Literacy in the digital age – A series of posts (part 1)

Literacy in the digital age – A series of posts (part 1)

Literacy in the digital age – A series of posts (part 1)

Pictured:  Sculpture “The Book and the Written Word” by Boris Zaborov, at the Technion. Photo by Dr. Avishai Taicher, from the PikiWiki website.

About 60 years ago, in 1965, Avraham Shlonsky wrote the Hebrew version of a well-known tale, entitled Utzli-Gutzli (he also gave it, for the first time, a Hebrew name – the original was, of course, Rumpelstiltskin). The language of the translation was rich and intricate, the dialogues were written in rhyme and included sophisticated word plays. When the play was adapted by the Cameri Theater for presentation to children, the production staff were concerned about the high level of the language. They feared that children would not be able to understand the language used, and that, as a result, the play would flop.

Shlonsky adamantly refused to modify the text or to “simplify” it, so that it would be more appropriate for children; he insisted that children would actually understand it well. And, indeed, the children did not disappoint him – the play was a resounding success, both with the public and with the critics.

In 2002 the Cameri again staged the play (over the years there had been other versions, but this was the most recent), and again the theater management wanted to modify the play’s language and adapt it to today’s Hebrew, out of the same concern that children would not be able to understand the language used. This time it was the play’s producer, Roni Pinkovich, who insisted on keeping the original language. Remarkably, this time too the children did not disappoint; this production also achieved great success with audiences.

I had been aware of this story for many years, since I first read it in the press when the curtain rose on the last performance of the play. The moral of the story, in my view, is that there is no need to be afraid of setting a high standard for children; they have a lot more intelligence, understanding and skill than we often credit them with. A sure-fire way of making them succeed less, or even impairing their understanding and skills, is to lower our expectations of them.

As part of my work, I develop content for study units used by school students. I often experience the same feeling when any time I write a page full of text – even if it is aimed at students in junior high school or above – everyone around me protests: How can you expect students to read so much? It’s impossible to maintain concentration for the length of such a page! And you haven’t even included video clips or pictures!

I understand and appreciate the advantages of the digital world. I have no problem with computers; I too am a consumer of a great deal of internet-based content. But the drastic transition by all of us to reading from the computer, and particularly the clear direction being adopted – justifiably – by the Ministry of Education, to integrate and deploy technology in the classroom, require us to stop and ask a number of important questions, principally – what literacy skills do we expect of children in the Digital Age?

The digital world is obviously directed at short, focused reading, and even shorter and more focused writing. But is it right for us as teachers, educators, policy makers, to give students a “free pass” on traditional reading and writing, such as reading a novel or writing an essay? Should we accept the status quo as the inevitable (and perhaps even not undesired) consequence of progress, or should we fight back and insist that children not lose these skills?

And if we indeed want to preserve these skills, how exactly do we do so?

In the following parts of this series, I will attempt to offer a range of answers, or, more correctly, thoughts on these questions. For the moment, to avoid any protests, here is a short video clip – the opening scene of the play, as performed by the Cameri in 2002. Enjoy.



By: Tamar Haramati