The Death of Literature by the Digital Age

writing-research-brief383109052.jpgGood writing skills have been consistently eroding over the years, with social media escalating it into a crisis situation in recent years.

Technology appears to be courting the young ones intensely. This time it is Generation Z, the generation younger to the Millennials. “We are the first true digital natives,” the proud acclamation of an 18-year old college student, contradicts the generally accepted description of Millennials as digital natives.

What appears to be more alarming is the deteriorating attention span of this younger generation. “Generation Z takes in information instantaneously and loses interest just as fast,” is the observation of a teenager.  Dan Schawbel, managing partner of a New York-based consulting firm, said, “We tell our advertising partners that if they don’t communicate in five words and a big picture, they will not reach this generation.”

In the world of academics, this trend is creating grave concern. Teenagers may be reading more words now than at any other time in history, but more often than not, they read scraps, excerpts, articles, extracts from articles, messages and quotations from all over the place. In other words, their reading is not serious or memorable. What is read is not committed to memory, for there is too much information fed to the brain every few seconds. What is read is probably forgotten as soon as the screen changes.When smartphones lead to instant news that must be devoured instantly before it is replaced by some other titillating information, there is no time to savor the beauty of language or even the intricacies of nuances. In fact, teenagers don’t bother to focus on words at all, and acronyms only make a bad situation worse.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teens read for pleasure, on average, just six minutes each day. On the other hand, reading a book requires immersing oneself in the situation, becoming one with the characters and savoring each page as it is turned. This kind of reading is alien to digital natives who want to be simultaneously all over the place.

This leads to another problem – the lack of good writing among teenagers and young adults. As American writer, Gary Paulsen, said, “If you want to be a good writer, you’ve got to read like a wolf eats.” As professional writers know through experience, developing an extensive vocabulary is essential to becoming a good writer. And getting acquainted, and subsequently, intimate, with new words, requires a carefully cultivated habit of reading books.

On the other hand, when young people are constantly engaged with their smartphones, it becomes difficult to immediately switch from texting jargon to academic English for writing an essay or a paper. According to a recent report by Clarion University in Pennsylvania,Social media and text messages are “consistently associated with the use of particularly informal written communication techniques, along with formatting problems, nonstandard orthography, and grammatical errors.”A recent Pew Research survey of teachers around the country found that today’s digital technologies lead to middle school and high school students engaging in several academic wrongdoings, including using informal language in formal papers and plagiarizing. Furthermore, the survey also found that students are overwhelmed by the tasks of reading long texts and forming complex arguments

Therefore, information at the press of a button may not be the best option to grow an academic writer. In fact, A large number of educators and children’s advocates are concerned that the quality of young people’s writing is being consistently eroded by social media and all the negative qualities of instant communication. The Librarian of Congress Emeritus, James Hadley Billington, recently warned that this trend might be harming “the basic unit of human thought – the sentence.”

Meanwhile, , a professor at Arizona State University’s Teachers College, Steve Graham hasresearched for over three decades,  how young people learn to write. He found that even though reading is a critical factor to develop good writing skills, reading alone is insufficient. “Analyzing the text does make a difference,” he said. He also recommends conversations with kids about the author’s craft. In a similar vein, American author, Ernest Hemingway, once said, “Good writing is good conversation, only more so.”

However, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, 3/4ths of 12th graders and 8th graders in the US are not proficient in writing. Furthermore, 40% of high school students who took the ACT writing exam in 2016, did not have the reading and writing skills needed to complete a college-level English composition class.

The Common Core State Standards, which derive from an initiative begun in the US in 2010, detailing what K–12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the conclusion of each school grade, require students to be skilled in three types of essay writing – argumentative, informational and narrative. Despite this, many students get into college without a handle on even the basic writing skills. The deterioration of standards can be traced backed to the 1930s, when progressive educators focused the writing curriculum away from grammatical writing and correct spelling, toward diary entries and personal letters.

In a situation swiftly taking on crisis proportions, valiant efforts are being made at the basic level to get students back on track to good writing. Dr. Judith C. Hochman, founder of one such effort – a New York-based nonprofit called The Writing Revolution, focused on enhancing writing skills and critical thinking abilities of teenagers across-the-board. “It all starts with a sentence,” she said.

And, as American screen writer, Bill Wheeler, said, “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.”


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