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Monday, November 19, 2007

(Yet) more misinformation on literacy

A story reported without comment this morning by Bob Bumbera on WXPN seems to be a good example of misinformation about literacy.

The headline was something like "Reading in Decline." But, if you listened carefully, that wasn't the real story. It was stated that there had been another decline in the percentage of US adults who said they'd read a book in the past year. The operative word here is "book." Books aren't the only form of written matter, and clearly other forms, such as email and web pages, are becoming increasingly important. So this statistic actually said nothing about a decline in reading, as opposed to reading of books.

Next we were informed that employers are having more trouble finding employees with adequate literacy skills. But in an increasingly information-based economy, that could simply indicate that employers' requirements are rising, rather than that workers' skills are falling.

Finally we hear one thing not subject to misinterpretation: nine-year-olds' reading scores have once again gone up, just as they have for the past several years. How does this fit with the other "facts," especially given the subtext that more computer use is responsible for allegedly declining literacy? It doesn't, of course, especially inasmuch as children and youth are the group who are getting "wired" the fastest and most easily. On the contrary, it strongly suggests that the Internet is facilitating a growth of reading skills.

This should come as no surprise, since email and text messaging have been growing at the expense of voice communication. In addition, Web surfing may easily be more addictive than book reading, because if a book starts to lose its interest there may not be another one handy to take its place; whereas, if you're bored with a particular web site, it's easy to search for others on a different topic, or with a different take on the same topic.

In short, the story reported on "The Morning Show " reflected the jeremiads of those unhappy with and uncomprehending of current trends in communication, rather than a balanced assessment of what's really happening. Not that the same pattern hasn't been seen in every preceding generation.

Eric Hamell

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