New literacy

I was just struck by how much my own definition of literacy has changed.  Maybe that isn’t exactly the right term.  But bear with me… I will explain.

As I sometimes do when I don’t find anything of interest in my Bloglines feeds, I looked at the education posts on WordPress.  I read one called Defining Literacy Today by Steve J. Moore.  He makes an interesting point:

I think that literacy has more to do with conveying and understanding ideas than with specific words, phrases, or concepts.

I liked that.

Then I decided to check out the post he linked to, The Vocabulary Crisis, by Jeffery Hill.  This post refers to an article on a news radio site about — you guessed it — a crisis in vocabulary.  That article, also called The Vocabulary Crisis and written by Dan O’Donnell, starts out:

The ABCs are apparently no longer as easy as 1-2-3.  Recent federal studies indicate that the average American teenager’s vocabulary is less than half that of the average teenager in the 1950s.

It goes on to talk about Princeton studies and quotes someone named Maria Corkern.  And then it hit me:  There were no links.  I could not check anything that was written there.  I was supposed to just believe it because someone said it was true.

I  searched for Maria Corkern to see what her credentials were.  I found her blog — a site to promote her book and speaking engagements.  She has a Masters in Education.  OK.  That is some qualification.  I found more info on something called RTIR Online.  It makes this rather startling statement:

Maria Corkern, teacher and reading specialist, says that our culture, in general, is dumbing down to the point where intelligent speech and writing may soon disappear.

Ignoring the attempt to scare people, there is still no link to her sources or even to when or where she said that.  There is no way for me to access  that information and  think critically about this “crisis”.

And that, to me, is the issue.  I may know all the words.  I may be able to read the text and understand it.  But if I am not offered references, I cannot begin to think critically.  And that is where new literacy comes in.   It isn’t enough just to read and accept; we have to be able to question and evaluate the information we are given.

So maybe everything Ms. Corkern says is true.  But I will never be convinced until I see some of those studies referred to in the news report from WTMJ, until I see some “facts” to support the opinions.

And I guess I was right with my title for this post.  I have a new definition of literacy.  And it has less to do with vocabulary than it does with thinking.


7 thoughts on “New literacy

  1. I feel in good company about my understanding of literacy. Thank you for responding to my post on such a vital and complex topic. I had hoped it would spark more conversation.

  2. “There is no way for me to access that information and think critically about this “crisis”.”

    Just because you can’t find the information by googling doesn’t mean you can’t find it. It may mean actually going down to the university’s research library and looking up sources, some of which may not be available to you online, and you’ll have to request a print copy.

    Not being on the free web does not equal nonexistent.

  3. This is some good critical thinking even if you couldn’t find links to round out your information. My husband and I have frequent discussions about the importance of teaching children to become critical thinkers. Their adult world will be so different than ours.

  4. I am Maria Corkern, the focus of the original blog in this discussion. I would like to address what has been written about me in this commentary.

    First of all, let me say that some of you who have responded to the original question of why I didn’t have links to back up my opinions were correct…it is not my position when being interviewed to insert this information. None of my interviewers, from coast to coast, has asked for the information. Second, most people listening to radio are in their cars and not able to remember links to websites. I’m lucky if they remember the name of my book! Last, I would assume you are educated and resourceful enough to research the topic if you needed to.

    It should be noted that the main goal of the interviews was to promote my book. However, I have seen a steady decline of vocabulary and critical-thinking abilities in not only the varying ages of my students throughout the years, but also in many of the teens associated with my daughter who is in high school. I also talk with middle-school and high-school teachers who encounter the same problems. You can watch any reality show or listen in at a local football game to get my point.

    I am concerned about this, naturally, as well as the United States’ decline in educational status worldwide. Regardless of statistics and opinions you can find in your internet searches, I have witnessed this decline myself and attribute the recent problem in the increase in social-media use. So, instead of complaining and doing nothing, I decided to start at the ‘grass-roots level,’ if you will, and attempt to initiate change.

    Not to say that I don’t use social media, and not to say that I speak like a college professor all the time when conversing with friends or even in interviews. But my intelligence does come through in these areas, as well as my ability to communicate effectively, because I have a foundation of a quality education. I have a choice how to communicate, and the lack of that choice is my concern with regard to many of our youth.

    One of the key areas in critical thinking, writing and reading skills begins with vocabulary development. In addition to standardized tests, schools nationwide are now tasked with assessing students in the discipline of writing. One way that students score well and communicate effectively is through higher-level vocabulary. A resource teachers often use is a thesaurus to assist students in finding synonyms that will give their writing deeper meaning and thus deeper understanding by the reader.

    As a teacher, I am always seeking what we call ‘trade books’ that reinforce lessons. I could not find a children’s book that explained how to use a thesaurus; only books that explained what a synonym is. Interestingly, I have had adults all the way to age 80 tell me that they didn’t know what a thesaurus was, or they comment that they only had to use them in high school or college. Well, the educational environment is much more demanding with difficult curricula dropped to the lower grades, yet our scores continue to decline.

    The statistics in the Radio & Television Interviewers Report were from a press release written and disseminated by my publishers’ media relations department. In addition, I have no idea where the radio interviewer got a Princeton research study. I have listed below links that might be helpful for you to read regarding what the ad states…the articles/research of which I am aware. However, I am well aware that for every piece of research regarding any topic you want to throw my way, I can find research that gives the opposing view. But, personal and professional experience, as well as my educational background/research/reading is all I needed to begin granting interviews regarding this subject.

    The point to the research which my RTIR ad cites is to make parents more aware of the vocabulary crisis in the US which has led to a decline in test scores, causing of feeling of low self-worth in teens, which in turn leads to limited opportunities as adults. I wanted to let parents know what they could do to turn this problem around.

    If I tell a child that he or she can be ‘all they aspire to be,’ then I feel I have to give them the tools to achieve their goals. If a child wants to be an attorney, a scientist, or if nothing else, a well-informed citizen who can make well-informed choices, they will have to be able to understand higher-level vocabulary. Such professions/areas do not dumb-down for the less educated people of society.

    Regarding communication, as one report states, I can answer a question you might pose with, “whatever” or I can say, “I am relatively indifferent”. Both convey the same message. But I know the person who says the latter statement is well-educated. That statement also lets me know that there is no ‘attitude,’ if you will, behind the statement. It just is a fact that then allows me to make a decision without worry of offending my friend. “The quote by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, on December 7, 1941, stating that it is “…a date which will live in infamy” is a lot different than … “a date that will live forever.” It is said that it took much deliberation to come up with the word ‘infamy’.

    So, going along with the logic that both communicate the same thing, some have said that understanding higher-level vocabulary is no longer needed. I ask you then, how are these students who are soon to become adults, going to able to read and comprehend historical documents if they don’t understand the words within? The same goes for learning cursive handwriting. Some would say it is no longer needed, yet some historical documents, speeches, etc., often written in cursive. I believe it is vitally important to get our youth to ponder the thoughts and ideas of knowledgeable people, both present and past, in order to form their own opinions. Is it too much to ask that we stretch the minds of our youth? Shouldn’t they be able to do the same one day for others?

    Research, specifically by Dr. Ruby Payne, as well as my personal experience in a variety of schools wherein I’ve taught 2nd-8th grade, shows that students in lower socioeconomic areas have a significantly lower amount of words in their vocabulary. This is a related, but somewhat different, aspect of my focus. However, it does tie in with all children and their vocabulary development.

    One of the best ways to increase a child’s critical-thinking skills, reading level, and writing ability is to have a print-rich environment wherein parents are modeling these things. It is undisputable that in an environment where parents have books, read a lot themselves, read to and with their children, discuss books and even world matters with their children, take them on ‘field trips’ that reinforce what they’ve learned in school, have/use library cards, help them learn how to write reports/thank-you notes/in journals, limit TV and video/computer games, etc., students do better in school. So this type of environment helps all children.

    However, in a poverty-stricken area where transportation to libraries is an issue, where there are often single-parent homes, where a book is hard to find, where TVs are babysitters, and where a parent has little time to talk about a child’s day or current events, let alone read themselves or to their children–the test scores, grades, self-esteem are usually low. And the pregnancy rate, violence, and drug abuse of teens tends to be higher due to this low self-esteem and lack of resources. Now, of course there are parents who have beaten the odds of their environment, but it is the exception rather than the rule.

    I hope this answers the original questions posed in this blog, and that you understand from where my concern for our youth of today comes.

    On my website,, I blog weekly with ideas for parents and educators. This has been helpful to many, and I hope it will be for you, as well.

    Here are some weblinks that may offer interesting information and research:

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