A particularly disturbing study by Renaissance Learning, Inc. recently revealed that the average American high school student reads on a 5th grade level. Many, many websites cite a statistic that, while it has no verification, seems in general to be true: the average American only reads at an 8th grade level. This is how today’s students embark on their collegiate academic career: only minimally equipped with the literacy skills required for college-level work. Every week, I must grade work by college students that reveals a complete or partial inability to comprehend even the most basic information. Repeatedly, I am forced to assign failing grades to students for reasons that have little to do with the content of my History courses and more to do with their lack of fundamental literacy skills that should have been mastered by the end of elementary school. I also increasingly find that students commonly replace complete words with their texting abbreviations in formal papers, because students have never been taught the difference between formal and informal language and their applications.
I find this alarming and am concerned at declining levels of literacy in our society, because this problem isn’t limited to college and high school students. I see this among college graduates who proudly boast about their completion of elementary and middle-school level books such books as “The Hunger Games,” the Harry Potter series, or the latest by those authors who most populate the best seller lists: Danielle Steel, Mitch Albom, or Stephen King, all of which have been shown to be written at an 8th grade or lower level of readability. As a people, Americans seem lately to have forgotten or abandoned the joy of reading sophisticated and challenging materials.
Information Literacy as a Solution?
The current emphasis on information literacy is an important step toward improving college education, but may present problems for raising general literacy levels across the nation. Information Literacy, as defined by the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), is the ability to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” This, they point out, is an increasing challenge as the number and format of resources expands in the digital age.
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) provides a definition of 21st Century Literacies specific to this challenge. They write, “Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the twenty-first century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic, and malleable.” The NCTE website suggests that necessary contemporary skills include the ability to
- Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
- Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
- Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
- Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
- Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
- Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments
A focus on information literacy is evident in much of our current discussion on new pedagogical techniques in American classrooms, including the use of social media, blogging, mobile technology, and other forms of electronic communication.
The Problems Presented by Information Literacy
The important work being done to advance information literacy does, however, leave out an important basic component that is missing from our national dialogue: The need for more focus on basic literacy or, simply put, the ability to read and write, to comprehend basic information and then communicate it. These very essential, traditional skills seems to have been overtaken by an emphasis on short-cuts and sound byte moments, on learning the latest chat acronyms, text message shorthand, and the reduction of complex material to simple, one-sentence “takeaways” (a term I despise) framed in the dreaded PowerPoint format. Just last week, a student asked me if he could create a PowerPoint instead of the final essay exam, because he felt that writing well-constructed paragraphs was too much work and takes too much time.
The simple fact is our society suffers unless people know how to read and write correctly and clearly. The Literacy Company lists several distressing facts from a wide range of research that shows the high cost of low levels of literacy in the United States:
- More than 20 percent of adults read at or below a fifth-grade level – far below the level needed to earn a living wage.
- 44 million adults in the U.S. can’t read well enough to read a simple story to a child.
- Approximately 50 percent of the nation’s unemployed youth age 16-21 are functional illiterate, with virtually no prospects of obtaining good jobs.
- Nearly half of America’s adults are poor readers, or “functionally illiterate.” They can’t carry out simply tasks like balancing check books, reading drug labels or writing essays for a job.
- Children who have not developed some basic literacy skills by the time they enter school are 3 – 4 times more likely to drop out in later years.
This means that you can give people mobile phones, but unless they learn the fundamentals of reading, the use of those phones, and lives of those who live them, will be dramatically affected by the limits of their reading ability.
Using Information Literacy and Technology the Right Way
We may be able to resolve the tension between information literacy and basic literacy by focusing on solutions that combine the two. For example, Jackie Harbor of Dyslexia Action in the UK believes that mobile technology is one of the best new support solutions for dyslexic students, who can have immediate access to tutoring and other direct support, use their phones to record notes and then transcribe them using Dragon software, and organize their academic work. Also, USAID recently reported that their efforts at improving literacy in developing nations have been boosted by the effective use of a digital phonics game called GraphoGAME. Two researchers have even shown how peer video analysis has improved the ability of literacy teachers to improve their literacy instruction.
All of these examples, and countless others, show that when the emphasis is on using technology to improve basic literacy, and not just information literacy levels, students develop both kinds of literacy. The most important lesson of this is that we can combine the two without sacrificing either.