We should not exclude computers from the literacy debate

24th January 1997 at 00:00
The recent letter from Alan Davis and Denyse Ritchie perpetuates the notion, so disastrously applied in the initial teaching alphabet debacle, that English orthography has a direct relationship with its phonology. English, like the earliest Arabic, is more of a notation to signal the associated spoken word than a phonetic representation. To fully represent the spoken language it would need a Byzantine system of diacritic marks such as that seen in modern Arabic.

A resource is now available to help children appreciate the extent to which letter-sound relationships in English are systematic. This is the "talking word-processor" or text-to-speech synthesiser.

These systems, with guidance from a suitably trained teacher, provide children with an environment within which to explore the relationship between the written and spoken language that is English.

Yet, I note, in the 15 years since computers entered schools, little work has been done on the use of text-to-speech (or speech recognition) as modern route to literacy. Similarly, I recall that computer programming was quickly banned. This is a pity, because the kiddie hackers of the early 1980s are now producing some of the best computer games in the world.

Does this signal an unwillingness in the educational establishment to come to terms intellectually with information technology. Do those who man our universities and write our curricula understand IT?

We conventionally associate the two characters of digital representation with the numbers 0 and 1, which we refer to as the binary number system. This is unhelpful. It is more helpful, and more accurate, to think of these two characters as the endpoint in the development of writing. As the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz pointed out in the early 18th century, you need at least two symbols to convey meaning. The computer, like the Morse code, uses just two. The binary system is not numeric but transalphabetic.

What really gives the computer its capability, and provides us with a new language capability, is the energy it employs. The computer can do things. In so doing it allows us, for the first time, to represent the doing of things. It provides us, for the first time with the capability to represent actions actively within the writing medium.

It is our thesis that the stored program digital computer at the heart of IT (just as pen and paper is at the heart of literacy) is a new instrument with which we may represent the world as we perceive it.

The new capability is not the digital multimedia we see at surface level. This is merely the colonisation of all media by writing. The new capability is that of representing verbs properly within the medium. It is this capability that "plays the notes" in music software, justifies text in desk-top publishing, sums columns in a spreadsheet, and makes a Logo turtle move to the instruction "forward".

It is our view that the new capability to represent verbs properly is a very great advance in our representational capability, larger than that from pictorial to alphabetic writing. If teachers are to apply IT appropriately within the curriculum, they will need to understand IT's nature. We accept that teachers who are experts at teaching within "pen, paper and mind" media will find a medium in which the "pen" has a mind of its own uncomfortable -for instance, the debate over calculators in maths.

However, we believe that it is essential that teachers (and curriculum developers) confront this challenge. It is essential, therefore, that teachers are introduced to these notions.

The esoteric arguments of grammarians and phoneticians, so often inflicted on teachers, may now be expressed, to the extent that the rules they propose are consistent, within the active teaching medium that is IT. How might we best teach literacy now that we can exhibit the relationship between text and speech within the medium? How do we teach sums now that addition is no longer the sole province of the mind but expressible within the medium?

Language has moved on. Is our education system capable of catching up or must we, like medieval clerics, reserve the new medium to serve the old - in their case writing as an aid to memorisation?


Honorary chairman of LogoS 37 Bright Street Skipton North Yorkshire

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