Curriculum at Scholastic Education Solutions. Here, she explores how the idea of an engaged reader has transformed and how educators can support students in a hybrid print and digital environment.

A few weeks ago, I told my eleven-year-old son to put down his phone and find something else to do, preferably a non-screen based activity. “OK,” he said. “But I’m reading The Art of War.”  

I was shocked by this revelation; I’ve never considered my son to be a reader. We live in a house filled with books, but I can’t remember the last time I saw him pull a title from a bookshelf. He reads assigned texts from school, but never ventures beyond the mandatory. My husband and I gave up on trying to force this issue several years ago.

A few days after the “Art of War” incident, I read about research conducted by the American Institutes for Research, probing the declining rates of reading comprehension and engagement, as indicated by recent NAEP scores. A question that has arisen amidst this analysis: how do you measure all the “new” kinds of reading that kids do today? Elena Forzani, an assistant professor of education at Boston University, who is unaffiliated with both NAEP and the AIR study, pointed out that conducting Google searches, reading online articles and creating videos can indeed help kids acquire new vocabulary and build topic knowledge. This sort of digital engagement claims Forzani, “requires complex and critical cognitive processes.”

I was reminded of my son reading Sun Tzu. And then I recalled an interesting fact he shared one morning about an eight year old girl who has a higher IQ than both Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. There’s also his encyclopedic knowledge of football trivia and World War II battles.

Suddenly, it hit me: my son is indeed a reader. However, readers today look different than they did, even ten years ago. Like everything else, new technologies have transformed all aspects of literacy: instruction, independent reading, and engagement.

This gives rise to a larger question: In a world filled with smart technology, what does it mean to lead a literate life? How can we support students and help them thrive in a hybrid environment, where print and screen co-exist?

A “New” Sort of Engagement

When it comes to independent reading, research has long since proven that students must love what they read. According to the Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report™, 88% of kids say they are more likely to finish a book they’ve selected for themselves and the majority of kids (89%) agree their favorite books are the ones they’ve selected. Motivation is the driving force behind every book read, and results in more books read, too.

Kids today have search engines, blogs, social media, and social networks at their fingertips. There’s no dearth of access to information. Technology makes it easier to build learner-centered classrooms where students can pursue their favorite topics, tapping resources and expertise to build knowledge. When incorporating technology into your lesson plans, it’s important to keep student choice and agency top of mind. When students own their own reading and learning, motivation soars.

The Myth of the Digital Native

Yes, your students might be able to text with one hand, respond to blog posts and enter topics into search engines all at lightning speed. But reviewing the information returned by a search engine with a critical eye and understanding that blogs can be used to advocate an opinion or position are learned skills. As with traditional literacy, digital literacy also requires specific and targeted instruction. It’s important to teach students how to be smart, responsible and productive consumers of media. This includes the development of healthy digital habits and attitudes. Sites like Common Sense Media and the Center for Media Literacy have resources that help schools and teachers formalize digital literacy instruction in their classrooms. Scholastic Magazines+ can also be an age-appropriate, valuable resource for students and teachers. 

Print and Screen Synergy

In her book Reader, Come Home, Maryanne Wolf emphasizes the need for young readers to become, “expert, flexible code switchers—between print and digital mediums now and later, between and among the multiple future communication mediums.” She underscores the need to teach kids to read deeply, in a sustained manner, and hopes that both digital and analog media can work in support of this goal.

But it’s important to consider the medium as well as the learning goal, and pair the two appropriately. Wolfe believes that “deep reading processes” such as making inferences and critical analysis of a text, are best done in print. But she acknowledges that digital reading allows for interest-based learning and rapid topic immersion. Her hope is that, via appropriate instruction and support, young readers will come to understand the different types of media, what each does best, and leverage them accordingly. When planning your instruction, think about the students in your classroom and what you’d like them to learn from a specific lesson. It’s also important to remember that not all students have equal access to technology in their homes, especially when planning lessons that might have an at-home component.

As students head back to school this fall, they’ll finally be able to experience the gifts of in-person instruction, print materials, and digital learning. Using these resources in harmony will bring intention and inspiration into classrooms and set students on the path to lead literate lives.