Tools of the Trade: Literacy and Beyond
by Rita Sorrentino
Print vs. digital. Handwriting vs. keyboarding. Bound books vs. eBooks. There are proponents of each side of these ongoing debates. For some, keyboarding is the new handwriting. For others, handwriting is a crucial cognitive skill that stimulates the brain, aids acquisition of language skills in young learners, and well – it’s nostalgic.
The philosophers Socrates and Plato were no strangers to the pros and cons of written communication long before its digital debut. As they argued, elements of loss and gain would result as paradigms shifted. Socrates believed that writing would create forgetfulness in the learner; Plato envisioned the intellectual benefits that the alphabet would bring to civilization. Undoubtedly, as teachers and learners, we value the contributions of all systems of communication and incorporate all types of reading and writing into our practices to heighten consciousness of ourselves and the world.
I certainly agree with the Greek philosophers that voice intonations, facial expressions, and hand gestures enhance communication and actively engage the audience. Additionally, knowledge through dialogue and learning through inquiry popularized by Socrates remain powerful teaching methods to this day. Jump through the centuries and ponder if Socrates would find today’s social media a suitable space for dialogue and communication… Would today’s digital doings add to his fear that writing would roam about indiscriminately causing chaos and danger for the masses? Or would he value the potential for dialogue and convenient connectivity to create deeper bonds between writers and readers?
Browsing in Barnes and Noble, I came across an interesting book, The Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter by Frank Furedi. In this historical view of reading, Furedi argues against those who blame technology for a decrease in reading, and claims that the ‘challenge confronting society today is cultural and political, not technological.” He presents the history of readers and their relationship with wider culture and society. Reading is not dead but has evolved to include a digital reading culture. Government-supported public libraries play an important role for both physical and digital spaces where people can gather to explore, interact, and imagine. His suggestions for education are to help restore the art of reading by encouraging students to read between the lines, to use imagination and knowledge to gain meaning from text. Whether in print or in digital format, reading opens doors and windows to the world. That is, unless preoccupation with skill development and testing remain the main goal of education rather than valuing the process of learning and application of knowledge. Whether we prefer the smell of print and the turning of pages in bound books or the portability and interactivity of eBooks, we have many options to accommodate our reading habits. For me, I dabble in both worlds. The Kindle is lightweight, travels well, does not tempt me to read ahead, and understands my current need to adjust font sizes. But on a drizzly day, a traditional book is a more comfortable choice, and books on a shelf are beautiful reminders that our literary friends are always ready for an impromptu visit.
Through a Twitter feed, I discovered Why Fonts Matter by Sarah Hyndman. “Becoming consciously aware of the emotional life of fonts can be entertaining and ultimately give you more control over decisions you make,” she writes in the Introduction. It brought back memories of mandated Times New Roman from course assignment guidelines. No choice there. Then I recalled my instruction to students for choosing fonts that did not reduce readability when displayed or distract in presentations. Many students found fonts fascinating and were content to click their way through the list from American Typewriter to Zapfino.
Font choices influence our response to digital and printed texts. We constantly interact with type in our daily lives. Advertisements, books, magazines, posters, web pages, blog entries and social media posts invite us to read, relate and respond to their messages. Fonts affect what we choose to read and they influence the choices we make. Like handwriting, fonts reveal pieces of our personality or when used by graphic designers, they brand the designated product. Fonts add voice to the text. Choosing the font that fits the message is key to giving words their impact. Serif, San Serif, Script or Fancy? What’s your type?
Reading and writing are our dominant forms of communication with wiggle room for technological enhancements. Sometimes we are addicted to reading and at other times we are on information overload. The alphabet has taken us to places far and wide. The concept of the Internet of Things (IoT) is both amazing and worrisome. I am fascinated by the voice-activated services such as Amazon’s Echo, Alexa; but I am not quite sure I want my refrigerator and car sharing data beyond my comfort zone. Information retrieval at the speed of connectivity certainly challenges our educational landscapes. Is this giving rise to a post-literacy era? You can find a thoughtful exploration of these topics at Beyond Literacy Book, a book-like thing published in 2012 and a continuation of the dialogue and discussion in a new medium at Beyond Literacy Radio Podcasts.
From Socrates to Twitter and beyond — what are your thoughts? Please share in the comments below.
Rita Sorentino taught at Overbrook Elementary in the School District of Philadelphia. She studied Reading Specialist/Education at Saint Joseph’s University.Rita is a fellow of the PA Writing & Literature Project. She is currently studying Italian and writes regularly on technology issue for the pawlpblog. Rita lives in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania.