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Navigating literacy in the 21st century

All texts matter - whether they are in a book, on screen or in comic format

Traditional definitions of literacy must be exploded for children to get the most out of reading, according to a world-leading expert.

David Booth, chair of literacy at Canada's Nipissing University, believes "reading" in educational circles too often refers only to novels, thereby disregarding equally valid texts which children enjoy more.

While commentators bemoaned the indifference of pupils to books which formed part of curricula, the same pupils were immersed in graphic novels, magazines, films, joke-telling and websites.

Literacy in the 21st century, he added, was not just about the ability to read, but the ability to navigate new technology; while older people might take great pleasure from leafing through a book, a teenager today could get the same satisfaction from scrolling through an iPod.

A reader is "one who manages texts in its different forms", Professor Booth told the National Literacy Conference in Glasgow this week.

Yet an old-fashioned notion of reading was proving difficult to escape from. He recalled an occasion when he was crossing from Canada to the United States and told a border guard he was going to a conference on reading. "That's what rich people do," sniffed the guard. Reading was often viewed as being for those with more money and time than the average person; understandably, he explained, given the narrow definitions of literacy and reading which persist.

He once found himself in an airport departure lounge where an ice hockey team was milling around. Professor Booth spent three hours observing the team and found they all passed their time doing the same thing: reading. Some read page-turning novels, some were on their laptops, one read his teammates a newspaper report of a match they had played. "People describe themselves as non-readers, yet they read tons and tons of text," he said.

Schools should not force children to read books they cannot relate to. Instead, they should find a way to work with what children enjoy reading. "All texts matter," he said.

The "new literacies" were about helping students see each form of text as relevant to them; there should be no exercises which had little or no significance to their lives. Teachers should worry less about the form in which a text arrives before them, concentrating instead on how people interact with it.

Teachers also had to overcome the widespread "great fear of anything new and different". Acclaimed graphic novels such as Alan Moore's Watchmen and Art Spiegelman's Maus - which won a Pulitzer Prize - had started to expand the notion of worthwhile texts, but this should extend to include more ephemeral forms of text, such as email.

Teachers had to be open to a new, broader world of information where "learning floods you", he said: "The thing about teaching today that's so thrilling, is that you don't need a manual."

Professor Booth, a former classroom teacher, stressed that he was not advocating free rein for children to read anything. A balance had to be struck between what children wanted to read and what teachers wanted them to read; negotiation was crucial.

Schools, he added, were ideally placed to help children navigate a potentially overwhelming range of texts: "We have never been more necessary than today as educators."

Professor Booth, who is also scholar in residence at Toronto University's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, spoke at Towards Excellence: Developing Capacity in Literacy, organised by Learning and Teaching Scotland and HMIE.

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