December 16, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

ILA Report: Digital Literacy Is Hot; Access to Books and Content Is Not

ILA-affiliate-WEB_gray-The International Literacy Association (ILA) has released its annual What’s Hot in Literacy report. Based on responses from more than 1,500 literacy researchers, classroom teachers, librarians, and community leaders in 89 countries and territories, the findings show that what is trendy when talking about literacy is not always the same as what’s most important to discuss.

The differences in how topics were designated by respondents—getting a lot of buzz but not necessarily that important, and vice versa—is something Marcie Craig Post, ILA’s executive director, thinks deserves attention. She suggests that perhaps the timing of the survey near the presidential election, as well as the location of respondents and the amount of publicity a subject received, might have factored into how survey respondents rated various topics. The media and the influence of its reporting is, in itself, a hot topic right now, so that might have skewed what respondents perceived as important to focus on.

surprising results

The topic of digital literacy, for example, is viewed, relatively, as more “hot” than “important.” The report shows that while the subject was rated as either very or extremely important by 59 percent of respondents at the community level and by 63 percent at a national level, it was seen as less important than other topics, including teacher professional development and disciplinary literacy.

Craig Post suggested that a reason for this might be that there are different interpretations of digital literacy. “The findings for digital literacy are interesting, aren’t they?” she says, noting that digital literacy can be viewed as facile use of equipment, such as smartboards and iPads. But “the important side of it is not the tool, but how to utilize it. What aspects of language do kids need in order to search and write in the digital space? How do they check the validity of a source? These are things that we need to be putting more attention on,” she explains. Craig Post also pointed out that studies have indicated that students from middle and upper socioeconomic classes are more proficient in using search engines because they have a larger vocabulary, showing that literacy involves not just knowing how to read, but also understanding what you read in a way that allows you to do something with that information.

There were also other findings that Craig Post called surprising. Particularly unexpected was that only 39 percent of respondents said access to books and content was a very or extremely hot topic in their community, and only 36 percent said this about their country. But respondents ranked this the second most important topic in the report, behind only parent engagement.

“Neutral” topics that are anything but

Still, Craig Post would rather have it that way than the other way around. “I can say with some degree of comfort that we didn’t have anything in there that was hot, but unimportant,” she said. “There were some neglected areas that surprised us. [The responses regarding] multi-language learners and English learners concerned us because it was very neutral, neither hot nor important, and we’re talking about a global society.” She wondered if the lukewarm reaction to these subjects was due to the recent change in political rhetoric in this country, noting that in Europe, a culture of multilingualism is embedded in daily life.

Leadership was another “neutral” topic. “We view the important angle on that to be: What do literacy leaders need to know to be effective in that environment at the system level? How are these people fundamentally contributing to and informing how literacy is taught? It’s about what is important in teaching literacy in a systematic way,” says Craig Post. “I think there’s a need for literacy leaders who know what that looks like and how to see that in action.” Craig Post sees librarians as the front line of literacy leadership. “It’s important to raise awareness of what culture of literacy looks like in a school, and librarians are up there alongside principals as resources.”

Some things never change

In addition to those surprising differences in this latest report, Craig Post also noted consistencies over the years. Early literacy, parent engagement and teacher professional learning and development are subjects that are regularly specified as worthy of attention. “Those needles aren’t moving, so clearly we need to be doing more and putting out information, finding out how [these areas are] evolving,” she says

A reality check

Now that the ILA has these findings, the question becomes: what will the organization do with the information? “The beauty of this survey is that it allows us to look across data, and we feel a great responsibility to communicate what we found out and urge others to do the same,” said Craig Post. “We [as a field] still are not good at getting what we know, which is derived from research, into the classroom, nor are we [really] good at explicitly making that connection for our teachers. There’s a disparity between research and practice.” To that end, a subgroup in the ILA is conducting deeper research based on the survey results.

Ultimately, Craig Post thinks the survey can show where more research is needed and can spark discussions about literacy that are necessary, albeit nuanced and difficult. “It gives us a reality check,” she said.

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