Surveying the shifting landscape of literacy
The good news is that reading among youth in Canada is not on the decline, says Margaret Mackey, a U of A expert on literacy and recipient of a Killam Annual Professorship.
“Kids are doing tons and tons of reading and writing, probably more than they ever have,” says Mackey. “In Canada the statistics show that book reading is holding steady with about a third [being] avid readers, a third non-readers and a third who could be persuaded to read if they could find a book that they liked.”
The professor of library science has made a career of examining literacy among young people and how it has changed with the multimedia revolution of the past two decades. For one thing, Mackey doesn’t see the proliferation of new media—from video games to texting to social networking—as competition with conventional literature.
“It’s quite a different picture if you think of it as ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or,’” she says, referring to a book-length study she is finishing on a group of undergraduates she queried about their interpretations after reading a book, watching a movie and playing a video game. She found the students could move between formats with ease and sophistication.
“Certainly they were very savvy in how they dealt with all these formats … they were very much at ease experimenting at being in an imagined world.” And yet she admits that ease with the various forms of expression technology allows doesn’t necessarily translate to depth of understanding.
In fact, despite their multimedia agility, students in her study still felt reading was the most valuable experience. Many were “quite ferocious in their defense of the pleasures of reading,” she said. “Most said that, when it comes right down to it, a good book will do more things for you than any other form so far.”
For that reason, and while she does appreciate emerging forms of literacy, Mackey considers herself a staunch champion of “extended reading,” or that which calls for “continuous attention beyond the kinds of flitting and browsing that are one part of many people’s daily experience.”
Crossing freely between disciplinary boundaries herself—mainly education, English and library sciences—Mackey has written three books and edited two others, one a four-volume anthology on media literacies. She has also written 15 book chapters, dozens of articles and served for 11 years as co-editor of the journal Children’s Literature in Education.
She is described by Ann Curry, director of the School of Library and Information Studies, as “a brilliant and thoughtful analyst of qualitative data who moves adeptly from the classic children’s books of the 1800s to the latest computer games when she explores media and subject preferences and the processes by which we acquire information.”
Mackey’s next project is a kind of excavation of her own reading history, what she calls an auto-bibliography or a “material study of the conditions in which one child achieved literacy.” She has collected the picture books, novels, school textbooks, United Church Sunday-school archives, television commercials and radio programs she consumed as a child while growing up in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
The study will be partly a challenge to the conventional reading memoir, she said, which is normally confined to books. Even in the 1950s, she argues, “people became literate in a much more complex and multi-faceted world than that. You look back and think kids just read then, but we didn’t. We had television and radio, movies and records. I’m hoping to look at myself in the middle of this huge web of support structures and inputs that were ideological as well as everything else.”
The Killam Annual Professorships were established in July 1991 to acknowledge the Izaak Walton and Dorothy Killam bequest. The award is granted to faculty members based on the quality of their scholarly activities such as teaching, research, publications, creative activities, presented papers, and supervision of graduate students.
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