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We're In the Midst of a Literacy Revolution 431

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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  • Re:Liar. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Kokuyo ( 549451 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:39AM (#29230769) Journal

    I think you have a point but:

    As an avid fanfiction reader I can say that I see both sides of the spectrum. Sure, a lot of it is abysmal but there are some masterpieces among them that overshadow even the originals from whence they are derived.

    I believe the truth is this: The internet doesn't influence literacy all that much. I just think it puts both ends of the spectrum in starker contrast.

    Also, I think chat logs can not serve as evidence. Just as spoken language differs greatly depending on who you are talking to, the purpose of communication has a big influence on the level you are using to bring your thoughts across. You seldom chat with your superior. You usually chat with peers. Few of us would use the same phrases, figures of speech and abbreviations in a professional document, yet most of us have at one point used such language, to a degree.

  • I think... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MyLongNickName ( 822545 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:39AM (#29230777) Journal

    I think that is what has been the definition of the modern society over the past four or five decades. We are no longer in a period where "revolutions" happen every so often, divided by long periods of stability. We are now in a period where the revolution is continual.

    From material sciences to the internet revolution, we are seeing things happen on a monthly basis that have huge impacts on us. We are mostly numbed to this because we are used to seeing it. Yet go back three or four generations and look at how life was. Certainly nothing like today.

    My mind still boggles at the fact that I can talk with people half way around the world without leaving my house. That I can collaborate with people with more ease than I would have been a decade ago who lived only fifty miles away. This ability to communicate easily, I think, is the foundation for all of the other revolutions we are seeing.

    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?

  • College students? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jhon ( 241832 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:40AM (#29230783) Homepage Journal

    Stanford Study of Writing to scrutinize college students' prose

    Why not study the "prose" of high-school students? Particularly the "prose" of the ever increasing number of high-school drop outs?

    "Reviving [out ability to write]"? Yeah. And if I did a study that only looked at NASA engineers, I'd think we were all rocket scientists.

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

    by eln ( 21727 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:47AM (#29230885)
    I like the "continual revolution" thing, but I think it's been going on for longer than you might think. I would argue the Industrial Revolution was the last true "revolution", and it's been virtually continuous change ever since then. We've had a fairly steady flow of life-changing technologies ever since then, and there's no particular sign of that stopping in the near future.
  • Re:Liar. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jandrese ( 485 ) <> on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:52AM (#29230963) Homepage Journal
    I've always thought the "the internet is going to destroy literacy" argument was strange at best. I mean what do you do on the internet? You read, and write, and read. Then you look at porn. But still, kids are reading a lot more now than they did back when I was young. Back then they talked on the phone for hours instead. In some ways this internet culture is a throwback to Victorian times when people wrote letters to each other constantly.
  • by Laxitive ( 10360 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:53AM (#29230975) Journal

    I was happy to read this article. It reflects what has slowly become my perspective on online use of language.

    Speaking as an immigrant who originally struggled with the English language for the first few years I spent in North America, I love English. I love how some parts make no sense, and how it's infused with slang from cultural experiences gathered from far and wide. Formal english is completely different from slang english, pigdin english, or online english... but I don't see the latter examples as _inferior_, simply different... wonderfully different.

    People often confuse the notion of "writing English in a way that I can relate to" with "writing good English". This is not so. Language is most exciting when it is adulterated, compromised, and infused with the particulars of its speakers. I spent 3 years of adolescence in Louisiana, back in the 90s. While others were scoffing at the notion of ebonics, I was lapping up inner city slang: that beautiful, musical, profane prose. While others bemoan the so-called regression identified with online linguistic idioms, the 4-chanisms, and earlier the Jeff-K-isms, the flippant irreverence which with modern youth take ownership of their speech, I celebrate it.

    Who wants to read things in the same way they've always written? Not to say that great writers of the past are stale - I still relish my Twain, Irving, Rushdie, and other masters of script - but I don't see the point in taking an adversarial perspective on the evolution of language.... and have no doubt, language IS evolving online. Literature is evolving online. The presentation is changing, the context is changing, the composition is changing, the references are changing... it's fucking exciting to watch.


  • by Entropius ( 188861 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:55AM (#29230999)

    "The batter pushes currency through the wire." ... even with spellcheck my students manage to sound like dipshits (college EM lab)

  • Oh Really? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mpapet ( 761907 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @10:55AM (#29231003) Homepage

    So, her sample of *Stanford* students says we're in a writing revolution eh? Since Stanford's $36,000 a year in tuition from the bank of mom and dad it stands to reason the kids entering the institution have been matriculated to a similar degree before entering Stanford.

    Let's replicate her experiment in a State college and see what the outcome is eh?

  • Re:Liar. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Kokuyo ( 549451 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @11:25AM (#29231453) Journal

    I like using whom. And I never said I don't make mistakes ;).

  • by ChefInnocent ( 667809 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @11:29AM (#29231513)
    Replace: God-fearing American with: $SELF_RIGHTEOUS_GROUP
  • Re:Liar. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by princessproton ( 1362559 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @11:30AM (#29231527)

    I agree with you in general; however, I think it's important to note that quantity does not necessarily equal quality. The kids may be reading more during their time online, but if the bulk of that is communication with peers that doesn't utilize proper language, it may be counterproductive (or at least not beneficial to assimilating language rules). Sometimes using proper language and punctuation can even result in ridicule from peers because it's not "cool" to actually spell things out and use an apostrophe now and then. In addition, the more acceptable it is to let proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation fall by the wayside in a variety of contexts, the less incentive there is to actually learn and care enough to implement proper language rules -- even as you enter adulthood and the professional world. I work at an IP consulting firm that provides expert witness services in litigation so I am often privy to discovery that includes email traffic between CEOs and their employees. I've been absolutely flabbergasted at times by the amount of typos and spelling errors, inappropriate abbreviations, and just generally poor written communication skills exhibited by senior members of even Fortune 500 companies in supposedly formal communications. I don't profess to be perfect myself, nor do I expect it of others, but I do feel that my written communication skills are more developed because I make an effort to actually apply proper language rules rather than relying on the principle that people will know what I mean when I use approximations.

    There are probably multiple errors in the passage above, but it's comparable to what I read online so it's ok... ;)

  • Re:I think... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Friday August 28, 2009 @11:55AM (#29231887) Homepage Journal

    Yet go back three or four generations and look at how life was. Certainly nothing like today

    My late uncle remarked once that his parents were brought up at a time that wasn't very much different than it was a thousand years previous -- horses or feet for transportation, no indoor plumbing or electricity, etc. His mother (my grandmother) was born the year the Wright brothers took off at Kitty Hawk, and she saw the first moon landing. She was born when telephones were extremely rare, and died in 2003, after most people had cell phones and internet access.

    Even in my own life there has been a raft of things invented and developed to the point that what was science fiction is now commonplace. Look at the old Star Trek -- self-opening doors, cell phones ("communicators"), electronic diagnostics in the sick bay, space shuttles, flat screen desktop computers, all were science fiction. I remarked about the medical tech in Sickness, pain, and death. And Star Trek [].

    I went back to the treatment room in ER with them, where they had her hooked to Star Trek machines kind of like the ones Dr. McCoy had, only Bones didn't have wires and tubes hooked to his patients. "Damn it, Jim," I can imagine him saying if his patients had wires and tubes in them, "I'm a doctor, not an engineer!"

    When I had my tonsils removed at age six, they used ether to knock you out. Ether is horrible; it makes you feel like you're dying. When I had a hemmoroid operation in 2002, the doctor said "ok, you're going to sleep now" and when I came to it was hard to believe I'd even been unconcious.

    My crazy friend Tom , the same age as me, said once when we were teenagers that someday you would be able to play records in your car. I said he was crazy. Well, he was, but he was right. We didn't have VCRs, let alone DVDs, or microwaves, or fuel injectors, air bags; hell, when I was a kid cars didn't even have seat belts.

    I've said before, to someone my age, we live in a science fiction world.

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) * on Friday August 28, 2009 @11:56AM (#29231901) Journal

    The point of writing is to communicate. If your audience has to struggle to figure out what your slang means, you're not communicating effectively. Here's an example [] from just yesterday on slashdot. The guy may have had an interesting point to make, but I sure couldn't tell. Maybe you find that kind of language "exciting", I find it useless.

  • Re:Liar. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by BrokenHalo ( 565198 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:00PM (#29231951)
    But still, kids are reading a lot more now than they did back when I was young.

    Which is exactly the point of the article. ;-) Yes, I know this is Slashdot, and etiquette requires that we don't read the article, but this one actually isn't too far off-beam.

    But the prof's claim: "As for those texting short-forms and smileys defiling serious academic writing? Another myth. When Lunsford examined the work of first-year students, she didn't find a single example of texting speak in an academic paper." is slightly doubtful.

    It might be largely accounted for by the fact that competition for university places is much more intense than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Plus the fact that students are aware that if they have a problem with their writing, most of the more egregious offences are easily picked up by grammar or spell-checkers, which were obviously unavailable to those of us who used dip-pens and inkwells. But I suspect it might only be a matter of time before smileys or other emoticons become manifest in "serious" work.

    As she correctly says, it's a matter of knowing your audience. I wouldn't bother with emoticons when I am communicating with someone whom I know will appreciate subtle expressions, say, of wry irony, but some audiences need to be poked in the eye with a ";-)" to get the message across.
  • Re:Liar. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Eponymous Coward ( 6097 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:00PM (#29231965)


  • by Reziac ( 43301 ) * on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:10PM (#29232089) Homepage Journal

    From TFA:

    "The Stanford students were almost always less enthusiastic about their in-class writing because it had no audience but the professor: It didn't serve any purpose other than to get them a grade."

    Simple solution: have the entire class grade each paper, and use that "class grade" to substantially weight the final grade as given by the professor.

    Would doubtless put a quick brake on lazy or plagiaristic writing, too, since in the way of such an audience, any such flaw will be seized upon and flayed without mercy.

    The downside? Pretty soon no one would write a paper that didn't substantially conform to the current class groupthink, lest they be flayed in public. Sometimes there are reasons why your grade comes from a professor and not your peers.

  • Re:Exposure (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Brandee07 ( 964634 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:16PM (#29232141)

    Honestly, this is already happening.

    When I was in high school (not all that long ago), we had to write and perform skits on occasion. Now, I am watching (and occasionally being an extra in) videos my younger brother is putting together on the same subjects.

    Where my classmates and I acted out a commercial for a breakfast cereal in Spanish, my brother and his friends borrow a video camera from an unwitting parent, create props and costumes (99 cent store!), and drive around town to film at the beach or in the park or whereever. They made a commerical for a Spanish-language car dealership, complete with LLAME AHORA in huge letters across the bottom of the screen. They also filmed a music video based on the Vietnam war that made several of our relatives cry.

    They're not just learning Spanish and History and how to write a script, they're learning how to use a video camera, how to use video editing software, how to do special effects with strings and miniatures and perspective shots, and even some basic CG work.

    Unfortunately, none of them have yet learned to act.

  • by JustNiz ( 692889 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:17PM (#29232183)

    I completely disagree. It seems most people, especailly teens are insultingly bad at grammar and spelling.
    For example, the usage of "they're", "there" and "their" is more often wrong than right and are commonly used interchangeably.

  • by Kurt Granroth ( 9052 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:22PM (#29232233)

    There might be some validity to this study if my daughter is any indication.

    The study definitely nailed one point -- prior to the Internet, most people never wrote anything substantial outside of school. And even that was minimal and done with great reluctance. I remember one instance in particular while in High School (pre-Internet). We were tasked with writing a short story. It needed to be at least 500 words. I've never really needed an excuse to write so I whipped up a couple thousand word horror story and that was that. I was shocked, though, at the other submissions. Nearly every other classmate struggled to hit the 500 word mark and used every trick in the book to get there. Many couldn't even do that and complained about how hard it was to even commit 200 words to their story.

    That was the case throughout my High School years. Nobody would write anything unless ordered to and, even then, would do the absolute bare minimum.

    Fast forward (many years) to today. My daughter is a typical "tween". Her texts and IMs and email messages are all "UR sooooo cool!!! LOL" and the like. If you were to concentrate on just that, then you would be justified in complaining about the downfall of literacy. But you would be wrong. That's just one aspect of her writing.

    See, she also writes books. Not just "stories" and certainly not because she was ordered to in class. She finished her first book when she was 10 years old. It was 500 pages. Not 500 words... 500 PAGES long. Her subsequent stories have been similar.

    Now I'm not saying that the books are ready for public consumption but just the fact that she writes so much at her age is amazing. Part of it is that she is "gifted" in that area... but I'm convinced that part of it is just because she has been writing in other mediums for so long that it's become second nature to her.

  • Re:Liar. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by AmiMoJo ( 196126 ) <> on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:25PM (#29232265) Homepage Journal

    It would be interesting to see statistics on how long children spend reading now that they have access to the internet, compared to 10 or 15 years ago when TV and video games were the primary in-doors entertainment.

    I think it certainly helps to see words spelt correctly and how other people write. Okay, the average twitter account is not exactly Shakespeare, but maybe it's still better than nothing...

  • Re:Liar. (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:42PM (#29232527)

    All it means is that the good professor Andrea Lunsford has based her conclusions on incomplete data. If she hangs around on Slashdot for a while, she'll realise that literacy is a thing of the past.

    I've had quite a few modpoints in the last couple of years. which has gotten me into the habit of always reading all posts from -1's to 5's. Based on that broad reading, I have to disagree with your conclusion. Most Slashdot posts tend to be literate; grammatical mistakes by one poster often lead to discussions on the original commenter's choice of words or syntax. For a typical example, look at the exchange below discussing the use of "who" versus "whom." That discussion certainly cannot be called illiterate by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Re:Liar. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by martyros ( 588782 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @12:59PM (#29232741)

    rather than semi-literate tards

    I think you mean un-educated people. Language is defined by its speakers, not by some book somewhere. If you sent a linguist who had never learned "English" to listen to some of these "semi-literate tards", they wouldn't be able to tell that they were breaking the rules of Standard English (American). On the contrary, they would find a complex set of grammar rules consistently followed, just like every other language on the planet. As far as I'm concerned, that makes it an English dialect, as valid as the one you speak.

    Now, I certainly agree that we need to have a Standard English, that it should be taught in schools, and people should be expected to use it in public forums. But denigrating people who speak a native dialect (or who speak Standard English poorly) as intellectually inferior (as opposed to simply less educated) is bigoted and ignorant.

  • Re:Liar. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by lysergic.acid ( 845423 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @01:12PM (#29232941) Homepage

    True. Also, I think that digital communication has actually increased people's acuity to grammar and writing etiquette. For whatever reason, when it comes to hand-written notes and letters, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, and other things considered to be part of "netiquette" are generally ignored. Part of it, I guess, is that people are more concerned with legibility and the message itself. If it's legible, and you can understand what's being conveyed, then the note/letter has achieved its purpose. It doesn't matter if the author wrote in all caps, used a bunch of abbreviations, left out words or made other grammatical errors.

    But with digital communication, people get much more hung up on writing etiquette. Legibility is no longer an issue so the scrutiny gets placed on other things. Perhaps part of the reason is that people perceive typing to be a much easier and less laborious task than writing by hand, so there are higher expectations. If you misspell a word or leave out a comma, it's fairly effortless to go back and fix your mistake. And whereas it's harder to break the habit of writing in caps by hand, it's fairly easy to turn off Capslock on the computer. Add to that the immediacy of internet communication (chatrooms or IM versus a post-it note or letter), and it's a lot easier and more tempting to complain to the other person about your pet-peeves.

    All of this is again compounded by the casualness of digital communication. A lot less time and work (and thus thought) goes into sending out an e-mail than mailing a letter. With IM, messageboards and chatrooms, you have an even more casual social atmosphere. As such, people are more relaxed about their writing etiquette and naturally make more mistakes. Add to that the fact that there's a much lower age barrier to digital communications (13 & 14-year-olds have cellphones these days and even a 12-year-old can post to a messageboard), and you start getting a false impression that the literacy level of society is dropping when it's quite the opposite.

  • Re:Liar. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by frenchgates ( 531731 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @02:22PM (#29233939)
    An auto mechanic who has only a hammer is inferior to an auto mechanic with the same skill at car repair who has a full garage of tools. Words are tools for thought and if your vocabulary is stunted you are, in effect, dumber than someone with the same "IQ" but a much wider vocabulary. So be careful who you accuse of bigotry. They might accuse you of blind political correctness.
  • by geekoid ( 135745 ) <`dadinportland' `at' `'> on Friday August 28, 2009 @02:25PM (#29234007) Homepage Journal

    That's asume becasue the same sentence screw up culd be used in Economics, EM, or cooking.

  • by niktemadur ( 793971 ) on Friday August 28, 2009 @07:36PM (#29237837)

    Thank you very much for this. I'm saving all three quotes as important reminders of the ever present danger of calcifying as one grows older.

    These quotes, however, do not address other situations at local levels. As a citizen of Mexico, there are many things to be concerned... no, dismayed about:

    - Kidnapping for ransom, as well as extortion, has reached a historical high and remained there for a decade, and these are just the official numbers, many of these occurrences are not reported. Most of these kidnappings are a side venture by low level drug traffickers, sanctioned by their overlords.
    - Decapitated bodies popping up in well transited thoroughfares all over, in Tijuana there have even been barrels of acid with semi-dissolved bodies inside, "narco-messages" with atrocious spelling (at least I'm trying to keep it on topic here) pinned to the "trophies", the criminal cartels flaunting their actions and mocking the law.
    - Closer to home: Several years ago, on the Mexican Independence Day weekend, I heard what sounded like prolonged firecrackers very late at night, and gave it no more thought... until the next day, when the news reported that a nearby ranch was owned by a drug trafficker, and was raided by a rival gang. Seventeen men, women and children were executed by gunfire.
    - No matter how many of these lowlifes are killed or arrested, a seemingly never ending swarm of barbaric wannabe "Scarfaces" (with a median lifespan of less than thirty years) seem to fill the empty slots.
    - Meanwhile, the army patrols the highways and streets, stopping and screening us, chipping away at our civil liberties, and the population is so desperate that polls show that the majority of citizens support this.

    Is it any wonder that Mexico, along with Pakistan, has been classified as a potentially failed state, one step away from the socio-political status of Somalia?
    Sadly for Mexico, there is no end in sight, as the only hope is to shift the paradigm and legalize drugs that are not patented by the pharmaceutical industry, yanking the rug from beneath this colossally huge black market economy. But too many people in power have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

    So yes, I do see a decaying age, up close and personal, but on a local level and not the way the nearsighted ancients described, so I'd like to conclude with a Garrison Keillor quote: "If the church put in half the time on covetousness that it does on lust, this would be a better world".

10.0 times 0.1 is hardly ever 1.0.