The headline of an article in today’s New York Times by Motoko Rich, “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?,” may be missing a question more important than the one it asks—more important, at least, to educators. That is, can online reading be merged with more traditional reading forms and methods to develop a new (and more culturally and technologically appropriate) form of reading? Fortunately, the piece does finally address the question.
In his Orality and Literacy, Walter Ong explores the shift to the book—and its implications—from the development of moveable type. By the time he died, he had recognized that we were (and are) going through another shift, one encompassing something that he called (for lack of a better term) “secondary orality”—and that I call “neteracy.”
To me, neteracy encompasses orality, literacy, and much more. It’s a way of looking at words that shifts them from the static page and that incorporates image (including moving images) and sound. It does not move away from the page, exactly, but incorporates it into an activity of myriad aspect.
Unless we understand that what we are facing is development of a new model for reading, we will set up battle lines, Internet against books, as is implied in this passage from the article:
Critics of reading on the Internet say they see no evidence that increased Web activity improves reading achievement. “What we are losing in this country and presumably around the world is the sustained, focused, linear attention developed by reading,” said Mr. [Dana] Gioia of the N.E.A [National Endowment for the Arts]. “I would believe people who tell me that the Internet develops reading if I did not see such a universal decline in reading ability and reading comprehension on virtually all tests.”
It may be that the type of focus Gioia speaks of will prove irrelevant within a neteracy context. But it is also possible that it will only lose its central place, that it will become only one way of reading, a single arrow in an extensive quiver. Whichever, it does us no good to complain or to worry about tests that focus on literacy, not neteracy. We need to find ways, if we think the “old” skills will retain importance, of merging the skills students are developing on their own with those we think they should master. And, if we insist on testing, we must develop tests that incorporate the new as well as the old.
The article explains:
A recent study of more than 700 low-income, mostly Hispanic and black sixth through 10th graders in Detroit found that those students read more on the Web than in any other medium, though they also read books. The only kind of reading that related to higher academic performance was frequent novel reading, which predicted better grades in English class and higher overall grade point averages.
Elizabeth Birr Moje, a professor at the University of Michigan who led the study, said novel reading was similar to what schools demand already. But on the Internet, she said, students are developing new reading skills that are neither taught nor evaluated in school.
One of my major concerns with reliance on the Internet for student research is also touched upon within the piece:
Web readers are persistently weak at judging whether information is trustworthy. In one study, Donald J. Leu, who researches literacy and technology at the University of Connecticut, asked 48 students to look at a spoof Web site (http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/) about a mythical species known as the “Pacific Northwest tree octopus.” Nearly 90 percent of them missed the joke and deemed the site a reliable source.
Real neteracy will require an understanding of both methods and dangers of research on the Web. I’m trying to incorporate that as a goal in my classes, just as I am trying to meld literacy into the newer forms of reading—and, clearly, I am not alone. The academic group Computers & Writing, whose annual conferences I have attended for the last three years, has been at the forefront of exploring new ways of combining not only computers and writing, but computers and reading as well.