Literacy nowadays means so much more than it used it in previous times, in terms of only reading and writing. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution under way, the definition has broadened.
That is what Dr Mona Aljanahi, instructor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the United Arab Emirates University’s College of Education, focused on in her research Exploring the Rhizomatic Literacy Practices of UAE High Schoolers.
“I researched the literacy practices of high school students in the UAE,” she explained. “I was looking into a term that is called adolescent literacy and, with it, we usually examine their literacy practice inside the scope of school but also outside, such as the kind of books and websites they read and visit, as well as social media, because all of that feeds back into what they do in school and vice versa.”
She looked at what students did outside and inside of school, analyzing the presence of any spaces in which those two seemingly different practices merge. “What students do inside the school doesn’t necessarily replicate what they do out and vice versa,” Dr Aljanahi said. “I found that sometimes, there is something called a third space where you find instances in which both practices merge with each other.”
She gave the example of topics discussed in physics class by students. Teachers can ask students to research any topic they find interesting within the realm of physics, which leads to students researching information on websites and finding topics they find interesting to bring back to the classroom. These can include gravity, issues that have to do with the black hole, or others that are not necessarily covered by textbooks but related to them. “One of the things we find is that there is a lot of research conducted within childhood,” she noted. “How they form their phonetic abilities, how to get them to decode, and on the other side we find literacy research that has to do with adults, especially those who haven’t gone through a form of schooling, and how they became literate past their 30s or 40s.”
However, findings revealed a lack of research within the literacy of students who are in the middle, such as teenagers. Dr Aljanahi explains this is because people usually assume that, because students passed the early education stage of their schooling, they already formed a literacy practice. “But it’s an ongoing practice,” she added. “We constantly learn how to critically think, how to write, understand different texts we see in front of us, and it becomes even more important today because, in the 21st century, being able to read and write isn’t enough, and you have to understand digital literacy, social media, critical and creative thinking, as all of these go into being literate in the 21st century.”
Her interest in the subject stemmed from a course she took in university during her PhD in language and literacy. The Culture and Literacy course and the relation between them led her to understand that a person is not literate by virtue of him or her being able to read and write. “If a 57-year-old got lost in a village in a new destination where people did not speak English, they might be able to read and write but if we compare their literacy abilities with their 10-year-old son, we look at who has the ability to find their way back,” Dr Aljanahi concluded. “It’s always the younger people because they have digital, social and functional literacy.”
She is now working on an extension of her dissertation, which was published in September 2018 in a scopus-indexed journal called Journal of Literacy Research and Instruction.
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