In a World Full of Images, Is Literacy Dying?

In a World Full of Images, Is Literacy Dying?
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My 6-year-old daughter showed me how to Snapchat yesterday. She doesn’t have a smartphone, let alone the app, but she has watched enough people use Snapchat that she was able to snap, filter, and post all on her own. I struggled; she storified.

The first Harry Potter book, on the other hand, remains an elusive multi-page book that she has yet to embrace. While I am not too concerned about her reading ability, I do worry that her desire and curiosity for books are being supplanted by far easier-to-digest visual stories.

In some ways, digital media seems to feed her like sugar would; longer books seem more like broccoli. The candy-induced feelings of new media are immediate (exciting, titillating, thrilling even), whereas the joys of reading a longer text (depth of understanding, imagination, mindful exploration) are not always apparent after the first page or two.

My daughter is of course not alone in this phenomenon. Personally, I find myself turning more often to Twitter’s image-filled, character-capped Moments than I do to the pages (even digital pages) of a newspaper, magazine or book.

A New Era

A recent report by the Media Insight Project states that by age 18, 88 percent of young adults regularly get news from Facebook and other social media. In addition, research from Stanford University maintains that 82 percent of middle schoolers can’t tell real news from fake news. Using social media as an additional supplement to other sources is not that concerning; however, if social media serves to displace longer text reviews, then we may be seeing a slow decline in our collective ability to read and write.

Today in the U.S., 30 million people over age 16 (or 14 percent of the country’s adult population) don’t read well enough to fill out a job application. And a full one-third of the US prison population is illiterate, according to a recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics.

How much does this matter? If a “picture is worth a thousand words” and our world is becoming inundated with pictures, perhaps written words themselves are becoming less relevant?

For the Love of Reading

Let me make the case that reading does and will continue to matter profoundly. As Mark Twain simply put it, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.

Literacy matters not just for how we consume news and information (to dissect arguments, find logical inconsistencies, and determine fact from fiction), but also for how we are able to express our own thoughts and ideas in a nuanced way. It is the ability to write, the ability to use subtlety in our expressions, the ability to apply logic to support an idea, and the ability to refute contrarian viewpoints.

Literacy matters, even in an age of digital media, because it remains a precursor to almost all other deeper knowledge. People are born with many divergent talents – acting, running, tackling, painting, and building as just a few examples – but in order to be successful on life’s broader terms, we must all learn to read. As the saying goes, first we “learn to read”; then we “read to learn.”

The Wall Street Journal tends to agree. It recently published an article stating, “Reading books remains one of the best ways to engage with the world, become a better person and understand life’s questions, big and small.”

The article goes on to talk about two family members, a grandmother and her grandson, who couldn’t find a way to connect. They ultimately found kinship and conversation in books. She simply asked him, “What are you reading?” at which point he came alive and opened up tremendously about the joys of reading “The Hunger Games.”

This example shows how long-form text can lead to deeper and more lasting connections. Snapchat, in contrast, is literally designed to disappear and is far more temporal and superficial in its nature.

Turning Broccoli Into Dessert

But how do we compel this youngest generation to see the importance in boring words?

Partly, the love for reading begins early. Cuddle time with mom and dad that accompanies a good book is a great way to tie an emotional connection to reading. One of my favorite times in the day is when my daughter and I cuddle up in bed and read bedtime stories together.

Additionally, a love for words can be introduced in conjunction with songs and media. This of course isn’t new; early reading primers from over a century ago were very heavy on pictures and graphics as a bridge to literacy.

Today, the challenge is to leverage the powerful graphic ability of digital technology to also serve as a bridge to – and not a replacement for – literacy. For example, at Istation, a curriculum-based edtech company, the reading program incorporates the power of animation and game-based exploration to help ensure literacy skills are learned in a fun and engaging format. Istation also uses characters like Calvin Cool to teach various forms of writing like expository essays and creative writing structures.

Lastly, a love of reading can and should be shown by example. I am guilty of spending too much time on media and apps myself. By picking up a book and demonstrating my love of reading, I “show not tell” how engrossing a good book can be. (“Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand, “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, and “Open” by Andre Agassi are a few of my all-time favorites.)

In witnessing my daughter’s enthusiasm for images and digital media, I see an alarming reflection of myself. Though in several decades every written word may be storified in an easy-to-digest video format, we are not there yet. While there is still knowledge to be gained in the written word, there is also knowledge to be expressed using those words. As we approach new year’s resolutions at the beginning of 2017, I know mine will be to embrace for myself and inspire in others the love of reading.

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