The New Literacy

by wjw on September 1, 2009

From the article by Clive Thompson (thanks to Blake Charlton).

As the school year begins, be ready to hear pundits fretting once again about how kids today can’t write—and technology is to blame. Facebook encourages narcissistic blabbering, video and PowerPoint have replaced carefully crafted essays, and texting has dehydrated language into “bleak, bald, sad shorthand” (as University College of London English professor John Sutherland has moaned). An age of illiteracy is at hand, right?

Andrea Lunsford isn’t so sure. Lunsford is a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford University, where she has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students’ prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples—everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring.

“I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization,” she says. For Lunsford, technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.

It’s almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.

And more.

Dave Bishop September 2, 2009 at 10:20 am

I think that's there's a lot of truth in this. Computers have certainly revolutionised my life. In my last decade or so at work I think that computers allowed me to become much more productive. Before a computer landed on every desk all reports were laboriously hand-written and then given to a secretary to type up, then, after endless corrections issued as paper copies. This sometimes took several days (or even weeks). Once I had a computer in front of me I could type a brief report in a few hours and a longer one in a day or two – then I could email it out to anyone who was interested. Email itself was also a revelation and allowed me to freely and easily communicate with my colleagues. I'm sure that this constant daily practice, without the frustrations of the old methods, had a markedly beneficial effect on my literacy skills.
Now I'm retired, email is still a great boon and I use it constantly (as I'm sure most people do). I'm also chair of a local conservation group and contribute an article every two or three days to the group's blog – thus I find myself writing constantly and thoroughly enjoy it.

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