Comparison of Digital Literacy Development

By: Christopher Ruckdeschel

The ultimate goal of education must be, in part, the production of individuals that after completing their formal course of study, continue to research curiosities that emerge in life and inquire with a spirit that not only aims at discovering the correct answer but one that searches for the foundational precepts that served to create the given subject of investigation. For truly this purpose, and not the mere accumulation of meaningless and disconnected facts, presents us the spring of education, that beautiful grafted apple tree that yields two types of fruit: the scientific method tempered with reason and the eternal ethical conversation informed by faith. These goals, however, are not the sole purpose of education for they require an examiner who possesses the ability to balance thoughts that appear as words and phrases, the skill to organize these thoughts effectively in a logical manner, and the proficiency to voice these thoughts in the way in which the surrounding society communicates. These powers are the central goal of literacy development. Clearly, as the mode of communication shifts and advances within a society, so too must the nature of literacy and, therefore, the instruction of literacy skills shift and advance. Our time is immersed in an age of rapid digital progressions and with these new technologies, comes the need to examine the nature of literacy development in childhood and adolescence and adjustments and modifications that must be made to encourage and refine the current methods of communication education so that students have the ability to effectively converse in our world.

As intimated in the introduction, the development of a thoughtful individual with effective literacy skills is dichotomous, containing interacting but separate entities. Vygotsky believed that "thought and speech have different roots in humankind, thought being nonverbal and language being nonintellectual in an early stage. But their development lines are not parallel - they cross again and again" (Schutz, 2002). As the child continues to grow, he/she "realizes that everything has a name, each new object presents the child with a problem situation, and he solves the problem by naming the object. When he lacks the word for the new object, he demands it from adults. The early word-meanings thus acquired will be the embryos of concept formation" (Schutz, 2002). Though these foundational developments occur generally before children reach school age, the keystone concept which fuels future development is clear: "Language is not merely an expression of the knowledge the child has acquired. There is a fundamental correspondence between thought and speech in terms of one providing resource to the other; language becoming essential in forming thought and determining personality features" (Schutz, 2002). Similarly, Piaget believed "cognitive development is facilitated by providing activities or situations that engage learners and require adaptation" (Genetic Epistemology, 2003). With these theories in mind, it is clear that the nature of the literacy development activities both at home and later at school impact not only the skills that develop but also the very nature of the student's thought.

In school, as illustrated by both national and state ELA learning standards, students continue to develop the literacy skill education that began in the home. In childhood, students develop a tiered understanding concerning the function of language that follows the following general order: understanding of the structure and function of language to create meaning, manipulating one's own language to improve the focus of the message, organizing ideas in a logical manner, evaluating other's work for further analysis of word use and logic, as well as, for social interaction practice. Generally, the NYS ELA learning standards support these four categories essential to a child's literacy development. Standard 1 states that "students will collect data, facts, and ideas; discover relationships, concepts, and generalizations; and use knowledge generated from oral, written, and electronically produced texts" (Learning standards for English language arts, 2003). In greater detail, the national ELA standards provide specific strategies and actions young children will take in their manipulation of language for meaning: students will "rearrange words, sentences, and paragraphs to improve or clarify meaning; varies sentence type; adds descriptive words and details; deletes extraneous information" (Language arts standards, 2003). Clearly, the importance of comprehending the meaning of a text is present in this standard, in addition to the emphasis that is placed upon the later communication of the text's meaning. Accordingly, Standard 4 says "students will use oral and written language for effective social communication with a wide variety of people" (Learning standards for English language arts, 2003). Further, the national ELA standards reveal that students will "ask questions and make comments about writing, help classmates apply grammatical and mechanical conventions," as well as, "incorporate suggestions from peers and teachers" (Language arts standards, 2003). From this, it is apparent that the development of social skills and an understanding of the subtleties of interactions involving criticism are important literacy skills. Even though childhood literacy development is vital to continued literacy growth, young students do not engage in literacy activities that are intellectually demanding when compared to logical and abstract literacy tasks present in adolescence. This phenomenon has been described as being composed of "three categories of writing based on the degree of intellectual demand, the extent to which composing was a central concern, and the complexity of the discourse" (Cairney et. al., 1998). The three categories are: "handwriting, transcribing, copying; short answer pieces and note making; extended discourse" (Cairney et. al., 1998). These findings are supported by the theories of Piaget. Piaget believed that before age twelve, thought was characterized by illogical egocentric notions, which entails the child viewing the world from only his or her own perspective (Feldman, 1996). Conversely, after the age of twelve the adolescent begins to develop both logical and later abstract thought (Feldman, 1996). Interestingly, this transition in cognitive linguistic ability is coupled with the changes that result when students leave elementary school and enter middle or junior high school and the change of instruction that comes as a result of teachers moving from providing instruction in many content areas to those who specialize in one concentration.

The conversion from elementary school to the upper levels is multi-faceted. In addition to the organization of schedules, increased and more complex social pressures, and physical changes, students have many challenges to surmount in order to continue the development of literacy skills. One alteration that exists outside of elementary school involves the predominance of teachers who concentrate in one content area: "secondary students tend to regard their teachers as experts in their field, with specialist knowledge to impart. Correspondingly, secondary school teachers, apart from those in the English faculty, were less likely than their primary school colleagues to foreground their role as teachers and models of literacy" (Cairney et. al., 1998). This truth means that when students begin receiving assignments involving mental tasks of greater difficulty and complexity, their literacy instruction contracts to the interaction they have with one teacher. Dependent upon the English teacher's ability to convey that the complex literacy skills learned in English can translate into the communication outputs present in other subjects, students may have difficulty generalizing and thus creating literate work in other subjects. Moreover, with the compartmentalization of literacy skills, teachers may favor certain literacy endeavors more than others: "the literacy practices of schools may in fact privilege certain academic procedures and randomly promote certain social expectations" (Cairney et. al., 1998). This insight comes to the forefront in later years as students begin to spend larger amounts of time with friends and with technology.

It is clear that a great transition has occurred in the literacy activities of American youth. "Results from a national survey suggest that in 1999, children between ages 2 and 17 were spending approximately 1 hour and 37 minutes per day using the computer and/or playing video games, about 24 minutes more than 1998" (Subrahmanyam et. al., 2000). In addition, "children and teens frequently use home computers and the Internet for their schoolwork, and parents generally believe that computers are an important educational resource" (Subrahmanyam et. al., 2000). Likewise, "among teens ages 13 to 17, schoolwork has surpassed games as the most frequent online activity" (Subrahmanyam et. al., 2000). One study noted that "attention to literacy development in the transition years will not only assist students educationally, but can help them make sense of the transition process, serving to encourage confidence in the present, and understanding of coming life situations" (Cairney et. al., 1998). This statement possesses a great deal of truth if taken to mean that literacy educators can help students better understand the digital world around them as they become more independent by encouraging and refining the digital communication skills that they need to participate in both social and educational interactions successfully. Schools, however, that focus on traditional literacy skills, thus ignoring digital literacies, hurt their students due to the lack of applicable skills. "Educators of new-century schools . . . need to examine nonschool literacy practices to find connections between local literacies and the dominant, academic literacies" (Morrell, 2002). Considering the wide spread use of technology for communication purposes among children and adolescents, an examination of the benefits of technology on students are appropriate.

Recent research indicates that time spent using technologies such as computers can benefit the development of students. "Playing specific computer games has been found to have immediate positive effects on specific cognitive skills, and the use of home computers has been linked to mildly positive effects on academic performance" (Subrahmanyam et. al., 2000). In the same way, the use of the Internet supports inquiry based literacy development. One innovation, known as "The Inquiry Page," allows students the venue to research and create authentic outputs: "users contribute to all of the various resources on the site, but more importantly they are its designers - through e-mail, electronic bulletin board discussions, and workshops" (Bruce, 2002). This inquiry-based foundation also offers students the possibility to explore beyond the pages of the school's books and beyond the school's walls. "Instead, they can use these as starting points from which to extend and refine their explorations" (Owens et. al., 2002). Another benefit of technological literacy development lies in the truth that critical literacy develops as students utilize information technologies. Critical literacy is the "ability to recast our thinking through metacognitive processes . . . [that] enable us to shift our mental modes of what is to what can be as we hone the skills necessary to differentiate between fact and opinion, examining extrinsic and intrinsic assumptions, remaining focused on the big picture while examining the specifics" (Langford, 2001). These very skills, so essential when considering the importance of critical thinking present in both the state and national standards, are encouraged in the use of technological inquiry because they are the foundational skills and actions required to conduct technological inquiry. With the freedom that such wide ranging research allows students, one researcher aptly noted that corresponding 'literacies of responsibility' must be tied to Internet research (Leu Jr., 1999). He explains, "As teachers, we need to assume new responsibilities for our students' safety. In addition, our students need to assume new responsibilities for the appropriate use of these powerful technologies" (Leu Jr., 1999). Though Leu notes that Internet filters and acceptable practice agreements may help students develop responsibility, it is important to remember that students need to develop a personal ability to sort through a variety of information and choose appropriate and relevant source material. This notion is supported by the national technology learning standards which state that students should "routinely and efficiently use online information resources to meet needs for collaboration, research, publications, communications, and productivity" and "make informed choices among technology systems, resources, and services" (Profiles of technology literate students, 2002).

Besides these general effects, the use of technology can aid in the development of age specific literacy skills. For example, "studies indicate that children who play [computer] games can improve their visual intelligence skills - skills that may provide them with 'training wheels' for computer literacy. Such skills may be especially useful in the fields of science and technology, where proficiency in manipulating images on a screen is increasingly important" (Subrahmanyam et. al., 2000). One research team discovered that pre-school aged children benefited and thrived when given the opportunity to develop skills through the use of computers: "the computer center can effectively encourage supportive scaffolding interactions among children as they work side-by-side to achieve the goals created by developmentally appropriate software" (Freeman, 2001). Another study reported that early use of educational software at home resulted in scores that were "significantly higher than other students on computer literacy tests" (Subrahmanyam et. al., 2000). Furthermore, studies of one after school computer program for elementary school students discovered "that children who participated in the program had greater advances in reading, mathematics, computer knowledge, following directions, and grammar and had higher scores on school achievement tests, compared with students who did not participate" (Subrahmanyam et. al., 2000). Another advantage of using technology in the development of literacy skills lies in its ability to offer resources and output opportunities to a variety of intelligence styles: "Using multimedia technology, [allows] smooth interaction with the computer by integrating touch, voice, music, video, still images, graphics, and text" (Literacy development, 1991). In a similar manner, in a longitudinal study of adolescent students, the researchers found "that the students with computers at home had higher overall grades and better grades in math and English than those without computers" (Subrahmanyam et. al., 2000). Through the work of multiple researchers, it is apparent that early interaction with computers helps younger students develop early literacy skills, as well as, prepares them for later success. With the use of the Internet and inquiry-based learning activities, older students have an authentic opportunity to develop literacy skill while advancing from logical to abstract thought, a process described by Jean Piaget (Feldman, 1996).

As one researcher described, "literacy could be described as the 'legal tender' of school and of society, the currency in which academic and social transactions take place" (Cairney et. al., 1998). The use of computers in education is widespread and becoming commonplace. The application of the insights and advances illustrated in the research will yield plentiful results. For example, by utilizing the interest and motivation associated with technology, preschool programs can extend their computer programs to focus not only on the development of digital literacy skills but also incorporate the contribution of Leu Jr., who proposed the notion of literacies of responsibility. As these young students begin to utilize the computer for education, they too must interact with the computer for moral development. This relationship is supported by the national technology learning standards, though it is currently mentioned only for older students: students will "analyze advantages and disadvantages of widespread use and reliance on technology in the workplace and in society as a whole" (Profiles of technology literate students, 2002). It is understandable that young students lack the moral development and mental capability to explore moral concerns with such detail, but with this limitation, there is still room for the introduction and dissemination of basic right and wrong concepts associated with computer use that may be present but currently unnamed in preschool computer programs. Also, the importance of the transitional period between elementary school and later education illustrates a gap in literacy education due to the reliance of the English teacher alone for the development of literacy skills. The Internet offers many inquiry tools, such as Webquests, which allow teachers to promote literacy skills while still focusing on content. This application could be a solution to the current discrepancy in instructional time between elementary schools and middle and high schools. Another example of future progress that through application could improve the state and effectiveness of digital literacy education lies in the task of diminishing the digital divide that exists in America. By efforts to offer all students more meaningful time using technology, we will produce a greater number of students ready to meet the challenges of the digital communication world. This, of course, is an issue greater than a simple comparison between those who have technology and those that do not have technology. For it is clear, that many teachers, through their absolute reluctance to engage with technology, rob their students of the opportunity to interact with modes of communication vital for their social and educational development. Finally, another modification that could enhance the technological literacy practices mentioned above centers in the fact that students possess a multitude of intelligences. By their very nature, computers and Internet applications and programs are multimedia and interactive. By continuing to add interaction and output possibilities, teachers will enhance the effectiveness of instruction and increase the amount of students meaningfully interact with the given curriculum.

Our time is one of bombastic technological advancement and with these new avenues of activity, it is clear that the literacy development of students in general and the specific literacy concerns of young students and adolescents are encouraged and refined through meaningful and authentic interaction with these digital offerings. One recommendation for the future of digital literacy development lies in the inherent need for our students to understand the reality of the existence of free will, and with that knowledge, possess the reason to make sound and caring decisions as they interact with and create the digital world in which we live. Hilaire Belloc succinctly states this notion: "The machine does not control the mind of man, though it affects the mind of man; it is the mind of man that can and should control the machine." Another recommendation, which stems from the first, is that as students are interacting with the whole world in their intellectual and social endeavors, they must remember the importance of the simplicity found in their own local communities and, centrally, the importance of the first community, the family: "The peasant does live, not merely a simple life, but a complete life. It may be very simple in its completeness, but the community is not complete without the completeness" (Chesterton, 2001). A final recommendation, one that may truly link all of the presented recommendations, concerns that basic notion found at the root of natural law. For in Creation we are confronted with the beauty and reality of existence. From this, it is clear that a static notion of good and evil is present. With the massive amount of information present within seconds of any student's request, we must be vigilant in reminding students that the number of differing views has no relationship whatsoever with the possibility of the existence of one correct view. To paraphrase Chesterton, simply because there are many horses in a race does not mean that one of the horses will not eventually win the race.


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