5 Tips For Teaching Literacy In The Smartphone Era
Syda Productions/Shutterstock.com

Literacy In The Smartphone Era: 5 Strategies To Help You Teach It

Though it may be considered old-fashioned or out of vogue, it is critical that educators work to expand students’ attention spans and ability to concentrate on multiple passages of text for long periods of time without getting distracted by smartphones, laptops, or iPads.

We must explain this uncomfortable truth to our students: Reading can be extraordinarily difficult. Reading at the secondary, post-secondary/undergraduate, and graduate level often requires hours dedicated to sitting and reading quietly and without distractions—mobile devices, televisions, computers, social conversations, or otherwise.

However, we also need to help students navigate the real world where mobile devices are ubiquitous and there is no principal, teacher, or parental/guardian figure there to tell them how to use their time.

Here are a few strategies for getting around this conundrum.

1. Remember That Literacy Is Multi-Faceted

It’s important to remember that children learn how to read by being surrounded by books, but that there are many forms of engaging with books and literature. Dee Dee Chowdhury utilizes many different techniques for getting children to love books, including translating passages into different languages, reading poems together, making a puppet or book theater, listening to audiobooks, and creating a classroom or family newspaper.

Older students enjoy creating blogs and websites, writing scripts for collaborative home movie adaptations of texts, and illustrating stories and poems in the form of zines and comic books. It’s important to remember that reading can be fun, and the more fun students are having, the more likely they will be motivated to learn on their own. The assignments must be both challenging and accessible for the "zone of proximal development" to be enacted.

Since literacy is cumulative, the more children use their brains for reading-related activities, the more information is understood and taken in by the brain to be used later. It may help to think of brains as made up of neural pathways with new neurological tunnels being dug every second.

2. Utilize The Power Of Positive Reinforcement

Our brains are capable of extraordinary things, provided we teach them well. According to Top Health Today, "There are some things we can do to ensure that our memories are working optimally. These are of course things like sleeping well, exercising, and using our brain so that it gets plenty of practice and experience". Memory, therefore, is like plastic: Neuroplasticity means that neurons are firing off, every minute. This means we can harness the power of neuroplasticity and the forging of new neural pathways when we sit down to read a book or listen to an audio recording of a book being read to us as we follow along.

Smartphones can be integrated into the study experience by allowing students to play white noise, for example, while reading in the corner. Readers who are easily distracted need quiet nooks where they can get their work done without distractions (both at school and at home). Mobile devices may also be accessed for positive reinforcement as part of scheduled break time. If students are encouraged to finish a chapter before taking a technology break, will they be more likely to read that chapter?

Smartphones, iPads, and laptops can be highly motivating for all students, and teachers can harness this motivational power for all kinds of projects: video creation (Shakespeare, anyone?); audio for poetry, speeches, and presentations; and iPads for collaborative online research. Many instructors incorporate designated iPads with browsing limits to social media access and other sites not deemed educational. Students are encouraged to utilize them for classroom assignments involving technology.

3. Allow Selective Use Of Mobile Devices

Meghan Bogardus Cortez points out that 21% of schools have a bring-your-own-device policy, arguing that smartphones can “enhance learning and support curriculum”. if implemented wisely. Practical tools like Google calendar apps with built-in reminders, as well as apps that can be used to collect and analyze data, or utilizing Twitter feeds to engage in classroom discussions around reading assignments, are helpful—not harmful.

In fact, a policy that completely bans the use of smartphones from the classroom is ignoring the fact that smartphones are simply a part of most teenagers’ lives, now. Is it better to ignore their existence or to selectively implement them for educational and digital literacy purposes? How else will students learn how to distinguish between trustworthy sources of information and legitimately ‘fake news’? That term, like it or not, is now part of the collective conversation.

How can we teach students to think critically and dismantle arguments that are factual or problematic—or worse, defying of all logic and rationality—if they aren’t taught the tenets of a sound logical argument or syllogism? If students aren’t allowed to look up words using a dictionary app or website, will they naturally defer to the dictionary collecting dust in the corner?

4. Control And Classroom Management

As educational policy analyst Matthew Lynch argues, if we model how to use mobile devices appropriately, we can establish clear expectations around what kinds of uses are appropriate and what are distractions. Others have found plenty of clever uses for Twitter feeds, such as homework assignment deadline reminders, and classroom assignment discussion platforms about literature, or other text-based questions.

Lynch also points out the importance of classroom management, when it comes to smartphone use—stressing the importance of being in control and making students aware of your presence by walking around the room, periodically. Rather than taking the time to collect smartphones at the beginning and end of class, try having students store their phones or other mobile devices in a small, personalized area of the room designated as the cubby, bookshelf, or cell phone locker area. This method also helps you avoid any privacy or property liability concerns.

5. Teach Digital Literacy And Critical Thinking

Maryville University cites a recent Payscale report discussing students’ readiness for the workforce after graduation. According to the report, rather than simply adding more technology, educators should create opportunities to "refine critical thinking skills, as well as soft skills like writing proficiency. Over half of surveyed managers felt that graduates lacked strong critical thinking skills".

However, the term 'soft skills' (offensive to the ears of most liberal arts majors, I know), implies that so-called 'hard skills' like coding or calculus are more necessary or important. In actuality, our society’s separation of different types of skills is a modern-day phenomenon—"Renaissance men" is what people with a range of skills used to be called. Emile Wapnick calls them 'multipotentialites', or people with many interests—also known as 'multipods'.

Final Word

Reading can be incredibly enriching, rewarding, and engaging. In an ideal world, reading and writing make us more empathetic, intelligent people who can think about ideas, situations, and circumstances more critically than we could this same day, last year. It’s not any one thing. There’s just no point in throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater, because mobile devices are here to stay.

Close