It's Read Across America Day -- Here's what our kids must know as literacy grows more complex

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What is literacy? We previously would have defined literacy using terms like reading, writing, speaking and listening and referenced the use of paper, pencils, books and telephones to communicate and disseminate information.

But these are just tools. Literacy is much more complicated, and it is growing more complex all the time. Today, mobile devices like cell phones and tablets are popular vehicles and they have transformed the way we define literacy, even in the last 10 years.

On March 2, many young children, their parents and teachers will no doubt celebrate Read Across America Day to honor one of our greatest authors, Dr. Seuss. But if he were to write his classics today, would they come in the form we know them best?

ILLITERACY IS A NATIONAL EMERGENCY UNFOLDING ACROSS AMERICA, AND IT'S ONLY GETTING WORSE

According to a recent report, around 77 percent of people in the U.S. own a smartphone. Consider for a moment the way we use them. We read online articles, connect with one another using social media, and we send and receive text messages. Yet, those messages can use text alone or include photos, a talking emoji or image, a video or music, or a meme or gif (an animated or static image). Validating someone’s humorous text or call can take a much more meaningful form using a combination of text, images, music or more. These are incontestably digital literacy additives that have been assimilated into our culture and everyday communication practices.

The combination of how we are able to combine visual and aural experiences into something that transcends a typical and more literal message inevitably shapes how we perceive and understand those communications. This is particularly important for teachers, students, and schools.

We use the term “21st-century literacy skills” as a means of describing the skill set that is and will be necessary for students to be successful in our society with a shifting characterization of what it means to be literate. Yet, it is impossible to deny the ways in which young people are embodying what that actually means in practice.

We now have to assimilate these digital literacy practices into our everyday lives and into the educational system. Yet, we know and understand that both traditional and digital literacy practices are important and there still needs to be a balance among them. Students need time, opportunities and support interacting with text, digital text, media, and multimodal artifacts. This is especially important because connecting in-school and out-of-school literacies has the potential to enhance learning and motivate students.

As we approach the birthday of Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, we should reflect on the ways we can develop both traditional and digital literacy practices to motivate learners.

Typically, for this celebration teachers invite mystery readers into classrooms for read alouds, create fun ways to connect kids with books, and just celebrate the act of reading. But, considering the changing definition of literacy and the need for digital literacy practices, parents should be involved too. This can be done in a multitude of ways.

One of the more inspiring ideas includes using video clips with both celebrity and famous authors enacting popular books through read alouds. Sites like Story Online have celebrity authors reading popular books, and the YouTube channel hosted by the Children’s Book Council similarly has read alouds conducted by authors of their own picture books.

Teachers can create QR codes that can be used in the classroom or sent home with students to share the experience with their families. Additionally, there are many videos that were created to add song and animation to popular picture books. Another way to motivate kids to read is through the use of videos. Sites like Every Kid Should See This and Wonderopolis contain videos about every possible subject and topic that would arouse a sense of wonder to learn more. They have the potential to serve as a catalyst to reading.

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Read Across America was established as a way to motivate students to read. But deeper than reading comes understanding and applying what is learned.

As we consider the ways we can do this, it might be a good time to incorporate a few digital literacy practices to help connect to all readers. It can also provide some unique opportunities to integrate digital literacy practices into our schools and homes. Our kids will certainly need them moving forward, as the definition of literacy is never complete.