Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

E-Mail, Literacy, and Learning: Lessons from Carl

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

E-Mail, Literacy, and Learning: Lessons from Carl

Article excerpt


Although the school curriculum has been traditionally confined to print and text-based practices, young people are becoming increasingly involved with digital technologies. It is incumbent upon educators to consider the role that these technologies play on literacy and learning both in and out of the classroom. This case study examines an out-of-school e-mail partnership which gradually evolves from informal discussions of online game playing into more of a school-based discourse. Transcripts of conversations reveal ways in which e-mail can be a useful pedagogical practice.


I met Angela through an online game. Shortly after I met her, I found out she was a teacher, which flashed bright red warning signs. After high school, I had no reason to write or read--no will to make myself better--until I met Angela. Carl, age 23

The story of Angela and Carl and their unique online relationship comes from an inquiry project I assigned to graduate students in an introductory course on literacy studies. It is a story that demonstrates the important role that e-mail can play in literacy and learning. While much of the curriculum in schools continues to be dominated by traditional print and text-based practices, young people's engagements with reading and writing are increasingly screen-based (Alvermann, 2002; Turkle, 1995). Students like Carl--for whom schooling was not always a positive experience--often benefit from digital forms of communication such as e-mail which invite more active engagement in reading and writing and new kinds of social relationships (Borsheim, 2004; McKeon, 1999; Merchant, 2003). Nevertheless, e-mail as a pedagogical practice remains limited in its use and deserves further investigation.

The Context of the Story

Most of the students in my graduate classes are novice teachers. Both they and-the students they work with regularly e-mail friends and relatives, download music, participate in online chat rooms and games, and search the web for new sites of interest. I wanted these young teachers to begin thinking about the impact of these digital technologies on literacy and learning so that they would be better prepared to teach the next generation of students. I asked my graduate students to investigate one of several topics: distance learning, hypertext, instant messaging, and e-mail. Angela, an elementary school teacher, decided to do a case study focusing on e-mail. She had already amassed an extensive collection of e-mail correspondence as the result of a chance encounter while playing the game SIMS Online. Angela and another player--a young man we'll call Carl to ensure his anonymity--had been communicating online for more than a year.

As their e-mail exchanges became more frequent, Angela and Carl developed a close rapport, and their conversations about game playing gradually evolved into more of a school-based discourse that focused on self-reflection and reading--writing practices. What Angela discovered was that she had inadvertently become a change agent in this Carl's life as she assumed the role of an unofficial teacher/mentor. According to Kress (2003), there has been a "revolution in the landscape of communication" where people are increasingly forming social alliances which are not dependent upon geographical proximity (p.9). Communities, traditionally defined by the physical space that people occupy, are quickly being replaced by relationship building in cyberspace. Individuals from diverse backgrounds often find themselves as partners in digital "communities of practice" united by common interests (Wenger, 1998). This was evident in the connection that Angela and Carl forged in their online relationship. In the transcripts and analyses that follow, you will see the insights that Angela and I acquired about the benefits of e-mail for literacy and learning.

Partners in Writing

During their first year amid discussions about playing SIMS Online, Carl and Angela exchanged information about their personal lives. …

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