The changing face of literacy

(File pix) Reading is all about meaning-making.

IN Alberto Manguel’s bookA History of Reading (1996), the image of Gustav Adolph Hennig’s painting titled Reading Girl was selected as the illustration on its cover. With her eyes downcast almost to seem shut, the Reading Girl appears to be absorbed in a book. She cuts a familiar figure to portray the quintessential lone, almost motionless reader.

However, this image does not do justice to the complexities of reading. In fact, in his work, Manguel traces the human history of reading to demonstrate how it has changed over the centuries.

This has important implications for how reading, literacy and education are conceptualised in modern times.

In Malaysia’s post-14th General Election era, where political, social and economic changes are expected, her citizenry is optimistic about reforms that are expected to take place.

Particularly, Malaysians wait with bated breath to see how educational reforms will occur and anticipate how these reforms will affect their schools and students.

One area in which reform is much needed lies in the way reading and literacy is defined in the Malaysian educational landscape. Reading, defined by its basic function, means sounding out a written word or character, usually from a page of a book.

Yet, even as longitudinal, historical research reveals the changing face of human literacy, there is still a tendency in Malaysia to regard reading in narrow terms.

Taking the Malaysian context as an example, one can draw the conclusion that students experience school literacy largely in terms of its function. This is because students read in order to perform assessments.

In and of itself, this outcome is necessary and much lauded because basic literacy is to be expected.

In fact, this may have resulted in our present national youth literacy rate being recorded at an impressive 98 per cent. However, it may not have been sufficient to inculcate the love of reading in young Malaysians.

In trying to address this, the Education Ministry implemented the Nadi Ilmu Amalan Membaca project in national schools almost 20 years ago.

Still ongoing, the project rewards students for being widely read. Students are asked to keep a record of the books they read in a year. Details of book authors, number of pages read, name of publishers and book synopses are logged in.

While this project must be commended for its good intent, the act of rewarding reading through a narrow definition of what reading means could serve to discourage the formation of intrinsic reading choice.

This may also lead to some types of reading material being given more importance over others.

Even in young adults, the experience of reading is impossible to pin down. A collection of cross-continent research in a book entitled Young People Reading shows not only the surprising ways in which young people across the globe make meaning with multiple forms of texts and contexts, but advocates for why there be no boundaries in the first place .

The many in-depth studies in the book tell of the myriad ways in which young people choose to make meaning through multiple mediums in spite of external and often powerful impositions.

As such, today’s cutting-edge research in literacy proposes that traditional notions of reading should give way to new ideas about meaning-making.

Instead of thinking of reading as being about decoding words, it is more useful to understand reading as being about meaning-making.

This means that whether a child feels fear when reading words off a page of a horror storybook or understands that a bead of sweat on a comic character’s forehead denotes fear, it must be acknowledged that meaning-making has occurred

This new way of seeing literacy is important for our education system in terms of how teachers and students can co-create a potentially highly literate school environment, not by insisting on a narrow definition of reading, but by embracing new perspectives for how meaning-making can occur.

This can be done through collaborative efforts via school, community and even university partnerships represented on an infinite array of new medium, communicative platforms and creative technological methodologies.

By Dr Chong Su Li.

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