Pay close attention

26 08 2008

Is the internet damaging our literacy skills? Mark Bauerlein thinks so and his article in The Chronicle Review has provoked a lively debate. Bauerlein writes that ‘screen technologies (as customarily used by teens) have damaged their reading habits, hurt their writing, and weakened their respect for historical and civic knowledge‘, an assertion that I’m not entirely in agreement with.

After all, I’ve witnessed the attention span of 12 and 13 year olds at close quarters and I think it would be wrong to attribute a tendency to skim over information,without absorbing or evaluating it, solely to television or the internet. If you’re talking about the ‘young’ then you’re talking about people whose literacy and concentration skills are still in development, so maybe their use of the internet reflects pre-existing traits in their literacy, rather than their literacy being symptomatic of internet use?

That’s not to say that I completely disagree with what Bauerlein’s saying. I taught myself to speed-read while I was at university, which was helpful at the time, but less so when you start doing it whilst trying to relax an read a novel on the train! If I had a pound for every time I’ve gone haring through a paragraph, only to have to re-read it because I haven’t taken it in I’d be a rich man, rich enough to get a limo to work rather than rely on the vaguaries of the British rail network. So yes, rushing through information uncritically is harmful, but:

a) I did it because I was under pressure to read large volumes of print, not large volumes of web-based information and

b) if children and teenagers are having their literacy skills damaged by the internet, surely their learning in languages and IT can address this?

After all, if schools and colleges are so keen on using the web for learning, then surely they should be aware enough of its limitations  to mitigate for them in their teaching? I’d hope so and, in the context of my job, any help from schools with students’ information literacy skills before they get to university would be very welcome indeed.

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