By Megan Wanner
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Alexa Battey, a student teacher at Southern Alamance High School, looks around the room at her 20 College Prep English seniors. Most of them look bored reading Macbeth which some have even referred to as “MacBoring.” Far from the Internet surfing these teens are used to, Macbeth requires interpretation, not just the surface reading these teens have become accustomed to.
“The novels seem to be over their heads,” Battey said. “They’re not used to that type of writing…They’re used to things being very basic. Things on the Internet today are easy-reads, just stating the facts and basic details. They’re smart, but they’re used to things being put in front of them and not having to dig deep.”
To Teach or Not to Teach
Perhaps one of the reasons why adolescents struggle with texts they are given in school is because they cannot relate to what people consider “classics,” making it hard for them to read them in their entirety.
“I think it’s almost a bad idea to force them to struggle with classics or with difficult texts because I think it just eventually kills their interest in reading altogether,” said Laura Williams, director of the Curriculum Resources Center in the School of Education at Elon University. “I think that, at least as far as what they might encounter in English classes, it would be much better to use texts that they have the ability to relate to, young adult literature that deals with the issues that are real to them, the characters feel real to them not these things that are ancient with tortuous vocabulary and sentence structure.”
Many teachers believe the best way to encourage students to read more difficult texts is to make the readings more relevant to their lives. By making them relatable, students are more likely to enjoy these books as they view them as worthwhile reading.
“I try to find classics they like and do projects that connect them to their lives,” said Lynn Bare, an English teacher at Southern Alamance High School.
But classic texts can relate to teens lives more than they realize. Once they get past the difficulty of understanding what is written and delve into the plotline, it is easier to see the connections.
“Shakespeare is relevant to anything the kids are doing,” said Mark Meacham, English teacher at Walter M. Williams High School. “The issue is understanding the language and vocabulary and if you can get to where they understand that you can devote more time to what is going on…It really depends on the language and getting them to buy into it and…putting [the content] up front so they can understand what is going on.”
A New Age of Literacy
Before tackling the question of how the Internet is affecting adolescent literacy, the term “literacy” must be defined. As an age-old definition, literacy is simply the ability to read and write. However, with the growing use of the Internet and technology, literacy has taken on a new meaning.
According to research done by the National Council of Teachers of English, “Twenty-first century readers and writers need to be able to: develop proficiency with the tools of technology; build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally; design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes; manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information; create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts and attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.”
This new definition of literacy could be a good thing. While it is changing the traditional view of literacy, technology is transforming our ideas and encouraging us to broaden our scope of knowledge and abilities.
“Both the challenge and the opportunity of technologies, including video, are that they offer more ways to make meaning but they also require new ways to derive meaning,” said Stacey Novelli, legislative associate for the National Council of Teachers of English.
Even so, a digital age where having the ability to analyze and interpret video is considered just as important as having the ability to read comprehensively is certainly an interesting one. The Speak Up 2008 report sponsored by Project Tomorrow states, “For most students, technology is an integral part of their toolkit for participating in the world—they use it to communicate, organize their life, collaborate and create content and context for their own learning.” However, many people do not believe this is how adolescents view the Internet.
“I do think especially teenagers, adolescents, and maybe even upper elementary they are more geared toward viewing it as entertainment that they are gaming online or they are Facebooking or they’re going to YouTube and the focus is on diversion,” Williams said. “The focus really isn’t on trying to see it critically, trying to put it in a social context, trying to decode the messages that are embedded in whatever media is coming at you.”
Reading and Writing in a New Age
With the Internet comes a plethora of information all at the tips of our fingers. This can be both good and bad when it comes to the way adolescents use it and how it affects them.
“There are too many opportunities for them to not have to think on their own,” said Angelique Austin, an English teacher at Southern Alamance High School. “I preach to my Advanced Placement students every year to not even look online for analysis, to think for themselves. It’s also given them the outlet to read Sparknotes, Cliffnotes, etc. Now, there are so many summaries of what we study that they feel there is no need to read the actual text. What they don’t understand is that they lose the experience, the language, the passion of that author.”
The Internet is changing the way we view many aspects of our lives, especially when it comes to students researching for papers. Rather than going straight to the bookshelves, students head straight to the computers.
“One of our librarians had a discussion with my students and I about using more books for their research projects, and she had a very good point,” Emily Byrd, English student teacher at Hugh M. Cummings High School. “I had scheduled computer lab days for my students to do online research for their projects. When I suggested we go into the media center to search through the books as resources, they thought I was crazy!”
While the Internet is changing the way adolescents read and research, it is also changing the way they write.
“Research over many years shows that technology can affect writing positively,” said Novelli. “For example, people revise more online so that they can improve their writing more easily and thoroughly.”
Abbreviations and slang are in common use on the Internet, especially with social networking sites, blogs, Instant Messenger and other communication sites. Proper English is rarely used when adolescents are communicating with peers. Unfortunately, adolescents seem to have lost the ability to switch between what is considered proper and what is not.
“They use abbreviations and slang when they are doing college resumes and essays,” Bare said. “We have to go through and eliminate abbreviations. They want to just use that in their communication with other people and don’t realize other people don’t use that.”
Just Skimming Around
Tara Ariel, mother of five, has always homeschooled her children. She currently has two daughters in the fourth grade, one who is 9 and the other who is 7. While her 9-year-old does not enjoy reading, her 7-year-old cannot stop picking up books. Ariel says the differences between her two daughters show especially when they have reports to do that require research.
“It’s funny, my 9-year-old is the one who drawn to the computer and my 7-year-old is the one who would rather go and look at a book and look at all the pictures,” Ariel said. “We just did a report on whales and she didn’t even want to get on the computer to look. We have a bookcase, we had some books, and she found out her own information on her own. So she chose that over getting on the computer, but my 9-year-old would just read the captions and write down a couple of things and thought she had already done her report.”
This is the exact reason the Internet is more appealing for adolescents, and for kids moving into adolescence, especially those who do not like to read. Rather than feeling like they have to read everything, they can read surface-deep and feel like they have all the information they need to be knowledgeable on a topic.
However, when taught how to use the Internet proficiently, students can effectively use their skills of skimming to their advantage, quickly assessing Web sites for trustworthy information. This can help them to find the information they need quickly, an advantage of the Internet over books.
“They know how to and have had practice with evaluating the information they find on the Internet (sources for their research projects) for accuracy and relevance,” said Byrd. “I would say that it is helping them.”
Shortened Attention Spans
In addition to a lack of comprehension, surface reading while surfing the Internet has also allowed kids to have a shorter attention span. Rather than push through reading something, kids can click a link for something new and never finish reading what they originally sat down to read.
Part of the problem with the Internet is the attractiveness of it all. As adolescents are in the constant search for something new and interesting, any advertisements or links that are eye-catching have potential.
“I think the problems with young people are they are a little vulnerable to the razzle dazzle, a little vulnerable to the distractions that are often there on the page,” Williams said.
Part of the issue with reading books is that they take time to read and process, time adolescents are not willing to devote to them. They want the information to be straight to the point as fast as possible so they can move on to other things. With the already short attention span of a teen of around 30 to 40 minutes, they do not want to spend this time processing a few pieces of information. Instead, they want as much information as they can get before becoming bored. The Internet allows them to do this. Rather than having to motivate themselves to push through pages of information, they can type in a search word and instantly discover multiple sources with straight-forward information about it.
“They are used to a fast-paced world; they are used to getting information at light speed,” said Austin. “When they actually have to read and think and deduce on their own, they give up a lot quicker than I think they would have in the past. They also have shorter attention spans,
so reading is boring to them.”
Pleasure Reading Decrease
A report issued by the National Endowment for the Arts included research on the book-reading habits of teens in correlation with school workloads to determine if this was a factor in the decline of pleasure reading in teens. A long-term trend analysis revealed that while the number of high school seniors who spent six or more hours a week doing homework decreased from 47 percent in 1987 to 33 percent in 2006, the leisure reading rates for high school seniors did not increase but rather decreased as well.
“The majority of my students are not picking up books to read, regardless of their access to the Internet,” said Alison Welch, an English student teacher at Western Alamance High School. “Some students are completing reading assignments for class, but very few of them are even doing that, it seems.”