Perspective

ruok2dA?(Are you okay today?):
LITERACY AND LITERATE CONTEXTS
IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM

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chatting lingo

Several years ago, my husband and I purchased a new state-of-the-art sound and media system, including a TV, CD player, DVD player, audiotape player, videotape player and radio/amplifier. After everything was in place and hooked up, the installer handed us the “bouquet” of six or seven remote controls and told us that we could buy a special universal remote control. We did eventually buy the universal remote but declined to pay $250 for the installer to do the programming. He gave us the written instructions and estimated we could do the job in 10 to 12 hours.

The universal remote lay unused in a drawer for months until my husband’s 15-year-old nephew, Chad, arrived to visit. My husband got out all the remotes and the universal remote and the directions, laid them on the counter.

“Can you program all of these remotes into this one?” he asked.

“Sure,” Chad said.

And — as the salesman estimated — 10 hours later Chad had successfully programmed, tweaked and debugged the unit to control all of our audio and video components.

The comfort and agility with technologies that today’s children exhibit are just a little astounding to me. While we children of the old technologies dither, our children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces are programming our remotes, installing computer software and showing us how to upload websites, download digital photos and burn CDs. They find it distinctly unremarkable that they can transfer music from the Internet or a computer to their MP3 device. The kids are out there taking photos with their cell phones while we’re still trying to figure out how to program telephone numbers into ours.

Charles Elster refers to what he calls a “pragmatic” definition of literacy: “Literacy is the use of written language to get things done in the worlds in which one lives.” By that definition, the ability of children to navigate new technologies, understand and use those technologies for their own purposes, and travel among and between old and new technologies are all signs of complex, competent literacy functioning. A growing chorus of voices describe the many literacies that comprise children’s — and our — worlds and argue that these “multiliteracies” must be considered not only important, but critical, to students’ learning in school.

We can no longer limit our view of literacy to just reading or writing or just academic reading and writing. We must include such activities as e-mailing, accessing and/or creating websites, burning CDs and DVDs, and video game playing, and such environments as hypermedia, ATMs, electronic texts, cell phones, streaming video, podcasts, cartoon and zine texts, PDAs, iPods, and on and on. Further, we must understand the many ways in which children and adolescents use and respond to these multiliteracies.

And who are these children and adolescents populating today’s schools? They are the “millennials,” children born between 1982 and 1998 — during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Bill Clinton — who are between the ages of 8 and 24 today, and who would be expected to graduate from high school between the years of 2002 and 2018. Millennials were born into and grew up in a technological age and accept multitechnologies and multiliteracies with unstudied ease. By the time the eldest of the millennials reached middle school, digitally enhanced movie and TV commercial action, the World Wide Web, self-serve-pay-at-the-pump gas stations and ATMs were common aspects of everyday life.

What, then, is the impact of the new literacies and the new technologies on teachers? Let’s look at just one new literacy — instant messaging, or IM. The title of this article is in part IM: ruok2dA? (Are you okay today?). This language is also used for regular text messaging and in chat rooms. IM language combines letter and numerical representations of sounds in a phonetic representation of words and phrases. It strips written language of everything unnecessary — punctuation, traditional use of capitals, etc. See the IM chat between swolf and paw that appears on page 3 for a fictitious chat using some IM words and phrases.

Anyone with a computer or cell phone linked to the Internet can do it. Kids sign up to an IM network through AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft and others. Instant messages are sent real-time, so response is immediate. Most of the time, kids do IM in groups and often while they’re checking e-mail. The IM text shows up on the screen with each user’s screen name, and often in a different color. Usually a cell phone icon denotes those who are using a mobile device indicating that they might be slightly slower writing their messages. Users set up buddy or friend lists that allow them to see who is logged on and ready to chat.

Some linguists believe that the language of IM is revolutionary and marks a permanent change to English. Others note that not only the language but the traditions of instant messaging are changing the culture. David Silver, University of Washington professor of communications, says that kids are altering the language to suit the technology and notes that the strategic use of the phrase POS — parent over shoulder — is nothing short of brilliant. “Say a teen is supposed to be doing homework, but of course is instant messaging. A parent comes up and the kid quickly types ‘POS’ and sends it out. Suddenly everyone is talking about math homework.”

Many teachers worry that the alternative language of IM will seep into the classroom and formal writing assignments; however, kids say that IM language is a “kid-to-kid” thing, thus indicating their understanding of code switching.

So, today, our children and grandchildren and our students contend with a technological world that is dizzyingly complex. And if we, their teachers, are going to prepare them for and support their efforts in the midst of this complexity, if we are going to help them traverse old and new technologies and multiple literacies, we must heed Paulo Friere’s maxim: “Teach students to read the word and read the world."



This Sonoma Perspective is excerpted from Ruddell’s keynote address at the 2004 convention of the Wisconsin State Reading Association. Newly retired, she is spending more time with personal pursuits, and learning all of the associated technology. Insights welcomes ideas and submissions for future installments of "Perspective."