How Digital Literacy Platforms Can Help Combat Illiteracy

September 11, 2017

8:30 am

I’ll never forget walking into my first public library. It was the library next door to the church where I attended Sunday school and would eventually attend kindergarten. Upon first entering the section filled with children’s books, I gasped aloud. The sheer number of book spines confronting me in that room was nothing short of staggering. I buried myself in stories about young girl detectives, choosing adventures that could go one way or another, and tales of serendipity.

Though libraries inspire many people to spend more free time reading and writing, the standard information and text formats have changed from being more centered around physical texts to including databases, electronic texts, and other digital resources. I’ve always gravitated toward libraries and bookstores, finding inside them the kinds of kindred spirits I knew I would meet since the other people wandering the stacks and aisles were also searching for more stories, poems, and language.

Nowadays, those same readers utilize a wider variety of informational formats and sources. Part of this variety stems from the cost of physical books versus digital resources. The other factor is the changing nature of the world of media, which is moving rapidly from being grounded in the physical to being centered around digital resources. The management of information systems resources is now somewhat interchangeable with library services, insofar as terminology is concerned. Rather than mere resources for reader’s advisory recommendations, librarians have also evolved to become experts in coordination of digital resources and online research of authoritative sources.

Central to this feeling of excitement was a sense of exploration and freedom that only my own searching could allow me. This is a crucial point, then: parents and teachers must allow children to lead the way toward various library sections that interest them—regardless of which books or digital resources they select (within reason). After a guided tour, children tend to feel confident enough to find their own books or explore niches that are particularly engaging to them. The association needs to be fun if it is to become a positive reinforcement, so if it’s a bit loud or repetitive at first, that’s okay.

Unfortunately, the love of reading and learning is not an experience that is shared across all households and communities—in part because funding for libraries and early childhood education is so disparate in different parts of the country. According to Believe in Reading, the United States ranks twelfth in literacy among the top twenty “high income” countries, and 44 million adults are unable to read a simple story to their children. Central to the evolution of reading’s definition is the expansion beyond books to the navigation of online resources and digital media.

It’s therefore essential that teachers and parents model positive behavior to children, beginning at a young age. In addition to exhibiting a healthy relationship to books, information, and learning, adults can model problem solving, positive self-image, and role playing—all in relation to literacy. The earlier we’re able to reach students, the more adaptable their thought processes and habits to positive role models in their life. The ability to teach oneself a variety of skills and aptitudes is all within reach. All that is required for a strong reader is a sense of curiosity, the ability to think critically, and an interest in learning for learning’s sake.

Although these aptitudes are easier said than done—or, more easily written than enacted—one important point is that the tools for reading comprehension also include a lack of intimidation by big words and concepts. A dictionary and thesaurus are crucial tools we can introduce to children at a young age, along with the understanding that reading isn’t always going to be ‘fun.’ Sometimes, comprehension will be a struggle. However, understanding how to overcome obstacles to comprehension via various creative scaffolding tools—including illustration, discussion, and mapping out of concepts by hand—is a skill that needs to be modeled repeatedly.

This point can’t be emphasized enough. Students must understand that making mistakes is normal and that intellectual growth requires challenges and problem-solving. Lev Vygotsky’s well-known learning theory, the “zone of proximal development,” focuses on the distance between a learner’s current developmental level and her potential level of intellectual development, as demonstrated when working in collaboration with more capable peers and educators.

This is why peer reading groups focused on discussing and deconstructing a particular book or series of books, for example, can be so effective: The stronger readers in the group naturally serve as leaders and teachers, sometimes without even realizing it, and students usually feel more comfortable discussing concepts and asking questions while working in small teams than if asked to share their thoughts in front of an entire classroom of students.

The same tools utilized in language arts classes and computer labs can be applied to later challenges in life, such as selecting the best college or university to suit one’s needs and interests. Again, the challenge should be to set students up with a fun game of exploration and self-examination. This can take place via a trip to the library or immersion in online research, during which they may establish a list of five to ten schools that best suit their academic and career goals. The further young people progress in life, the more tools they will need to utilize in order to choose the best course of action for them, as individuals.

It’s crucial that we work toward a society in which children are introduced to books and reading at a young age, to help encourage a natural love of reading and comfort level around books and learning. Over and over, research indicates that the earlier parents become in engaged in a child’s literacy at the pre-K level, the more successful that child will be in school. Because our world is becoming increasingly digital, each passing year, digital literacy platforms that encourage engagement and interaction with texts will become more crucial in the fight against illiteracy and early high school dropout rates.

Organizations like Voices for Literacy and the Public Library Association are shedding light on the need for greater access to books and reading subcultures, such as those found at libraries and community bookstores. But the adults in children’s lives need do their part to model a love of reading and learning from an early age, in order to set a good example and open the door to a lifelong love of books and literacy. We all need to become part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

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H. E. is a writer and researcher living in Boise, Idaho, who has traveled throughout Europe and has spent countless hours in the car travelling the around the United States. She has a varied background, including education and history as well as journalism. Hattie enjoys sharing her passions through the written word. She is currently spending many sleepless nights seeking her graduate degree but always sets aside time to enjoy a good cider.

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