Academic journal article English Journal

Preparing Our Close Readers for the New Literacies

Academic journal article English Journal

Preparing Our Close Readers for the New Literacies

Article excerpt

New Literacies is now considered an old term, one attributed by many to David Buckingham in 1993 when email was all the rage. But one would need to go back further to 1970 to see the term new literacy in print for the first time, in Edgar Dale's address to the Educational Communications Conference in Columbus, Ohio. Yet Dale even credits an earlier source: Ralph Tyler's 1963 commencement speech to Antioch College, where he advised, "the development of new technologies has provided resources for teacher and student which seem likely to increase markedly the efficiencies of the efforts of both" (qtd. in Dale 131). What Buckingham, Dale, and Tyler could not have predicted was that in just a few short years, new literacies along with the Internet would become globally ubiquitous. At this writing, just 50 years since Tyler's address, there are a dozen ways for secondary school students to interact socially and academically online, including Twitter, Instagram, Edmodo, Facebook, Google Docs, Socrative, and Notability, to name a few. Now, as in 1993, new literacies refers to the evolving forms of literacy made possible by digital technology developments. The trend is bound to continue, allowing new literacies to remain in a perpetual state of growth for the foreseeable future.

As more and more students are reading online, however, there is another trend seemingly at cross-purposes: close reading. Though it may seem a fairly recent invention, the words close and reading have been used together for millennia. Quintilian recognized the benefit and utility of close reading in the Institutio Oratoria: "Let us read again [what we have already read] and consider it with care . . . not raw reading but reading softened and as it were made ready for use by much re-reading" (X.i.19). Assessing close reading (separate from writing) is a more recent invention and practice that, rather than demanding written responses to guiding (and therefore leading) questions, asks readers to discover meaning and communicate this through personalized annotated commentary. It is not without criticism, but the momentum for close reading has not yet abated. Yet how are we to instruct our online close readers? Are close reading skills to be forgotten or somehow transmuted to the screen? This article examines the present challenges in the new literacies and suggests a way forward for online close reading assessment.

The Challenges

First, the perception of new literacies has been that, by virtue of being virtual, it is not as challenging as paper literature, not as valuable, not as real, not as nuanced. The perception goes that it's easier to read online content since it does not need to pass muster with those tweed-jacketed editors who measured the value of writing by asking, "Is it worth the paper it's printed on?" Digital readers answer equally valid questions: Is it worth my time and attention? How can readers know that what they are reading online is valuable or useful?

Second, there is an undeniable contention among some English departments where educators with purist ideologies can't reconcile embracing the new literacies. This complication of teaching in the era of new literacies can be summed up in this brief anecdote from writer Anna Quindlen:

Ms. Ellis gave Buster on the computer a fair shake, but she found the experience ultimately unsatisfactory. She concluded that the process of scrolling down, reading in a linear fashion, on a machine she associates with haste, were all antithetical to reading for pleasure. "The screen," she says, "turned me into a reluctant reader." When she went to the library and took out an earlier bound Buster book, her reluctance disappeared. "I experienced that feeling of surrender, of putting myself in someone's hands, which is one of the great pleasures of fiction," she wrote. And she reclaimed the experience of a book, pure and simple: "the softscrape of my fingers against the pages, the glissando sound of flipping back to a previous chapter. …

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