International Literacy Day: the shapeshifting of words

Every year, in an attempt to help improve reading and writing skills around the globe, UNESCO celebrates International Literacy Day on 8th September. For each of these annual events, they set a theme to discuss and explore. This year, the focus has shifted towards a distinctly 21st century issue: ‘Literacy in a digital world.’ So, whether you’re reading this on your laptop, phone or tablet, let’s have a think about how advanced technology has changed the way our students use and understand language.

Well, to begin with, in a world full of emails, tweets and instant messages, written skills have become arguably more important than ever. Whether we’re conducting business with colleagues and clients, or simply communicating with our friends and family, we’re nearly always typing out some kind of message on our keyboards and touchpads. As a result, it has become increasingly necessary that we’re careful and reflective about our word choices. When we’re relying on just written text, unaccompanied by facial expression or tone of voice, there’s plenty of space for misinterpretation. As the BBC highlighted in their article on ‘How to avoid writing irritating emails’, it only takes one callous word or sentence for an innocent message to become “accidentally rude.” For many, seemingly innocuous phrases like “for future reference” or “per my last email” can actually appear snarky or passive-aggressive, creating unnecessary tension in working and social relationships.

But this isn’t the only area of digital literacy we need to prepare our students for. As every educator knows, the rise of the internet has provided our learners with a whole new level of access to information and knowledge. What this raises, however, is the question of reliability. A quick Google search has the power to give you thousands of different answers to the same question, backed up by different sources of varying authority. By now, most students obviously know to stay away from easily edited sources like Wikipedia, but how can we teach them the critical literacy skills needed to spot more insidious factors like bias? With online news being constantly skewed to cater for the different beliefs of outlets like the Guardian or the Telegraph, we need to prepare our students to always question what they read.

When it comes to both these issues, the principle is the same: students must learn to understand the nuances of language. To do this, we have to go beyond pointing towards basic dictionary definitions. We have to show our classes that words can mean different things in different contexts, and that the same stories can be made to hold different messages through the use of different words. As David Hauser says, “Some words tend to occur in a certain context and that context bleeds into the word’s meaning. Those same words can frame our judgement.” In his example, he asks, “Why is it worse when someone causes work for us rather than produces work for us?”

In other words (haha), context is key. If we want our students to really thrive in a digital age dominated by different opinions and written texts, we have to use strategies and games that demonstrate how words shapeshift according to their surroundings. To me, this seems to be the key issue at the heart of digital literacy. Only when our students understand the many connotations of language can we finally start dreaming of a world free from “accidentally rude” emails.


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