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Science & Technology

Can Twitter Boost Literacy?


People are tweeting about Al Jazeera America, it launches tomorrow I should mention, and if you are a Twitter person I would suggest you Google the word Twitteracy. You may not come up with very much, because it's mainly used on Twitter as a hashtag. It's not often that Twitter is connected to literacy, actually, because 140 characters or less, some people say that's not really encouraging kids to read. But educator Rey Junco says Twitter is more relevant in the classroom than you might think. And Rey Junco joins us now. He's associate professor at Purdue University and a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Rey, welcome.

REY JUNCO: Thanks Celeste, great to be here.

HEADLEE: First, explain what Twitteracy actually is.

JUNCO: OK, well, how about I do that in 140 characters or less.

HEADLEE: OK, if you can.

JUNCO: OK, first, you know, let me go tweet it - no. Twitteracies are new social and academic skills being developed through the use of social media like Twitter.

HEADLEE: Is that 140 characters or less, Rey? I can't count that in my head.

JUNCO: I checked it.


JUNCO: Yeah. Sorry I had that canned. It sounded like I probably did that right then but, yes, I cheated.


JUNCO: Yeah, but - so I think about it in two ways. First, social media are just transforming traditional literacies. So take for instance, information literacy skills - the ability to like locate, evaluate, and effectively use information. That's been transformed through social media use.


JUNCO: We now rely on the Internet for so much of our information needs and social media allow users to share information quickly, which can lead to a quick spread of incorrect information. So you just have to develop skills to evaluate these newer media, and unfortunately they get very little of that in school. The other part of that is that youth are developing new literacies by using social media through the process of informal learning. And so learning that isn't happening in the schools and formal educational settings.

So, for instance, youth engage in constructing identity both online and off-line, but they play a lot with their identity online. For instance, their behaviors on social media like Facebook can help them understand the norms and mores of their peer group, not just on the site but off-line as well.

HEADLEE: For better or worse, Rey. That can sometimes be a dangerous thing if, as you say, people are spreading misinformation or specifically, when it comes to literacy, have you seen some of the ways people spell on Facebook and Twitter? I mean, it's egregious.

JUNCO: Well, you know, that's really interesting that you mention that, because there's research to show that quote-unquote text speak, is actually related to stronger reading and writing skills.

HEADLEE: Wait, how is that possible?

HEADLEE: That's the process, yeah.

>>HEADLEE When you spell because as C-U-Z, that helps literacy?

JUNCO: Yeah.

HEADLEE: Maybe I'm an old fogey but that's going to be hard to sell on me.

JUNCO: I know. You know, honestly, Celeste, I mean, I thought what you did until I saw some of the research and it's coming from a couple of independent researchers, so it's not, you know, coming out of the same lab or coming out of the same university, but there are strong links. I think there's an issue about how we process language. And the cognitive processing involved in language and so whether you're, you know, you can be - you know, we're primed to be fluent in any language from birth, right...

HEADLEE: ...Right.

JUNCO: ...And so you can be fluent in anything from English to sign language to Arabic to Spanish. Same kind of thing. I think that even just engaging in - and perhaps it's even like learning a second language, I hadn't thought about that before, but perhaps it is.

HEADLEE: Well, then let me ask you about length. I mean, we were joking earlier about using 140 characters or less, there are many people who argue that something like Facebook or Twitter actually decreases young people's attention span for reading. That, you know, when they're getting all their information in these little bips, blips, and clips that they're not ready to read that multipage investigative report or even a long novel like Moby Dick.

JUNCO: Right, well, to that I say two things. One, I've conducted research to show that that isn't the case. That students actually - they get a lot from putting their words in 140 characters. I think it forces them to be concise and to be very thoughtful about what they write. But another part of that is that, for better or worse, this is our society now. We have been thinking in news bites for a very long time and 140 characters for a very long time. I mean, you know, being in the biz, right, you know that you have to grab people's attention very early on with short statements. And so I think part of that is learning how to read the vast amounts of information that's basically thrown at them everyday through traditional and newer media.

HEADLEE: So how does a teacher - maybe not in college but how does, say, a high school teacher use Twitter or Facebook to increase literacy?

JUNCO: Yeah, well, I think first and foremost, educators and parents need to chill out a bit. There's this idea that social media use in K-12 will lead to kids being off track...

HEADLEE: ...Right.

JUNCO: ...Or distracted, or that educators will be stalking their students or worse. That's not what we're talking about here, and there's clearly evidence to show that you can use, for instance Twitter, in very educationally relevant ways. I'm talking about using social media in ways that are educationally relevant and lead to wonderful educational outcomes. So I think that educators can be exploring Twitter themselves and realizing the kinds of things that they learn from being on Twitter, from interacting on Twitter, learning about what it's like to use Twitter, and bringing that into the classroom with students and explicitly talking about this informal learning that's going on and asking them things like what they think of Twitter, how do they react to tweets, why do they post, why are they even on there.

So basically, bringing the informal to the formal setting. And we know that thinking about, and engaging in, educational processes transfers. So if I'm good at learning about how, you know, the kinds of things I should post on Twitter and, you know, what kind of friend I can be because of learning how to interact on Twitter, then I can also really easily learn how to be a better student. So the processes really match up.

HEADLEE: We've been speaking with Rey Junco, associate professor at Purdue University and a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, about using Twitter to increase literacy. Not totally sold yet, Rey, but you're opening up my mind.

JUNCO: Have me back, Celeste. I'll keep working on you.

HEADLEE: Thanks, Rey.

JUNCO: All right, take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.