The definition of literacy is changing. What once meant the ability to read text and construct sentences, increasingly includes the ability navigate web browsers, interpret computer icons and make sense of websites. This shift is changing how educators teach reading and writing, and Betsy Baker, an associate professor of literacy studies in the department of Learning, Teaching and Curriculum, is at the forefront of the classroom evolution.
For Betsy Baker, text messages aren’t only 10-cent charges on a cell-phone bill. They’re also a new form of literacy that could be used to support students’ reading development.
“Any way to engage students in reading and writing is important,” Baker says. "Once students realize that reading and writing can be used to communicate they gladly read and write. This includes text messaging and IMing."
Baker focuses her research on the integration of literacy and technology – two areas which are increasingly interrelated as the Internet becomes a mainstay in most American homes and classrooms.
“Studies on literacy say that socioeconomic status and student engagement with reading and writing have the biggest impact on literacy rates,” Baker says. “If engagement is a primary influence on literacy, why not use technology such as the Internet and cell phones to get students reading? It’s a wonderful opportunity to empower and engage kids through reading and writing.”
Baker got her start as an elementary school teacher in South Carolina, where she taught second-grade students for seven years.
“I taught students who were in their fourth year of school, but some of them couldn’t even read or write their own names,” Baker says. “That’s when I thought to myself, ‘I can teach 28 students each year, or I can teach 28 teachers each year and expand my influence.’”
Baker earned her master’s degree in reading education in 1990 and her Doctorate in Literacy Studies 1995 from Vanderbilt University and came to MU in 1996 to work in the department of Learning, Teaching and Curriculum.
Her work at MU both focuses on ways to utilize technology in the preparation of literacy teachers – such as Children As Literacy Kases (ChALK), a CD-Rom set of literacy case studies – and looks at the future of literacy.
“Most of the current research about the integration of literacy and technology revolves around what researchers call ‘new literacies,’” Baker says. “The concept is that reading and writing electronic texts is different from reading a book or a magazine. When reading a piece of fiction you might be tested on character development. On a website, it’s not character or plot that’s important, but the ability to skim for pertinent information.”
The evolution of ‘new literacies’ creates a conundrum for classroom teachers who are required to assess students’ reading and writing abilities on standardized tests. Preparing students for the future demands that teachers provide ‘new literacies’ instruction, but standardized tests don’t reflect that necessity, Baker points out.
“I think it’s an interesting collision of culture and school,” Baker says. “It’s very difficult to assess reading and writing abilities on a standardized test. Children should be learning to be Web editors, they should be learning new literacies. They should be learning to compose and post appropriate and meaningful web sites. But no new literacies are on a standardized test. So the question becomes, are we preparing students for 1995 or 2010?”
Baker’s upcoming research is set to make sure that students are prepared for 2010. She plans to investigate and define new literacies so that teachers can update their curricula.