News

How the internet can support adolescent literacy


20 January 2012

Letting your teenager spend time on the internet can promote their literacy development, says the University of Sydney's Dr Jen Scott Curwood.

"There is a growing body of research that examines young people's engagement with technology outside of school," said Dr Curwood, from the University's Faculty of Education and Social Work.

"While there is unquestionably a need for parents to balance their child's internet time with other activities, the internet can be a powerful educational tool. Evidence suggests that when young people meaningfully engage with online content, it supports the acquisition of critical literacy skills."

As part of an ongoing ethnographic study, Dr Curwood has interviewed youth, aged 13 to 17, from Australia, Canada and the United States. As part of the study she examined their participation in fan-created websites related to young adult literature.

In particular, she has focused on the online phenomenon around The Hunger Games, a trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The books have sold over 23 million copies worldwide and the movie will be released in March 2012.

"Young people fall in love with these books and seek out other fans online. In their own time they write Hunger Games-inspired fiction, create art, produce videos, compose music, and design role-playing games," Dr Curwood explains. "These digital literacy practices are valuable in their own right, but they also support young people's engagement with print-based literature."

Dr Curwood shares the experience of one 14-year-old Australian boy. "Jack is a top student and his family supports his love of literature. For the past three years, he has avidly participated on fan sites related to The Hunger Games. Not only has this experience deepened his understanding of the characters and themes, it has prompted him to learn about website design."

Parents can support their teen's literacy development through high-interest books. Dr Curwood suggests that parents consider books listed on the Children's Book Council of Australia Awards and the American Library Association's Alex Award and Printz Award.

"Many young adults are inspired to write fan fiction based on their favorite books, television shows, and films. FanFiction.net is a popular example of this," Dr Curwood says.

Her own research has examined Hunger Games fan sites such as Mockingjay.net, ThePotterGames.com, and HungerGamesTrilogy.net.

"In addition to discussing the books, adolescents often take leadership roles on fan sites and actively engage in designing, managing, and marketing the site," Dr Curwood said.

Over the past decade, adolescents' computer use has risen quickly. In developed countries, 94 percent of students now have at least one computer at home, compared to 72 percent in 2000, according to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report.*

The same study indicated that using a computer at home had a greater impact on digital literacy skills than using a computer at school.

"Meaningful, interest-driven online activities can promote adolescent literacy development," Dr Curwood says. "Parents and teachers can play a vital role in providing young people with access to high quality books and fan-created websites."

*2011 OECD Report Students Online: Digital Technologies and Performance


Follow University of Sydney Media on Twitter

Media enquiries: Verity Leatherdale, 02 9351 4312, 0419 278 715, verity.leatherdale@sydney.edu.au