Teresa Martin: Definition of literacy expands in digital world

OK, so it probably doesn’t rank up there with Christmas or Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July. Or probably even Groundhog Day, for that matter. But a few days ago we celebrated International Literacy Day, a global event focused on the power of reading, writing and communication.

This year’s theme took on “Literacy in a Digital World.” And yes, that means reading. And writing. And all that “school stuff” that makes it possible for us to function in the larger world — not just the button-pushing of electronic device use.

Or, as the International Literacy Association put it succinctly, “Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute and communicate using visual, audible and digital materials across disciplines and in any context.”

But wait, there’s more! It continued, “The ability to read, write and communicate connects people to one another and empowers them to achieve things they never thought possible. Communication and connection are the basis of who we are and how we live together and interact with the world.”

We’ve all heard people grumble about the way “technology” damages our students’ ability to read and write, but a funny thing happened on the way to smartphone. Reading and writing became an even more essential part of the post-digital world.

Of all the skills one needs to master, reading and writing remain at the top of the list. In the post-digital era, anyone lacking these core foundational literacy skills gets left behind. Sneer if you will at email or text, but remember, they simply provide a delivery mechanism for ... the written word.

Long gone are the days when an apprentice could take verbal instruction, learn by seeing and doing, receive payment in cash or barter, verbally purchase other goods and services, order a nice foamy grog with a hand signal, and talk face to face with buddies, potential mates, families and offspring.

If you can’t read and write, you will do little of the above easily today — and if you think the world’s literacy a done deal, think again. According to UNESCO, some 750 million adults and 264 million out-of-school children lack basic literacy skills.

If you read and write poorly, the whole world will see — and judge. We won’t name names, but public texts with misspelled or incorrectly used words show off one’s communication capacities in a public and permanent manner. What other era showcased communication skills in quite such an open forum as a matter of everyday interaction?

And of course, the ability to access, well, pretty much everything relies on a mastery of reading. The world has always been complex, but much of the current complexity can be transmitted only through written words, often shared across time and space.

But — and here’s the digital part of literacy — the forms and formats have evolved and have, like a whirling tornado of literacy, scooped up visual and device literacy into the package. Reading and writing remain essential, but visual literacy and a cognitive concept of how to access and share in a digital format firmly fit into “literacy in a digital world.”

When we talk about the digital divide, we no longer talk about access to physical connectivity for devices. No, the digital divide looms much larger; it is the divide between digital literacy and illiteracy, the chasm between the capacity to connect and communicate and the lack of learned skills and the means to use them.

Literacy means solid reading and writing. It also means video and visual storytelling. It means access to digital creation and consumption tools. Most important, it means moving into a new definition of what it means to be literate and advocating for the rights for all to become literate.

As the new school year rolls into gear, digital literacy says take a look at what we teach and who we reach. It addresses the basics of spelling and grammar and applies them to the ideas of audience and channel. It builds skills of search and questioning and source validation — skills necessary for swimming in the vast digital seas of information. It brings video and audio and image storytelling and connects those visuals to the moorings of script and text. It creates flexible learning skills, ones that can adapt to new forms and formats as digital tools wax and wane.

It offers these to everyone; no child, no adult, no one regardless of income or background or history or age should feel left behind in the flow of digital literacy. We learn these things; we don’t absorb them from the air or incant them like magic spells. They belong to us all.

So wave those hard-copy paper books and those digital smartphones and tablets loud and high — and start preparing now for Literacy Day 2018, coming at you Sept. 8.

— Teresa Martin lives, breathes and writes about the intersection of technology, business and humanity. Read more of her recent columns at www.capecodtimes.com/teresamartin.

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