Literacy, Context, and the Internet

| June 29, 2011

Shirley Brice Heath’s groundbreaking work Ways with Words (1983), which detailed ten years of ethnographic research of two communities in the Carolinas, offered deeper perspectives on language and literacy. Heath examined the oral and written communication norms in these communities, demonstrating that literacy is not a neutral skill. Regarding Trackton (a poor, African-American community) and Roadville (a white, working-class town), Heath wrote, “neither community’s ways with the written word prepares it for the school’s ways” (p. 235). For example, in Trackton, Heath described reading as a social activity eliciting narratives, jokes, stories, or other active negotiations of meaning; authority was not with the text, but rather through people and group experiences. Heath argued that the children from Trackton and Roadville learned language and reading only highly contextualized, first-hand experiences. This contrasted with the children “from town” (from more upper-class backgrounds) who could distinguish between contextualized and decontextualized representations of experience, which taught them literacy practices before they even learned to read.

Scollon and Scollon (1981) Narrative, Literacy, and Face in Inter-Ethnic Communication explores the differences between how Athabascan (Alaska Native) and “western” children learn language and literacy, also employing ethnographic methods. Scollon and Scollon explain the “preliteracy” practices that occur among western children, such as the “fictionalization of the self.” Scollon and Scollon argue that this fictionalization of the self, which requires understanding the distance between authorship and text, is central to the literate orientation. The author, the audience, and the characters are decontextualized from one another. This fictionalization of the self, Scollon and Scollon maintain, is not something that occurs in Athabascan contexts or within the native storytelling tradition, yet it is something many western children are familiarized with before they even learn to read.

These two groundbreaking works emphasize the importance of context in literacy practices; or rather, the importance of understanding decontextualized material. SO a couple questions are (still developing, not fully formed): if one seminal dimension of literacy is understood as the ability to switch readily between contexts, how might this relate to the Internet? Especially when one is switching between ten different websites, reading and writing in ten different contexts, all within a very short period of time? Or reading things out of context, where one must infer the origins of an image or news article or email forward. Can the Internet be a powerful tool for teaching literacy, because it offers pathways to decontextualized material?