Technology as a Promoter of Literacy

Jody Platt,   Student at Hanover College
iteracy, as defined in Webster's New World Dictionary, 
is "the ability to read and write."  This is a very narrow definition of 
literacy in today's society.  It is important that we look at literacy in 
the classroom in broader terms.  Literacy is more than just reading and 
writing.  According to The National Literacy Act, literacy is "an individual's 
ability to read, write, and speak English, compute and solve problems at levels 
of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve 
one's goals, and develop one's knowledge and potential" (Fast Facts, 2000, 
online).  From this definition, it is apparent that in order to be considered 
literate, one must be able to function effectively in society.  In this growing 
world of television, computers, and the Internet, more time should be spent 
using technology in the classroom to promote literacy. 
 
The idea of defining literacy in broader terms is not a new idea by any means.  
Around 95 AD, Quintilian, a Roman educator, was a promoter of broad literacy.  
He included music, astronomy, geometry, and philosophy in his definition of 
literacy (Webb, 2000).  In today's society, many different areas need to be 
addressed in literacy programs.  We should include "all forms of the 
communicative and visual arts from reading, writing, speaking, and listening 
to viewing and producing various modes of visual displays including dance, 
art, drama, computer technology, video, movies, and television" (Flood, 1998, 
343).  Out of all of these components, technology seems to be the most 
important in today's society.  

Why is it important that we address literacy in today's classrooms?  According 
to the National Institute for Literacy, "More than twenty percent of adults 
read at or below a fifth-grade level-far below the level needed to earn a 
living wage" (Fast Facts, 2000, online).  If literacy is addressed early on in 
a child's education, then there will be fewer adults in the future who have 
literary needs.  Another startling study by the National Institute for Literacy 
found that "over forty million Americans age 16 and older have significant 
literary needs" (Fast Facts, 2000, online).  Again, this number could be 
drastically reduced if we begin to focus more on literacy early in a student's 
life.

Because of new advancements in technology, focusing on literacy is becoming 
increasingly easier for teachers.  The use of technology is a great way for 
a child to learn in the classroom.  Nonetheless, some people feel that using 
technology in the classroom can become too complex and distracting for the 
child.  How can a child really learn when there are so many beeps, noises, and 
flashes coming from the computer monitor and speakers?  The important thing to 
remember is that children are immersed in an onslaught of technology when they 
are outside of school (Flood, 1998).  The television, radio, and Internet are 
all prime examples of things children are constantly facing.  Therefore, through 
literacy programs that are technology-based, children are not only gaining 
literacy skills, but they are improving skills that will be needed later in life 
involving technology.

One very effective way to promote literacy through technology is by using a 
CD-ROM talking book.  These kinds of books are very interactive.  The computer 
pronounces words for the child and rereads certain passages.  It also allows the 
illustrations in the book to become animated.  Other features that these talking 
books offer are follow-up activities to the reading and quizzes to test the child's 
reading comprehension (Labbo, 2000).  There are many ways that a teacher can use 
these books on CD-ROM to promote literacy in the classroom.  Children can listen 
to the book as it is read to them on the computer, or they can listen and then 
repeat the words.  They can also look for familiar words, look for rhyming words, 
and talk about how the special effects relate to the story (Labbo, 2000).  The 
program helps the student to recognize words and see the relationship between how 
the words look and how they sound. 

In addition to using CD-ROM programs in the classroom, a teacher can use a combination 
of videos and the Internet to give children a broader literacy base.  Through videos, 
a child can learn more about the way people interact with each other.  Discussions 
following the videos can help a child learn to vocalize his or her thoughts.  The 
Internet can also facilitate good literacy programs.  Children can conduct research 
projects using the Internet to learn practical computer skills that will help them 
to function better in society.  Also, there is a vast amount of information available 
on the Internet that can help children learn more about the world they live in.

Teachers can use the Internet to find resources and curriculum guides to use in the 
classroom.  For example, there is a website that is sponsored by Random House Children's 
Books.  It is for teachers from kindergarten through the twelfth grade.  The site lists 
many different books that are appropriate for different age levels.  For each book, 
there is a teacher's guide and biographies about the author and illustrator.  In addition 
to this, the website offers suggestions on how to make connections between the book and 
language arts, social studies, science, math, and art.  When a teacher uses these 
suggestions, the child will gain broader literacy skills necessary for functioning in 
society.

Other websites for teachers document projects that have been successful in other classrooms.  
An example of this is a website called Teaching and Learning with Technology.  It has 
separate links for different grade levels.  There are examples given on the website of 
ways to use technology with students in the classroom.  One way is to have the children 
create a database that states facts about themselves.  Then they can learn about other 
students in the school by reading each other's databases.  They gain a better understanding 
of each other and themselves, while learning basic computer skills.

One of the best ways to combine literacy and technology in the classroom is through email.  
The use of email in a classroom setting helps children learn literacy skills through social 
interaction and actively using their literacy skills (Reinking, 2000).  When children engage 
in sending emails to pen pals around the world, they gain not only the benefits of social 
interaction, but they learn about other cultures that are represented in the world.  This 
creates an ideal situation for practicing literacy skills when the students write to their 
pen pals.  The children can further improve their skills by reading the emails out loud to 
fellow students.  The use of email is helping children prepare for the future by creating 
real-life situations.  

Teachers in San Diego have tested the idea of using email as part of their literacy program.  
Their students draft and edit news articles for the Computer Chronicle Newspaper.  After 
they work on the articles, the students send the articles to different states and countries.  
Since their work is being sent around the globe, they have an extra incentive to do a good 
job (Kleifgen).  They are not only learning ways to develop and improve their writing, but 
they are gaining an understanding of other people in the world.  They are also learning how 
to work in groups and cooperate with one another.  These skills are vital to functioning in 
society.  Similar to the program in San Diego is a project called De Orilla a Orilla, which 
means From Shore to Shore.  This program enables children from Connecticut, Puerto Rico, and 
Mexico to trade stories and newsletters.  "The project has been successful in improving 
students' native language and English literacy skills" (Kleifgen, 3). 
 
Although all of these new ways of increasing literacy through technology seem very easy, 
their success depends on the teachers.  Teachers must be skilled in promoting literacy in 
their classrooms.  The teachers need to "use computers as tools for learning, choose 
appropriate software, and take an active role in teaching children how to use them in a 
collaborative learning environment" (Kleifgen, 4).  In other words, teachers cannot rely 
only on technology to teach literacy skills.  Instead, the technology should be used to 
supplement what the teachers are doing in the classroom.

There are many ways that teachers can incorporate technology into their classrooms to 
support a broader definition of literacy.  Through the use of CD-ROM programs, the Internet, 
email, and teacher resource sites, it is easier for the student to gain the knowledge needed 
to be able to function in society.  However, without the efforts of a skilled and 
knowledgeable teacher, these new ways of using technology in the classroom will not be 
effective.  It is important that teachers understand that this technology is only to be 
used to enhance, not to replace, what is being done in the classroom.  
	
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