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Greene: The New Literacy

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The United States Department of Education estimates that every year 19% of high school graduates matriculate without good reading skills. The statistics haven’t budged much in the past thirty years. But the definition of functional literacy has changed, and continues to do so, more rapidly than ever.

A hundred and fifty years ago, you were considered literate if you could sign your name. Since the nation was largely agrarian, a signature on a deed or bill was considered adequate. But society’s reading requirements have evolved.

Thirty years ago, it was determined that if you could write a check, address an envelope and read a bus schedule, you could survive. But the Internet has altered the literacy landscape like a tsunami. Now that 30 year old list of skills seems downright dowdy. People don’t often write checks, they bank online; they rarely write letters, they email or text. And with a GPS, you don’t even have to read maps.

Of course all this online activity presupposes an arsenal of high-end gadgets, which in turn requires some free cash.

What’s interesting is that it’s the older members of society who are now scrambling to increase literacy levels - digital literacy and social media marketing, in particular.

Justin Polnack teaches computer skills through Brattleboro’s Brooks Memorial Library. He says most of his students are women 45 and older. Their goals range from learning to use email to building an online business presence.

And if we are "to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level,” - which is the current Dept of Education definition of literacy - we’ll need to be able to handle the logistics of modern life online. After all, job searches, social security, Medicare and unemployment benefits will all soon be transacted via the Internet.

Patrick Ripley is the Director of e-commerce at the Vermont Small Business Development Center. The Center helps businesses develop Internet marketing strategies through grant-funded workshops and tutoring. At this point, Ripley says, even estimating Vermont’s computer literacy rate is very difficult. Which makes sense, since we don’t yet know which skills will be critical for success - either in the workplace or out.

Thirty years ago, the students who came to Literacy Volunteers all had specific reasons for wanting to improve their reading. Some didn’t want to get all their information from television, others wanted better jobs, or to read to their children.

One of the hurdles in becoming Internet proficient, is that many people don’t know what to want. Social media expertise? Programming chops? Website design? Online marketing? What, exactly, do we need?

It took public education more than a few decades to develop a literacy curriculum that started with the alphabet and ended with reading - say - John Steinbeck.

It will also take time to sort out the best strategies for teaching online skills, says Ripley, though he seems sanguine that we’ll figure it out.