Jacksonville Public Library looks to promote new literacy
by Paige Rentz
Staff members at the Jacksonville Public Library are looking for ways to prepare children for their digital futures. The library is applying for a federal grant that will allow it to purchase eight new computers and three “literacy stations” – self-contained, touch-screen computers that provide thousands of educational activities for children, particularly ages 3 to 8.

“In this day and age, it’s not only about reading literacy, it’s about technological literacy,” said library specialist Christy Wallace. “Can you use these machines? … Can you interpret what you’re seeing into words?”

If the library wins the grant, which will be awarded next year, it will be able to replace outdated and occasionally nonworking computers in the children’s room with the new literacy stations that target not only traditional reading skills but also those related to arts, music, geography, science and social studies, said Wallace. The stations, which feature a kid-sized mouse and keyboard, also help young children become adept at using technology.

“Technology grows at such a huge, exponential rate, there’s really no way of predicting what these kids are going to learn,” Wallace said. “So it’s better to start them on an all-encompassing literacy program instead of just, ‘Here’s a book; read it.’”

According to Rebecca Bagwell, a frequent library patron, the library’s computers “really do engage the kids in a fun time where they can sit still and be quiet yet do something fun while they’re there.”

Her older daughter, who is 9, prefers to interact with books when they go into the library together, picking out which ones she will take home to read. But her 5-year-old daughter, she said, prefers to sit and play while mom picks out her books.

A reading tutor who homeschools her children, Bagwell said the games children play in the library foster a sense of learning outside the classroom.

“It really appeals to all kids, having so many options like that available,” she said, and most importantly, the computer games “get them into the library and surrounded by books and learning.”

A 2010 report released by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows half of students ages 8 to 18 have a video game console at home. The report says the average child spends one hour and 13 minutes playing video games, either on a console, cell phone or handheld device – a 24-minute increase over the previous five years.

Michael Levine is the executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a nonprofit research and development organization interested in preparing children for the digital age, particularly in the types of literacy children need. Traditional literacy in reading and math, he said, is being transformed in the digital age, and his organization looks at how that intersects with new literacies such as how children assess the many streams of information they receive.

He said many organizations are developing games that incorporate educational and literacy content.

One of the features of digital games, said Levine, is that they have assessments embedded within their levels. And the learn-as-you-play aspect of the games means that “children with different abilities can be challenged up to the level they can pursue, which is very helpful to teachers, librarians and other educators.”

Levine said many games not labeled as educational have benefits for players, including improving visual acuity in shooting games, learning how to influence and build coalition in games like World of Warcraft, or performing complex calculations of odds for a particular play in the popular Madden NFL football games.

But digital game play is far beyond the traditional image of “a teenage male who’s shooting up the arcade,” he said. “It’s so many different choices, just about everybody plays digital games these days.”
© 2012