Is Literacy in Trouble?

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By Helen Kossler

Reading Between the Lines

By Guest Blogger Barbara D'Amato

Enough Negativism!

Literacy is not in nearly as much trouble as the doomsayers believe. Publishers Weekly last year [6/11/2008] summarized  a Scholastic report that in younger children 82% like or love reading. Twenty-five per cent read for pleasure daily and another 53% read for pleasure one to six times a week.

For fifteen to seventeen-year-olds the reading for pleasure figure drops to 55%. Well, duh. Teenagers are in the midst of social, academic, and hormonal pressures that eat up time. However, they are reading and writing in ways that we hardly even notice.

When I was a child, in parts of Michigan, children could leave school after the eighth grade. And there were places in the U.S. where they didn’t have to go that long. I knew a lot of people that were in practice illiterate. We wrote essays in school, but most of us had no other occasion to just write. My granddaughter emails me every few days. Did I ever, as a child, even think of writing to my grandparents? Maybe once when we were on a trip I sent them a postcard.

These kids we think aren’t reading and writing are texting, tweeting, instant messaging, and blogging their little hearts out. Twenty years ago did you ever see kids on the school bus writing letters? Nope. But now they surely are. Their thumbs and styluses are going like mad. They don’t even realize they’re writing. They think they’re having fun.

And they read what the other kids write back, too, of course.

Worried about all those abbreviations, short-cuts and symbols? I’m not. They’re useful.

On one of the listserves recently, a person posted a humorous announcement. Most of the readers took it as funny, but one or two were outraged at what they saw as arrogance. Now, the poster could have said at the beginning “This is going to be a joke.” Or at the end, “This post was meant in fun.” But either sentence would be pretty lame and would detract from the humor of the post. However, if she had followed the post with  J or ;) the meaning would have been clear without the clue being obtrusive.

Let’s not forget that all language probably started as pictoglyphs. A lot of languages today remain glyph-based.

People texting, IM-ing, tweeting, and so on are manipulating symbols for the purpose of communicating. I call that reading and writing.

No, it’s not all fabulous prose. But it never was. Have you ever looked at “home” writing from, say, the 1900s? I have a friend who collects postcards of Saugatuck, Michigan. The pictures are fascinating and often beautiful. Not so much the messages on the back:

‘Wish you were here.”

“Such a beauniful [sic] place, and with sandy beaches.”

“Been here a week and it rained every day.”

“Granny got poison ivy.”

Our view of the wonderfulness of writing in the “old days” is skewed. The letters that survive and have been collected are the wonderful ones, and they were one-in-a-million cases even then.

My granddaughter is writing on something called She writes stories based on a book she’s read, a movie, a play, or a TV show. Some kids riff on a comic strip, games, anime, or cartoons. She says, “Once your story is posted online anyone can read it, and people review it.”  Her email to me ends: “I suggest exploring the site.”

There are more people writing today than ever before in the history of humankind.

Reader Comments

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JohnHubbuch from Oak Park  

Posted: January 5th, 2011 9:52 AM

Not to rain on this parade,but I'm not sure if reading Lindsey Lohan's Twitter about whether she is wearing underwear or not, or Maxim's Best 10 Places for Sex even counts as reading. I would be interested in studies on how often young people read something beyond high school comprehensibility for more than a half hour at a time. There are suggestions that the internet and its progeny are slowly rewiring our brains such that ADD will become the norm. We shall see.

Dan Haley from Wednesday Journal  

Posted: January 4th, 2011 8:37 PM

Helen, You make a lot of excellent points here about how kids read and write even in these changed ways. And I need to remember that a lot of what I read as a kid was junk: Archie comics and Hardy Boy books. Nice piece. Dan

Melissa from Oak Park  

Posted: January 4th, 2011 8:04 PM

Thanks for upbeat story. I think all of us are really good at underestimating what we do. Can't wait to explore

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