By Kerrin Willis and Carolyn Gomes Vieira
English teachers have been teaching students how to decode language and literature in classrooms across the country for generations. If we are advanced, we also teach them how to decode visual forms of literature. In academia, we call this practice “unpacking the text”. But times are changing fast and there are now so many other forms of literary and visual stimuli that need unpacking or decoding. In a digital age, “decoding” and ultimately learning how to switch between codes are becoming increasingly important. In the late 90’s this term became popular when talking about teaching inner city kids how to switch between Ebonics or slang and Standard English. Today this can be translated to “text language,” “screen media,” and academic language. In the digital age, the task of teaching students how to decode has become a job for all teachers.
One code that today’s students are intimately familiar with is the so-called “text language” most often used in emails, texting and social networking sites. The point of text language is to get something across as quickly as possible, boiling words down to their most essential letters, such as u for you and srsly for seriously. In text language, the words are not fully present. They are simply a representation of larger words with deeper and more complex meanings. Likewise, the users of text language are not fully present either. Rather, they are often multi-taskers, devoting only a fragment of themselves to the communication they are attempting to achieve. The result is a facsimile of a relationship between people. This issue is discussed extensively in chapter six of Robert Waxler and Maureen Hall’s book Transforming Literacy. Without either the words exchanged or the individuals exchanging them being fully present, the resulting conversation cannot be deep or meaningful. Teaching students how to switch between superficial and academic language is vital to shifting from the impersonal electronic conversations to the full-bodied conversations we expect in the classroom.
Another code that students are familiar with, but not well versed in decoding, is “Screen Media” such as film, TV and internet. While students access these mediums on a daily basis, many are inept at analyzing them and ultimately decoding the messages that they are receiving. Students feel that watching the movie is the same as reading the book, and yet, most are disappointed when the movie ultimately falls short. That is when you can get them to read the book first. This practice of only watching the movie or worse, only understanding the movie version is very damaging to the student. For example, an implied sex scene is played out in detail on screen and other liberties are taken with the written word to make it more marketable to an audience, not to enhance understanding to the narrative. Usually the film version becomes the director or producer’s version of the story removing many details that could be used to form the student’s individual analysis. This becomes a problem because the students believe that there is a “right” answer in literature and we have to re-teach them to think independently. According to Waxler and Hall, although the use of film in the classroom can “enhance learning” and “often provide expansive dialogue in the classroom,” there is no substitution to reading a novel.
Because they are bombarded by the images on the screen, some have become handicapped in creating those images when reading a narrative. It is now the job of the teacher to re-teach the students how to visualize the words on the page and to decode the visuals on the screen. Also, students have come to believe that the internet is infallible, not realizing that everything on the internet needs to be critically evaluated. This leads to misconceptions and problems in decoding. First, because they believe that the internet holds all the answers and the ultimate short cut, they can become misinformed and by using shortcuts, they lack the comprehensive researching skills needed to complete most high-level assignments. Our job, as teachers, has become more difficult as we navigate through the different types of “screen media” and now have to teach a resistant population how to evaluate and use this type of media in academia. For example, the difference between a blog, an academic site, student-generated information and so on all have varying levels of validity, but because these are all searchable, students believe that they are all valid sources. Some teachers find teaching researching skills difficult because they aren’t as versed as the students in using the internet, in particular, and some are resistant in the idea that this is even part of their job, thus many only allow print as valid sources. But as we continue to go further into this digital world, we must change our view and learn how to teach the students how to use the screen culture in a meaningful way instead of being used by it.
That is not to say that text or media language does not have a valid use. A code that can be expressed and read quickly is valuable when one is trying to relay one-dimensional messages such as “b L8 4 dnr” or “r u coming?”. Texting, film and the internet are all effective ways to communicate in some instances. The problem arises when people attempt to use codes in situations where they are not appropriate, or properly decoded, such as academia. As high school English teachers, we often see students who are confused about what language is appropriate for academic use, and it is our job to provide them with the tools they need to recognize the difference between codes that they might use over the internet and with their friends, and codes that they should use to write and speak in the classroom. The classroom is a neighborhood in which students should be fully present physically, emotionally, intellectually, etc. Their language should reflect this presence, and be a vehicle through which they are able to express it. Teaching them how to code switch between standard or academic language, slang, text language, the visual image, is teaching them to be able to think independently and to evaluate evidence effectively. If they are unaware of the difference between formal and informal language, they will be unable to evaluate whether an internet source is valid or not, a film is an accurate portrayal of a narrative or even lead to problems in interpersonal relationships.
All codes are valid and helpful in their own arenas, and the better we are at learning to use them appropriately and switch between them, the better educated we will be.
Kerrin and Carolyn are both High School English teachers currently working on getting their initial licensure at UMass Dartmouth. Kerrin can be reached by email here and Carolyn can be reached by email here.