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We're In the Midst of a Literacy Revolution 431

Posted by kdawson
from the write-on dept.
Mike Sauter sends in a piece from Wired profiling research by Andrea Lunsford, a professor of writing and rhetoric at Stanford, from which she concludes that we don't need to worry about computers and the Internet causing a decline in general literacy. "[Lunsford] has organized a mammoth project called the Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students' prose. From 2001 to 2006, she collected 14,672 student writing samples — everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. Her conclusions are stirring. 'I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization,' she says. For Lunsford, technology isn't killing our ability to write. It's reviving it — and pushing our literacy in bold new directions."
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We're In the Midst of a Literacy Revolution

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  • by bezenek (958723) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:39AM (#29230765) Journal
    The Internet facilitates easy plagiarism. I assume papers for sale on the 'net generally have good grammar. Is it possible an increase in Internet plagiarism caused the increase in literary quality?

    We certainly know no-child-left-behind did not help the early stages of the pipeline.

    Just a thought...

    -Todd
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:41AM (#29230799)

    But... but... societal decline! The good ol' days! My generation and my recent ancestors' generations were the best, not like these spoiled rotten immoral kids! Everyone knows that Generation $NEWEST_BUZZWORD has been been corrupted by $NEWEST_MORAL_PANIC! This is obviously just some... some ivory tower elite INTELLECTUAL manipulating statistics (which every God-fearing American knows are less reliable than unexamined personal biases) to justify violence and sex in $NEW_MEDIA (which is much worse than the $OLD_MEDIA that I consume).

  • by Krneki (1192201) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:41AM (#29230801)
    Or maybe the spell checking software is getting better and better. I can see more and more AI filters between our thoughts and the final expressions.
  • I agree (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Deag (250823) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:42AM (#29230815)

    I found this interesting:

    Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroomâ"life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.

    It's almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn't a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they'd leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.

    It makes a lot of sense. This idea of their being a golden age of people hand writing letters to each other is bullshit for the vast majority of the populace.

    She might not be popular with some people in actually praising a new generation. I remember watching a discussion on some TV show once where a professor stated that in his experience the current young people were much more diligent and hard working than previous generations. It didn't go down well at all with the rest of the tut-tuting panel.

  • by stagg (1606187) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:43AM (#29230829)
    One thing that is important is to remember that in nearly every generation for at least the last three hundred years there's been a tendency for a certain kind of comfortable intellectual to shake their heads and decry the downfall of civilization, the irreverence of youth and the death of literacy and wisdom. Noticing that trend does not necessarily make it incorrect, but it certainly makes it suspicious. I suspect it says more about a certain type of person than it does about our culture. With that said however, there is change going on, although unlike Dr Lunsford I think that any judgment of what is going on exactly is a bit premature: it's all guesswork right now. Her analysis isn't too bad, but it's not necessarily better than anyone else's guess. What Dr Lunsford has undertaken is very subjective, and it's almost impossible for her to get any kind of objective research or testable results. Given a century or two of distance and perspective that may become easier. (If we're still around then. ha)
  • Exposure (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Alaren (682568) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:43AM (#29230833)

    This has long been my suspicion, ever since reading Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. The "Web" is only now becoming video-heavy; for over a decade, using the Internet was always in large measure an act of reading, and continues to be heavily so. And the best way to improve your writing is to read, and to write.

    I do wonder, too, if there is something to be said for the availability of complex material to children. When I was in First Grade, my father took the school librarian to task for cordoning off the "big kids" section when lower grades were in the library. I was the only one in the class permitted to venture into the "big books" after that, which sort of missed my father's point, but the availability of challenging materials is the first step to mastering them.

    I give my children free (if subtly monitored) access to the Internet. My son used Starfall.com to teach himself to read at 2 1/2; he is now 4 and when he wants to calm himself down often asks if he can "do math" from a 1st grade workbook we acquired. We did have to have a chat with my daughter (age 6) about some of the search terms she was entering into YouTube (nothing obscene, but often crass as children are wont to do), but she has gravitated toward searching for cartoons on various subjects. Her spelling, typing, and comprehension of search functions is fascinating to watch.

    It looks like playtime, most of the time, but it is clearly a much more literacy-oriented playtime than, say, watching television (which my children are rarely interested in doing, though we do have television and do not generally forbid it). I will be interested to see how this study or studies like it look in another ten years--especially those that look for the existence and effects of the "digital divide."

  • by eln (21727) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:44AM (#29230841) Homepage
    I can see why the Internet would have increased literacy in the short term. After all, it's still primarily a text-based medium, and so you need some level of reading and comprehension skill to be able to participate.

    However, as the Internet moves more toward video, from youtube to video blogs to more and more stories on news sites being offered only as videos, will that jump in literacy be sustained? We're quickly moving from an Internet where large volumes of text were passed back and forth to an Internet where videos are passed around, and commentary on them is in the form of very brief twitter-length comments. So, I'm skeptical that people using the Internet in 10 years will be doing any more reading (or writing, for that matter) than people watching TV do now.
  • by Deag (250823) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:48AM (#29230901)

    I think you are missing the point, she was not just examining class work but "everything from in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions."

    It is that people actually are producing a significant body of work outside of formal education that did not happen before.

  • by bmcnally (1333283) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:51AM (#29230957)

    This sound familiar to the wonky research that was showcased a couple of weeks ago - that gamers are fat, depressed, and have an average age of 35. Data collection is everything. A sample of students taken only from Stanford, or Harvard, MIT, CalTech, is hardly representative of the nation as a whole. Those who get into these schools typically have SAT and ACT scores well above average - in both Math and English (viewing the demographics page at the study's homepage [stanford.edu] confirms this). In fact, if other research is to be believed, these are the types of people that are least likely to use Twitter, Facebook, etc excessively.

    A more comprehensive study would grab a frequency weighted sample that looked at a larger number of students at large public universities, as well as a significant number of students from community colleges.

    Unfortunately, when I go to the site, all of the pages under "methods" are giving me 404s.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:54AM (#29230987)
    I would be perfectly comfortable studying college students. What seems like a bad idea is extrapolating Stanford students out to other college students. From her evidence, I would conclude that Stanford students are in the midst of a literacy revolution, not that everyone else is. She's obviously not a Statistics professor.
  • by martyros (588782) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:56AM (#29231007)

    I wonder then if the amount of drivel you see is more about the fact that the internet exposes what's there, rather than bringing the level down. The fact is that 50 years ago you wouldn't read something that wasn't written by someone who had specifically developed their literacy. I'm always surprised at how much more ignorant some of my relatives sound on Facebook than they ever did in person. My relatives closer to my own age, however, are very articulate online.

    So the internet makes the world seem less literate (by exposing the lack of literacy that otherwise would never be seen), but in fact on average makes the world in fact more literate (by encouraging people to express themselves in words and thus get more practice doing so).

  • Re:Liar. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Kell Bengal (711123) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:56AM (#29231015)
    An interesting point! Is the internet simply making writing of others which might otherwise be hidden away in a personal diary somewhere actually accessible to others for the first time?

    If nothing had ever happened to Anne Frank, probably none of us would have seen her writing, ever - she'd just be a normal girl too embarrassed to let other people see what she penned in her free time. Now through the internet, anyone with a will to write can be published.

    It may be it's always been there, but now it's more visible.

  • Re:Liar. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ChefInnocent (667809) on Friday August 28, 2009 @11:02AM (#29231087)
    In linguistics, we discussed how the older generations always think the young people are ruining the language. How language is always in a state of devolution from when the one pondering it remembers their youth. So, ever since the first speakers, language has devolved. Just for the record, your Proto-Indo-European is horrible. By the same token, your great great grand children will have no idea what you are mumbling.
  • by Psychophrenes (1600027) on Friday August 28, 2009 @11:04AM (#29231129)
    On the other hand, you have to take into account the fact that because people read more and more bad prose containing grammatical errors and such, they get used to it, and tend to reproduce the errors they see.
  • Re:I think... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by SputnikPanic (927985) on Friday August 28, 2009 @11:04AM (#29231133)

    I wonder what this world will be like in fifty years. Will these revolutions help make this a much better place to live? Or will we find a way to fuck it up?

    I sometimes think it'll be the latter. Maybe I've been watching too many dystopian movies, but technology, for all its benefits, can also change societies for the worse. Assume that 50 years from now we have the capability to put chips into people's brains. What will governments do with that sort of capability? I can easily see a proposal being introduced that would allow remote brain monitoring of sex offenders, for example. Science and technology will continue their advance and fifty years from now, I think we'll all be less likely to die from cancer, less likely to be mentally debilitated by Alzheimer's, and physically healthier overall, but I think we'll also have less freedom.

  • Re:Liar. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by purpledinoz (573045) on Friday August 28, 2009 @11:07AM (#29231175)

    lolwut? I c wut shee did thar. Were all loosing r minds, u no?

    I really hate people who type in this manner. It saves almost no time, so what's the point in purposely making the spelling error? What does it prove? That you're some sort of Internet badass? I don't think so, it makes that person look like a complete moron. One time, I ran into a message board where the whole thread was like this, my head almost exploded.

  • by royallthefourth (1564389) <royallthefourth@gmail.com> on Friday August 28, 2009 @11:11AM (#29231243)

    However, as the Internet moves more toward video, from youtube to video blogs to more and more stories on news sites being offered only as videos, will that jump in literacy be sustained? We're quickly moving from an Internet where large volumes of text were passed back and forth to an Internet where videos are passed around, and commentary on them is in the form of very brief twitter-length comments. So, I'm skeptical that people using the Internet in 10 years will be doing any more reading (or writing, for that matter) than people watching TV do now.

    I can't imagine video will become much easier to put on the web than it is now (but don't quote me in the future!). I suspect most of our communication will remain text-based if only because it's much easier for me(and undoubtedly others) to produce an intelligent sounding text comment than it is to produce a (good) video or audio clip. For the last two cases, I'd ramble on and on and need to re-record many segments of it rather than just fixing typos and changing words for clarity. Also, many of us here are fast readers and would prefer to take in the information at our reading pace rather than a slower talking pace.

    I hammered this comment out in about a minute; I imagine a video of comparable quality would've taken me ten times as long.
    One more thing: if you've ever used Xbox Live, you understand why someone would rather read text than hear the author's voice. Most people's voices just don't sound very good and it gets in the way of the message.

  • Re:Liar. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mcgrew (92797) * on Friday August 28, 2009 @11:37AM (#29231617) Homepage Journal

    The internet doesn't influence literacy all that much.

    How old are you? The internet is mostly a text medium. When I was a kid (WAY before the internet), if you had a book under your arm everybody thought you were a nerd. If you had a slide rule they KNEW you were a nerd.

    But most kids in my generation didn't read unless forced to. Today, all the kids read a lot, even if all they read is the internet and text messages on their phones.

  • Re:Liar. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Chris Burke (6130) on Friday August 28, 2009 @11:43AM (#29231711) Homepage

    In linguistics, we discussed how the older generations always think the young people are ruining the language. How language is always in a state of devolution from when the one pondering it remembers their youth. So, ever since the first speakers, language has devolved.

    That's great, as long as morons don't take that to mean "... and therefore your horrible grammar and spelling errors aren't actually errors, but the natural evolution of language." I've seen a lot of people who seem to think the fact that language evolves means that they are the instruments of said evolution, rather than semi-literate tards.

    To them I say: Someday, "loose" may be the correct spelling of "lose". Until that future day, you still need to learn the difference because you're wrong.

  • by WinPimp2K (301497) on Friday August 28, 2009 @11:49AM (#29231793)

    "..having read NASA engineer's writing..."

    Oh come on, it's not like the ability to express oneself in the written word is rocket science.
    (though to be honest, NASA "engineers" spend more time pushing paperwork than they do bending tin.)

  • there is a difference between literacy, period, and literacy in a specific historical vernacular

    how people talked and wrote in 1980 is not how they talked and wrote in 1940 and not how they talked and wrote in 1900, ad nauseum

    the guy who grew up expecting 1940 vernacular to be equivalent to the concept of "literacy" would lament this slangy derivative vernacular of 1980, when in fact, how people talk and write in 1980 is no better or worse than 1940. the problem is in how certain brittle and shortsighted minds define what "literacy" means

    the internet and cell phone technologies will dramatically impact how english is written and spoken, most definitely. but as long as people are communicating coherently, who fucking cares?

    at one time, such fragile minds bemoaned the loss of the latin language in scholastic curricula, that it would result in a nation of idiots and simpletons. so apparently all of you who don't know how to conjugate verbs in latin are illiterate simpletons. really? that's a valid criteria?

    so then why can't some of you see that some of the criteria some of you use to draw the line between literate and illiterate is equally random and meaningless. real literacy is about effective and coherent communucation. full stop

    perhaps, what people use to signify what "literacy" means in their minds are using signs and customs that are random and pointless, just so much useless and pointless flotsam and jetsam of the mind, more signifying of the lack of flexibility of the mind's of those crying "illiteracy" than any real illiteracy going on in the real world. random cultural detritus, linguistic mannerisms of a particular time period or geographical location have zero value in a drawing up a definition of the concept of literacy

    for example, this entire post used no capital letters. what exactly is the fucking purpose of capital letters anyway? a whole second alphabet for the sake of the redundant communication of what punctuation marks take care of already?

    so when SMS TXT speak "infects" the english language, the english language is not suffering. literacy rates are not falling. its simple inevitable linguistic evolution, and it consists of getting rid of pointless redundant cruft no one needs to communicate effectively anyways, but certain brittle minds latch onto as a fall in "literacy". fucking bullshit. develop some mental flexibility please

  • Re:I agree (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:15PM (#29232133)

    Ah yes, those bygone and halcyon days. Where our sophisticated and enlightened forefathers... fought a bloody civil war over the question of whether "inferior" humans deserved de jure slavery or merely de facto slavery.

  • Re:Liar. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by timeOday (582209) on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:34PM (#29232401)
    I agree, but on the other hand, I don't think grammar matters that much either way. The vastly more significant change brought about by the Internet is that far more people write and receive feedback on a regular basis. Feedback is crucial. As a kid, your mom will glance over your writing and tell you it's wonderful. In a college writing course the professor might bother to read a few pages of your writing throughout the semester, or more likely force a grad student to do it. On slashdot, you get feedback within minutes - and it's unvarnished feedback, too. Very quickly you learn how many ways people can misunderstand what you're saying, and how your foes intentionally misinterpret what you write. And you learn that long-winded writing tends to be ignored completely.

    So I don't think grammar is the most significant thing, and I don't think simply giving more people the chance to write and be read is the most important thing (although it is important). The big revolution is feedback.

  • Re:I think... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by BrokenHalo (565198) on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:34PM (#29232403)
    I would argue the Industrial Revolution was the last true "revolution", and it's been virtually continuous change ever since then.

    Actually, there are many historians who assert that the Industrial Revolution didn't exist; that the idea is a modern construction of how series of events were connected. The revolution (if one must use the term) is all one piece, and pigeonholing history into little boxes like this becomes self-defeating and meaningless.

    I was formerly unconvinced of this, but my wife (who happens to be a PhD history academic) pointed me in the direction of lots of papers, and the evidence has led me to change my mind.
  • Re:Liar. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by vertinox (846076) on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:54PM (#29232683)

    That's great, as long as morons don't take that to mean "... and therefore your horrible grammar and spelling errors aren't actually errors, but the natural evolution of language."

    Natural evolution is mutations weather they are wanted or not.

    To them I say: Someday, "loose" may be the correct spelling of "lose". Until that future day, you still need to learn the difference because you're wrong.

    At what point do we determine that is? I mean can you specifically pick a time between the 1500 to 1700s where people stopped using "thee" and "thou"?

    Either way you can say its wrong all you'd like and people are still going to do it. Eventually it will change. That is the point the linguists are trying to put across. A million Grammar teachers are screaming out in anguish but not much anyone can do about it.

  • Re:Liar. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by PitaBred (632671) <slashdotNO@SPAMpitabred.dyndns.org> on Friday August 28, 2009 @01:02PM (#29232797) Homepage
    There, they're and their all still have separate meanings. There is a line where "stupid" comes into play, not all misuse of language is "evolutionary".
  • Re:Liar. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Spellvexit (1039042) on Friday August 28, 2009 @01:17PM (#29233015)
    Having studied Latin a fair deal, I have a great appreciation for solid grammar, well-formed sentences, and intricate structures. I loathe the apparent devolution of language and despise the rampant misspellings, poor grammar, and horrific stream of consciousness run-ons I've witnessed on the boards and in gameplay.

    However, language really is a self-correcting form of communication. I hate the use of "ur" as a bastardized "your," but linguistically speaking, it's pretty efficient. People who spell horribly usually spell with a more consistent logic than centuries of archaisms -- why not spell "dependent" as "dependant" when we have words such as "rampant, occupant," and attendant?" Other than the baggage caused by inherited languages, why do we persist in using "right" instead of "rite?"

    In my lifetime, I've seen "donut" become the de facto spelling rather than "doughnut," and I haven't even lived that long. People can say poor spelling creates ambiguities, but our language is already rife with 'em. If a term becomes too ambiguous, the term will die in its collective usage, or split. We know from context what "your" means, otherwise we wouldn't step in to correct people when it's used in place of "you're." I think it's lazy, but from another perspective, it's could be considered an ever-changing process of optimization.

    I try to remind myself of this. Doesn't mean I have to like it.
  • by BenEnglishAtHome (449670) on Friday August 28, 2009 @01:24PM (#29233105)

    I have mod points that I wanted to use on other posts but this one forces me to reply.

    I'm glad you enjoy English. I love it, myself. Unfortunately, I think you're a bit too generous with your praise of the beauty of dialects. Most to the point, you say:

    Language is most exciting when it is adulterated, compromised, and infused with the particulars of its speakers.

    I must disagree in the strongest terms. Language that incorporates seemingly random variations is exciting only to the extent that you enjoy solving puzzles over clear communication. On the contrary, to me language is most exciting when it communicates.

    It can do so in many ways. Beautiful poetry can be hard to read but well worth it. Ebonics might be the only way to talk to some people. 4chan-isms may work on 4chan. (Personally, the learning curve is too steep for me; 12chan was my limit for understanding such things.) But none of these is useful outside their niche.

    "Good English" does, in fact, exist. It changes and is influenced by all the things you mention but it is not rendered incomprehensible by them. It evolves slowly enough that it can be used as a common communications channel between *all* readers without regard to generation or lifestyle. When new words or ways of using the language are accepted into "Good English", they may sound a bit funny to an older generation but they don't prevent that older generation from understanding. Context should be sufficient to suss out the meaning.

    When a new form of speech is sufficiently radical that it can't be understood by everyone (perhaps with a little effort) and when the author insists on using it anyway out of some misguided belief that their way of doing things is ordained by the universe as their right, then these wonderful, poetic, profane strains of the language become, to be blunt, wrong.

    If someone speaks a strong flavor of cajun or ebonics or what-have-you, that's just fine. If they create written works where those flavors are so strong as to hinder understanding then offer up their works for the world to read, then they just don't write well.

    For people who share my hobbies that mostly involve shooting, I often cite the example of Zediker's Handloading for Competition, a technical book concerning how to make ammunition. In the forward, the writer says he has a degree in English from Ole Miss and that this gives him permission to murder the language because he actually knows better. He then proceeds to murder the language repeatedly in the book, putting into print deep-south faux-regionalisms so thick as to be occasionally incomprehensible. If the book hadn't contained so much wonderful technical insight, I would have thrown it away after reading the first chapter.

    Nobody has permission to murder the language if they want to communicate broadly. In limited circumstances, feel free to go nuts. Good things often result. But don't forget that, yes, there is such a thing as "Good English" and, most of the time, it's the preferred method of communication hereabouts. "Good English" is not merely "writing English in a way that I can relate to", it's writing English in a way we can all relate to.

    Unless you don't speak English. :-)

  • Re:Liar. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by R2.0 (532027) on Friday August 28, 2009 @01:34PM (#29233265)

    "Either way you can say its wrong all you'd like and people are still going to do it. Eventually it will change. That is the point the linguists are trying to put across. A million Grammar teachers are screaming out in anguish but not much anyone can do about it."

    You miss the GP's point - it's not that change is happening, but that come people will use the general concept of linguistic evolution to justify their individual behavior. The same thing happens with the concept of moral relativism: while it is an undisputed fact that different cultures place different moral value on certain actions, that does not mean that the moral rules of THIS society don't apply to YOU. This is not an academic problem - look at "honor" killings of Muslim women in western countries.

  • Re:Liar. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Quothz (683368) on Friday August 28, 2009 @03:18PM (#29234803) Journal

    The error is in number agreement. The phrase peers that doesn't should read peers that don't

    "Communication that doesn't", however, is perfectly fine. "With peers" is a prepositional-type phrase.

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