Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Writing, Students, and the New Literacy

There are endless articles clamouring about how active participation in social media and social networking sites by students is eroding their writing skills, and how literacy - or a borderline illiteracy - is emerging as a societal concern. The Stanford Study of Writing offers some data and conclusions which outline a very different picture.

The Stanford Study of Writing was an extremely ambitious research project which followed a large group of students (approximately 12 per cent of the year's class, a pretty solid figure for deciphering trends)throughout their four years at Stanford and one year beyond. The study collected student submissions of their class writing / notes, in all disciplines, along with whatever they were willing to submit of their out-of-class or extracurricular writing - this included in-class assignments, formal essays, and journal entries to emails, blog posts, and chat sessions. The research team, headed by Professor Andrea Lunsford and Vice Provost John Bravman, also invited these same students to be involved in an annual survey, of which one-fifth agreed to participate. In the end, the research team collected circa 1500 pieces of student writing which is now digitally stored in an Oracle database and available via the Library archives for future scholars and study.

In a recent article and interview by Clive Thompson (Wired Magazine), Prof. Lunsford stated the following when discussing the issue of literacy concerns and the study's findings:
"I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization,"
One of the key bits Prof. Lunsford first identified from the data was today's youth write more than any other generation before them, and 38 per cent of it took place out of the classroom - on blogs, Twitter, social networks, IM platforms, basically any virtual space where they do what consumes most of their online time - socialize. And what was most surprising was that the study found the writing, the technique, was quite sophisticated,
"Lunsford's team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago."
If you have a chance read Clive Thompson's article and pay a visit to the Stanford Study of Writing, both worthwhile.