Thursday, August 25, 2011

Part 2: Digital Literacy and Learning to Read

This is the second in a series of posts in which we'll hear from Patrick Cox, a Ph.D. candidate in the childhood studies program at Rutgers University. Patrick taught a summer course on learning to read in the digital age, and he will repeat it in the fall and spring. In exploring how digital readers are impacting early literacy development, Patrick is engaging his students in better understanding technology and how young children are learning about it and with it.

DotMomming: The digital natives born into the iPad world are experiencing reading and learning in a whole new way. I don't mean this as a plug for Apple, just in the sense that books are a fluid thing now. Kids can toddle over to the bookshelf to sit down with a paper book, or they can tap their fingers on a reading tablet and read a digital one. Is one experience better than the other?

Patrick Cox: Of course not! Certainly the experiences are different from each other, but it gets a bit sticky to ascribe words like “better” or “worse” to one experience over another. Apart from whatever text is being read in each medium, both media also teach valuable skills to young readers. “Book awareness” starts very young, and the book is itself a technology anyone in the United States really needs to learn how to use.

We don’t really think of it, but at some point we had to learn the difference between the cover of a book and the back of a book, or which direction to turn the pages, or that we read from left to right. These are all skills that are developed from a very young age and will serve us throughout our lives . . . unless books completely disappear, which I don’t think is likely at all.

Similarly, reading tablets and other hi-tech manifestations of books teach other useful skills we might call “tech awareness.” As unromantic as it sounds, these days we need to learn a connection between pushing buttons and things happening on a screen, or “swyping” a screen to move an image. In my state of Pennsylvania, naming and having some understanding of how to use computer parts like keyboards, a mouse, a touchpad, and a cell phone is part of the pre-kindergarten education standards. The fact is, like it or not, it behooves us all to learn how to use these new devices.

I’m very interested in this phrase “digital native.” I’ve heard it before and understand what is meant. But there’s an implication about it, it seems, that there’s something natural about kids’ connection to technology that people who aren’t “natives” can’t ever fully learn or become a part of. “Native” means some people are “not native,” so there’s a separation being made in the phrase between children and adults. “You grow up with it or you don’t; you’re a part of it, or you aren’t.” Children and adolescents have been classed as “separate” in different realms before. (There’s actually a book about teenagers called “A Tribe Apart,” another term that both primitivizes children and separates “them” from “us” – the presumably less primitive adults.)

I’ve heard children’s picture book apps on iPads described as perfect for young children because “kids these days are wired differently.” I think there’s a growing belief that children “just know this tech stuff” as if it’s not learned but natural to them, as if children are somehow at one with technology and its accompanying gadgets; “wired differently” as if part of the computer’s circuitry.

What’s troubling in all this is the perception that using reading tablets and other techie gadgets is somehow not reading. And that the gadgets – the digital books and apps and so forth – are cutting us off from “the natives.” We often hear a critique of e-readers along the lines of, “Yes, but it’s just not the same as curling up with a book and turning the pages.” People talk about the feel of paper, the smell of books. Indeed, a Kindle is not the same. But I’m not sure the difference is such as to affect a young reader’s comprehension or engagement with the story being read or their connection with the characters. In other words, reading hasn’t changed; just the device has changed. But that seems to be fraught with a lot of other meanings for people.

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