Here’s a quick three-question quiz for you to take:
1. How do you find out who owns a particular domain address or Web site?
2. Besides a typical Google search, how might you find more information about the author of an article that you just read?
3. What steps would you take to decide whether information you found on a blog is worthy of inclusion in a presentation you are creating?
If you found it difficult to answer any of those questions, it’s probably because you’re still a reader and not an editor. And in this new Web-based, everybody-sharing-everything digital world, it may also mean that you’re in trouble.
From a reading literacy standpoint, it’s no longer sufficient to be able to simply make sense of the words, sounds and images that we “read.” We have to get behind those words and images. We have to do the work of the editors whom we have relied on for most of our lives but who in many cases have been eliminated from the publishing process on the Read/Write Web. And we’re not just talking about finding misspellings or comma splices here. It’s about recognizing and sizing up bias, evaluating the quality of sources and of writing, and digging more deeply by following links or doing effective searches. It’s about our ability to contact primary sources to follow up, and to find and engage in the distributed conversations that are aking place about what we read. Whereas we used to have a passive relationship to texts, today we must be participants in those texts.
With 200,000 YouTube videos and 2 million (give or take a few hundred thousand) blog posts being published each day, we are swimming in a sea of unedited content that, if we’re not careful, can quickly lead us astray. And in many cases, our kids are drowning. Take the now well-chronicled example of the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus site, which tells the sad tale of the endangered species struggling through life climbing pine trees to avoid capture and being sold as women’s head wear. University of Connecticut professor Donald Leu showed that fictitious site to a group of 25 middle school students, none of whom could discern the site was a hoax. (Twenty-four of them labeled it “very credible.”)
Many call this “information literacy” or “media literacy” and teach it as a unit in the second half of seventh grade. We treat this new digital world as if it was an addon to the analog, paper world. But the reality is that for our student readers to really become editors, we have to teach them to read as editors from the first day they are with us. We have to model our own reading practice to them in early grades, sit next to them and deconstruct what they read with them as they get older, and help them create their own texts and publish them as they get ready to enter the world on their own.
These different reading strategies cannot be supported by traditional reading instruction in the primary and secondary grades. When the National Council of Teachers of English states that literacy is “malleable,” that suggests we need to see this work not as an add-on but as an important change in the way we integrate reading into the curriculum.
That all requires, of course, that we can employ these new reading literacies in our own practice first. It means that we read both traditional and new media with a healthy dose of skepticism. It means that we know how to do a “who is” search to find out who created that fake octopus site. And it means that we are able to judge a blog by the information we can find about its author, the comments it receives, its history, and the ways in which other bloggers might link to it and write about it, not simply dismiss it because it’s a blog.
Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at weblogg-ed.com.