by Brian D. Sadie / 10 April 2013
Reading and writing are difficult tasks for many, even those who excel at them. Writing is especially trying because it draws on more parts of the brain than just about any other activity. Yet, over the last decade, popular demand for published books has increased even though publishers and educators have noted a sharp decline in good, proficient writing: far more errors appear, even in published books, than ever before. Despite the difficulty of writing and, for a significant portion of the country, mature reading comprehension, blogging and internet publications have sprung up by the thousands over the same period. With the apparent decline in language arts knowledge, an increase of bad editorial practice in news and publishing, and great public emphasis on instruction of maths and discrete science procedures at the expense of language instruction in school, how can we help teenagers become truly literate?
That depends on expectation and what literacy is deemed to be. Literacy means the ability to read and write competently. Not half-way, not poorly. Understanding what is read and knowing how to write correctly and well are assumed. Unfortunately, many today promote notions heedless of critical thinking, comprehension, and clear communication, and literate means to some groups that an employee can throw images and a few words into a PowerPoint report or post an amateur video. In that world, language – spoken, written, and implied – is frequently hackneyed at best, garbled as the lack of thought or comprehension giving rise to it.
That can cause difficulty for teenagers because, for all they might otherwise say, they take their cues from adults. Parents can have a great advantage and opportunity to lend a deft but influential hand during this pivotal time. A judicious use of technology may help, but remember that fun triggers the spark of inspiration. When teens are happy, enjoying themselves and those around them, they are both receptive and giving. With friendly parental guidance, improved literacy and critical thinking may often follow.
Great literature and fun stories are still at the top for improving literacy, but don’t overlook the newspaper. I know that loads of people no longer bother reading news, or even what passes for it online, but I experienced something wonderful one day while reading a quality newspaper and it has proven valuable in the long term. My then-eleven and fourteen year olds were talking about American political parties and some prominent politicians. They saw a headline in the New York Times on the table and laughed at a cover of The Economist. A few moments later, they commented and joked that today’s better comedic talent and late-night hosts were more intelligent and articulate than nearly every politician and provided better analysis and commentary than all but the best of professional news people, at least the ones on television.
Figuring they’d responded according to an adult-like skepticism and basic assumptions about the people and situation mentioned, I asked if they’d understood the full meaning of what they’d read. They admitted they hadn’t, and a wonderfully engaging, multi-disciplinary yet tightly focused discussion followed. Among other things, we spoke about culture, politics, language, meaning, reading methods, and critical thought. We covered judging other people, even prominent public figures, especially when one has little knowledge or understanding of them or the circumstance in which they operate. I let them know that, no matter the type of writing or reporting, there is always space between lines and much, sometimes important, falls through or is kept from the non-critical or even best-intentioned but still mostly-uninformed reader.
So I explained implication and reading between the lines. We delved into context, vocabulary and nuance, the roles and types of sources, personalities, history, and political thought. After a little guided line-by-line critical reading and a few more questions, they realized that they hadn’t understood the background to the headline and opening when they’d first mentioned the article. So it is that knowledge of several things enables greater understanding of many other things, and that leads to literacy. Language is more than words strung together: it represents thought, or the lack of it, but it always emerges from a cultural, quite human, place. There are often multiple levels to even simple prose, as thoughtful readers of the best work of Hemingway know. Sometimes a writer might not have thought what the reader takes from the work but that’s part of the process, too. Awareness, experience, and erudition inform critical inquiry and facilitate the understanding we may consider fluency. Nuance, shade of meaning, is king but such things as heartache, irony, sarcasm, and derision aren’t typically or readily identified with formatting or other markings: they are understood according to the literacy of the reader or listener.
These lessons apply to everything and can be reinforced daily, even with banter. Reading is marvelous, including aloud in a private or family performance, and helps with writing, too. Discussion of a piece can inspire a lifelong love of such activity and learning, of language, inquiry, and expression. Writing often emerges as an enjoyable means for teenagers to think and express themselves and can lead to performance art. A touch of correction during a story revision stays in the mind because, when enjoying themselves, teens are quite receptive. The same is true of learning different voices: reading aloud a letter from another era invites questions about the way of speaking, of dialect, accent, culture, history. These paths for enlightenment open easily when relaxed and happy.
Learning, inspiration, creativity: They go together and lead to real literacy, which allows independent thought. Combining a deft personal touch to parental, educational aims helps one’s rapidly-developing teens become well-informed, intellectually capable adults. Just having good things around is often enough: no need to push! One day a book comes off the shelf and voila! A new path appears, or perhaps a previously blocked one opens. Parents should feel free to inspire with great works and performances. They should provide a breadth of quality material and personal insight to help their teens make sense of today’s ubiquitous media bombardment. The questions, discussions, and activities that result become something magical: treasured memories. Those moments can be wonderful for you both and, among other, quite important, things, will help your young ones become truly literate through understanding, or at least appreciating, the human condition.
A version of this article appeared on 12 April, 2013 in TeenLife at