Reading, writing, ‘rithmetic and te reo Maori, we have come a long way from that foreign country of 50 years past where as L P Hartley observed, they did things very differently.
As we celebrate Maori Language Week we’re also hearing year 10 (fourth form) students are flunking new NCEA literacy and numeracy tests. Stuff asked the question: are they too hard – and provided links so we could test ourselves.
In “our day” a reading comprehension question would never have involved checking understanding of a social media thread, or how to interpret which Google search engine result might best fit a query, or whether the purpose of a text was information or advertising – things which were once clearly established by the medium. In our day graffiti scribbled on a toilet wall was the closest thing to a social media thread, the research often began with a question asked of a librarian while information or advertising was easy. Advertisements actually said they were advertisements. Of course, in our day, reading comprehension was of good writing. Today’s readers are interacting daily with the semi and sub-literate in a downward spiral of formality.
So yes, very different, certainly, but not harder.
The very simple math was posed as questions to answer rather than equations to solve, so needed a level of literacy unnecessary in our day.
If our young are failing these tests, then we have failed them at a time when the ability to read is more important than it has ever been.
For earlier generations literacy was a nice to have – it gave access to books, magazines and newspapers – handy for leisure and learning but not necessary for daily life. You could work, marry, raise a family, and live a successful life without being able to read. Jobs were paid in cash, you could take that cash to a bank, or put it under your mattress. At the bank or the shop there was always a person who understood the lay of that particular land. You just told them want you wanted, peeled a note off the pile and gave it to them. Same with your mortgage or rent. If something needed writing, a clerk would write it for you and if it needed a signature they would point to the line where you scratched your name, or a cross.
Today if you can’t read, the websites where so much of our communication and increasingly shopping is done, are gobbledygook; interacting with WINZ or IRD (who famously once had a sign in the Invercargill Office directing customers away from the counter and towards a phone in the corner) becomes more difficult, trending to impossible; what about trademe, marketplace and messenger? The security questions on your bank account, the explanations for the money moving in and out of your account. Those who can’t read are marginalised in a way the semi-literate have never been marginalised before.
This is not a zero-sum either/or scenario. It is always our challenge to shape a better future so let’s make that future a highly literate multi-lingual one.