How are digital tools shaping family literacy?

Last week in my adolescent literacy development seminar, we discussed issues and literature related to family literacies. Toward the end of class, our professor, Doug Hartman, cited a landmark study by Victoria Purcell-Gates ( at UBC in Language and Literacy Education where I completed my M.A.) that focused on three kinds of texts in the home: trade books, coupons and the TV guide (citation below). Once, not that long ago, Doug recounted that he asked Dr. Purcell-Gates what the most significant texts in the home might be today and how those texts might shape family literacies differently. Though Dr. Purcell-Gates didn’t apparently have an immediate reply to the question, my colleagues and I took it up ourselves. With Doug’s prompting, we also expanded our discussions to consider how digital tools are shaping family literacies. Though speculative and grounded in personal experiences, these are my thoughts.

The single most significant and immediately obvious contribution that digital tools make to my family’s literacy practices is access to ideas. When my 5-year-old wanted to know how many venomous snakes there are in the world, we Googled her question. Turns out, there are over 600 (thank you, Wikipedia). We found facts, images and videos that captivated her imagination for weeks. When she wanted to know what a mummy was, we did the same thing. We discovered plenty of information about Ancient Egyptian burial, but we also learned about the excavation of mummies in China. It’s stunning to think that in seconds, my daughter can explore answers to every question she can imagine.

It seems that my daughter’s reading comprehension should never be limited by her background knowledge; she has immediate access to answers, and she knows it. “If you don’t know something, Mom, you should just go to the Internet,” she informed me, yesterday.  The Internet certainly has a prominent place in our family literacy practices. As we use it, I’m increasingly aware that my husband and I are scaffolding basic new literacies skills like questioning, locating and evaluating what we find too.  I wonder how other families use the Internet with their young children?

I also wonder how my daughter’s iPod Touch is shaping her notions of text. Certainly, we have shelves of storybooks in our home  as did the participants in Purcell-Gates’ study. We cherish our books but we also read digital stories with interactive characters that ask my daughter questions and with  images that leap off the page.  With a tap, she can also navigate to her music collection, or play the drums, or win points in a math game, or draw a picture or pretend to be a Jedi in a light-sabre duel with her dad. I wonder what the synergy of literacy, numeracy, art and entertainment in this tiny box will mean for her developing notions of literacy. Will these activities all seem different or more similar to her because they all live in her hand-held device?

Purcell-Gates, V. (1996). Stories, coupons, and the TV guide: Relationships between home literacy experiences and emergent literacy knowledge. Reading Research Quarterly, 31(4), 406-428. doi:10.1598/RRQ.31.4.4