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Six Literacies
The Importance of Strong Writing and Reading Skills in a Digital World

By Jean-Rémy Duboc / November 2011

TYPE: OPINION
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In our era of ubiquitous and almost free publishing, where written information is abundant, we rightfully rejoice as we contemplate the immense potential of the web and other recent information technologies. Text and images are everywhere, easy to read and write, offering almost limitless resources to those who want to teach and learn.

However, this unprecedented power to read and publish instantaneously worldwide requires a whole new perspective on literacy. Marshall McLuhan predicted the death of literacy. Was he mistaken, given the immense quantity of digital text we all have to deal with these days (oh, the pain of email!)? I don't think so: McLuhan's thinking was not that superficial, and he simply foresaw the death of literacy as we know it, or used to know it.

Text is not dead, far from it, in the post-Gutenberg galaxy. As a matter of fact, text is more important than ever, and as Howard Rheingold suggests, we might now have to deal with not one, but six literacies. (I smile while writing this, as Microsoft Word underlines the word "literacies"—plural—in red, as if to say, "Wait a minute. Several literacies? I'm not quite there yet.")

So technology makes literacy a lot more complex, not simpler. Now I'm concerned. Aren't many of us already struggling with just one literacy, from primary school pupils all the way up to university students? How on earth are we going to cope with six literacies? Something needs to change if we want everybody to thrive in the digital world.

It's easy to blame television and the web when some students display a shallow and non-analytic thought process in their work, but I believe there is another, deeper problem, a big problem: many student simply don't know how to read and write a sufficient level (see the related blog post on eLearn).

Being able to search Wikipedia to write an essay on Shakespeare is not enough to develop a real knowledge of the author, and maybe write a coherent and interesting essay on his tragedies. Not by a long shot. Reading and writing is about more than that. It's about structuring one's thoughts, and understanding other people's ways of thinking. Granted, not everyone can be T.S. Eliot, but let's be honest: for some students the basic language tools are simply not mastered. Grammar is shady, spelling too, and their vocabulary is limited. And I say this as someone who is not even a native English speaker. (I'm French, and yes, we have exactly the same issues in my native language.)

It's about a lack of practice, not a lack of "talent" or an "inability" to read and write. Those things need to, and can, be learned. Even Shakespeare and Eliot had to go through English lessons at some point in their lives.

If we examine the specific skills of a highly literate individual (in the "classic" sense of the term) it is easy to see why such an individual would thrive in a digital worlds:

  • Fast reader. A highly literate individual has a long practice of reading, both online and off. This practice not only increases her knowledge, but allows her to scan pages and spot important information faster than someone who merely proceeds to decipher the signs on the page. This is a huge advantage in the digital world. Reading faster allows for better email processing, better information retrieval and sorting, which leads to better performances in an information-heavy world.
  • Clear communicator.A highly literate person knows how to articulate her thoughts in writing, and actually uses the process of writing itself to clear her mind and structure her thinking. This helps to stand out in the overcrowded world of data that surrounds us: the clearer the message, the faster people can learn, buy, and work together. The workplace is becoming more and more decentralized, and a clear communicator has a definite edge in such a context.
  • Cultivated and aware.A highly literate person reads a lot, and thus knows a lot. In the same time span, reading a newspaper will give you more information than watching the news on television.
  • Analytic and independent thinker.The quantity of information is not the only benefit of newspapers over television news. Writing, by nature, is a less immersive activity that leaves more "thinking space", more personal freedom to think, to the reader. This practice fosters an ability to reflect and think independently.

The love of language is an acquired taste, it takes work, and it has to be actively promoted by teachers and parents from an early age. Now that I'm studying towards a computer science PhD in English (a foreign language to me), I'm more grateful than ever for my parents' love of books. They shared their passion of the written language with me, and gave me the gift of literacy, which is now a huge asset.

Even if it sounds old-fashioned, especially in an e-learning-driven world, I'll venture to say that maybe it's time to limit screen time and open books for some more in-depth reading. Our online activities will benefit greatly from this. Paradoxically, going back to basics when it comes to reading and writing might be the most efficient strategy for a truly web-aware education.

If you want to support literacy in developing countries, and change the lives of millions of children through education, consider donating to Room to Read.


About the Author

Jean-Rémy Duboc is a PhD student in computer science working with the Learning Societies Lab at the University of Southampton in the U.K. He conducts interdisciplinary research with the School of Medicine, focusing on the use of semantic web technologies for medical education. Apart from his research, his interests are writing, the social implications of technology, and the importance of good design for e-learning. He writes about these topics on his blog.



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