In the age of text messaging, where words are reduced to nonstandard abbreviations and symbols, many people question the future of literacy.
But experts point out that, in fact, technology has put new emphasis on reading and writing.
“A generation ago, a teen who couldn’t read well could still participate pretty fully in the social conversation among peers,” says Timothy Shanahan, president of the International Reading Association. “But with so much written chatter, being able to read and write have become definite social advantages. There is simply much more pressure to know how to read than in the past when it comes to conversation, shopping, or work.”
Shanahan points to the more than 30 billion e-mail messages and 5 billion text messages that are exchanged every day as evidence of how technology “is raising the value of reading in our society, both as an economic and as a social activity.”
Experts also say that technology has added new layers to our understanding of what it means to be literate.
“In coming years literacy will mean knowing how to choose between print, image, video, sound, and all the potential combinations they could create to make a particular point with a specific audience,” says Bronwyn Williams, associate professor of English at the University of Louisville. “What will not change is the necessity of an individual to be able to find a purpose, correctly analyze an audience, and communicate to that audience with information and in a tone that audience will find persuasive, engaging, and intelligent.”
Having multiple literacies, however, does not only mean being comfortable composing with a variety of media; it also means understanding how to use different facets of language in each situation.
“I think we often don’t give kids enough credit with their control over language,” says Eric Paulson, associate professor of literary education at the University of Cincinnati. “They can text ‘IMHO’ on their cell phones, write ‘my own opinion is’ in a school essay, and read ‘it is my belief that your scar hurts when Lord Voldemort is near you’ without getting discombobulated.”
Switching from a language appropriate for a text message to a linguistic mode more appropriate for addressing a teacher or writing an essay is a practice young people can easily be comfortable with.
“Ongoing research is indicating that text messaging and instant messaging often vary with changes in the rhetorical situation,” says Williams. “In other words, when someone texts or IMs someone who is not a close friend, or when the message is about something more serious, the grammar and spelling become less abbreviated and more conventional.”
While texting technologies dominate communication between young people, it isn’t the only trend informing us about how young people read and write.