How Cowboys Made Me Rethink Literate Practices In The Digital Age

literate practice in digital age

Cognitive development in young learners is about quality communication as well as quality content.


I’ve been involved in my son Phoenix’s literacy development since he started school some 18 months ago. Together, we edge forward through the “readers” that the school sends home – those little books with titles such as Shopping with Dad and that kind of thing.

In terms of reading attainment, the school has assessed him as “developing competency” or language to that effect. This has mostly to do with the “decoding” part of reading – that piece where words and their sounds and meanings become associated. In our shared reading sessions, he now knows about half the words and can “sound” most of the rest out. I say most, but with a historically mashed and evolving language like English, sounding out words is like trying to catch a true view in a shattered mirror. In this context, he’s doing fine for a seven-year-old.

In parallel with the traditional reading program, Phoenix has been viewing a lot of children’s content on all available devices. We’re a family with 5 iPhones, an iPad and 3 laptops, through which we stream Netflix, Stan, ABC television, and so on. On top of that, Phoenix is totally charmed by 3P’s Reading Eggs and Modern Teaching Aids’ Wushka – two digital learning platforms that recognize and reward the reading achievements of young learners.

In this digital space, he’s not just developing competency, he’s actually becoming a seasoned critic, as I was to learn.

Literate practices are essentially as old and intuitive as the cave paintings of our ancestors. Click To Tweet

Discovering this capability came about through my work with with literacy experts. While at the Australian Council for Educational Research, I was introduced to the idea of “literate practices that support cognitive development in our kids. As it turns out, these practices are nothing fancy really –  as old and intuitive as our ancestors huddled in caves and communicating about what they’d painted on the walls. But the research suggests that asking questions and talking about shared texts is actually really powerful for learning.

So I suppose In some ways today’s digital content is like the exploratory cave paintings of our forerunners. We absorb, consider, and then communicate. The moving images and sound of today’s content are often driven along by screenplays written by very clever writers. In this context, part of our “literate practice” at home is watching films and TV and then talking about them.

cowboys and literate practice

By way of example, Phoenix and I recently sat down to watch The Magnificent Seven. It was my choice, of course, a film made in 1961, and starring every expensive actor in Hollywood who fit into stovepipe Levis, including a thin-hipped Yul Brynner, with Steve McQueen taking top billing.

The opening scene of the film is a panning shot of maybe thirty or forty riders. Watching this together, without much thought, I asked my boy:

“Who do you think these riders are, the good guys or the bad guys?”

“The bad guys,” he said, without hesitation.

“How come?” I said.

“There’s more than seven of them,” he said breezily.

I have to admit, as an educator, I was electrified by his answer. It took just a fraction of a second – a snap of energy in a nerve synapse, yet the depth was a complex piece of literacy, numeracy, and critical reasoning. In that one moment, Phoenix had counted the horses, ran the numbers against the number in the title, calculated the comparative value, interpreted the context and drawn a correct conclusion. Sherlock Holmes would have been impressed; I was lost in a reverie.

In truth, schools aren’t often asking the kind of questions we can pose so easily at home. Click To Tweet

In truth, schools aren’t often asking the kind of questions we can pose so easily at home, mostly because educators feel duty-bound to put decoding ahead of comprehension. But perhaps it’s also because film and TV are still not considered to be as important or worthy kinds of stimulus as written texts are.  However, in my experience, the two skill sets (decoding and comprehension) can develop nicely in tandem, and I have no doubt that Phoenix’s viewing hours on TV will produce an academic payback when he can read written texts fluently.

Looking back on it, I’m still amazed how much was transacted in that single question and single answer in front of the “goggle box”. Multiply that kind of power out across a class, a family, a school, a system, a nation, and a planet and you suddenly start to see enormous possibilities in digital-centred learning.

Ben Dawe is VP of Business Development at Learnosity, which now delivers questions to over 24 million learners worldwide.

Featured images courtesy of Pro Image Photography and Priscilla Du Preez | Unsplash


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