June 25, 2018
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iPhone or textbook? What literacy means today

Michael C. York | BDN
Michael C. York | BDN
Steve Scalese of Milford reads to his son, Zakery, 7, at bedtime in 2009. Scalese said his inability to read to his son was his wake-up call to get help through Literacy Volunteers of Bangor.

The information that washes across computer screens, tablets and phones necessitates a re-examination of what literacy means in 2012.

Being literate involves more than understanding what we read and expressing our thoughts clearly in writing. The sorting and evaluating elements of critical thinking now play a greater role in fostering literacy in a society that processes information delivered across multiple media platforms.

And as those varied media platforms increasingly become global workplaces, markets, banks and meeting places, the role literacy skills play in everyday life — including all types of job readiness — expands. As the Maine Department of Education states in a report explaining its new “Literacy for ME” initiative, “For our students to be literate in a digital world, they must become effective consumers, producers and critics of digital media in all its forms.”

A 2007 study titled “ New Literacies of Online Reading Comprehension,” by Donald J. Leu and other researchers, argues persuasively that the Internet has revolutionized literacy by redefining reading as a “problem-based inquiry process” and adding the ability to use search engines as a basic communication skill. Instead of starting on Page 1 of a book, readers now most often begin with a question, then turn to the Internet in search of answers.

In simple terms, being literate means being able to make sense of the world for yourself and others. Converting information to functional knowledge — becoming literate — involves a process which, the Department of Education correctly recognizes, begins at infancy and carries into adulthood.

For that reason, the responsibility to promote literacy in Maine extends beyond the K-12 education system to programs such as Head Start, which provides a framework to introduce rudimentary literacy skills to children from low-income families.

In addition to advocating that resources allocated to Head Start adequately reflect new demands for early literacy training, the Department of Education, through initiatives like “Literacy for ME,” can provide an organizational structure and repository for resources. But — as the report makes clear — the effort requires broad community participation. Parents, businesses and other branches of government — not just libraries — have appropriate roles and vested interests in making Maine a more literate society.

By emphasizing the shared responsibility for literacy, the Department of Education isn’t shirking its duties. It’s making a valid economic argument for investing in literacy through forums other than school budgets.

During the Sept. 11 kickoff of “Literacy for ME” in Lewiston, Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen urged communities to form groups that could tailor the initiative to local needs. As those groups coalesce, one of the first topics they should address is how to minimize the impact of economic disparity on the digitalization of literacy, especially during the years before children enter school.

Copious research exists to reinforce the importance of early childhood learning. The experiences learners have in their first five years establish a foundation that goes a long way to determining how they will perform in school and later in the workplace.

The report notes that one in five Maine children younger than 6 lives in poverty, as defined by the U.S. Census, and that 65 percent reside in homes where all parents work.

Young children whose parents can’t afford the technology that makes early literacy training possible in more affluent homes or whose parents, because of work demands, don’t have the time for the level of interaction required to develop early digital literacy skills are far more likely to start school at a disadvantage.

A 2011 Annie E. Casey Foundation study indicates a clear link among poverty, lagging literacy skills and decreased likelihood of high school graduation. New data released Sept. 18 by Gallup show a clear correlation among level of education, job security, income and national economic sustainability.

Increased computer-based programs for young children at public libraries, corporate or philanthropic funding for digital early education similar to the Alfond scholarship program, and greater Maine Department of Education coordination of online learning programs at child care centers all merit consideration as the “Literacy for ME” initiative moves forward.

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