The evolution of language and literacy

I have been longing to talk about reading, books, and literacy here on the blog for a long time now. After all, I’m a writer, and a former language arts teacher and Reading Specialist. But not so long ago, I felt like all I could talk about was skin care. Skin care and beauty will always have their place here at, but now it’s time to focus on my true love: all the many facets of storytelling (which includes, of course, the importance of reading).

I’ve noticed a fascinating trend* in youth over the past 10 years. During my years as a teacher, I found youth (from a very young age all the way up through the teen years) choosing smartphones and video games over books more and more often. (If you’re a parent, this probably won’t surprise you.) Many children genuinely have no interest in holding a paper book in their hands. If it isn’t on a screen, it isn’t worth their time.

When I first encountered this, I was shocked. I became a language arts teacher because I loved reading and I couldn’t wait to share the genius of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Morrison, Shakespeare, and Austen with my students. Of course, once I started teaching high school, I was a little frustrated working within the confines of very strict curriculum. Curriculum that, frankly, bored me. And if it bored me, I knew my students would be bored. I tried to jazz it up as best I could, but still, my students resisted every single assignment that required them to read – and in a language arts class, all the assignments required them to read.

It got to the point where every time I asked them to pull out their books, the entire room would erupt in one loud moan. Even when they were given time to read their own books, they resisted, tucking their phones into their books and texting their friends surreptitiously.

Why, I asked, again and again. Why this resistance to reading, which was (and still is) one of the greatest joys of my life? The answer I got, over and over, was that they hated the books that were chosen for them by school officials. Of course, I thought. That makes sense. Even as a passionate reader, I mostly hated the books I was forced to read in school, as well. Many students also shared with me that having been forced to read books they hated for so many years had given them an aversion to reading, entirely.

As my teaching career shifted, I found myself working with elementary-aged students who were struggling with literacy skills. They, too, had similar instructional circumstances as their older counterparts. They were given basal readers that they were required to read over and over (because many studies have shown that repetition in reading builds literacy skills and confidence).

Guess what? They hated it as much as the high schoolers hated reading Lord of the Flies.

Do they read at home? Not much, according to their parents (which contributes to their literacy challenges, by the way), even with the most well-intentioned parental guidance and effort.

I am both fascinated and troubled by this trend. Language and our interaction with language evolves over time. For instance, American English today has come a long way from American English of 150 years ago. Our languages will continue to evolve, of course, but today, we have an even newer factor at force in that evolution: code.

Technology is heavily influencing language. We have our text message acronyms which now pass for actual spoken words (even I catch myself saying “OMG!” from time to time) as well as other abbreviations and codes we have developed for the medium of texting. Then there is actual code. Make no mistake about it, technological coding (like HTML, CSS, etc.) is a language in itself, and more and more of us are becoming fluent or semi-fluent in these languages.

All of these factors will affect the evolution of our language – and how we interact with that language.

There is certainly some excitement to this. Though I admit I’m a bit of a neo-Luddite, I don’t believe that technology is all bad. Yes, I own a Kindle and I realize we must adapt with the changing times. It is important to meet kids within the world that they already live – not drag them back to 1985, when nothing excited me more than a trip to a Dalton Bookstore. Kids today live in front of screens, and as such, it’s our duty to meet them halfway. From my perspective, it seems like most kids have a smartphone these days – so why shouldn’t they have an e-reader, too? Yes, let’s give them the opportunity to read on their devices if that’s what it takes to get them reading.

However…I think it’s important to find a balance in this, as well. Though I don’t think printed books are on the road to extinction, it could happen. Ten years ago, I would never have believed CDs would basically become extinct and now I own only 5 - almost all my music is now in digital form.

Just in case, I think we need to hold on to the tradition of printed books. I think it’s essential that we teach children from a very young age the value and joy of holding a printed book in their hands. Take them to story time at your local library. Let them go to the store and pick out a new book more often than you take them to buy a new video game.

There are aspects of language and literacy that are going to evolve no matter what we do, whether influenced by technology or not. That’s a given in life. I think we can be mostly excited about what’s to come – there are amazing developments on the horizon.

However, I think it’s also important to hold on to the little things. The feel of real books in our hands. Flipping pages as we read. Closing a book and feeling its physical and emotional weight after finishing that last sentence. These are moments to cherish, moments we can’t experience with an e-reader.

Embrace technology, but don’t ever starve your home of real books. Make sure your children experience as much on paper as they do on their screens.

*Please understand that I’m writing this article entirely from my perspective and my observations from 10 years in the educational field working with hundreds of youth from the ages of 6 to 18.