140 Characters or Less: Aliteracy & Silicon Valley Youth

Many Silicon Valley teens would prefer to read text limited to 140 characters or less than a book. (Richard Blaine)

The popular Internet abbreviation "TLDR" stands for “too long, didn’t read.” As social media springing from Silicon Valley condenses messaging to shorter and shorter character counts, local educators struggle with “aliterate” students. Unlike illiteracy, aliteracy means, “I can read, but I won’t read,” or “I can read, but I don’t care,” according to Dr. Mary Warner, an English professor at San Jose State University who specializes in young adult literature and literacy.

Dr. Mary Warner sharing her collection of young adult novels in her office at San Jose State University.
Dr. Mary Warner shares her collection of young adult novels in her office at San Jose State University. (Adrienne Blaine)

As the director of the English single subject teaching credential program, Dr. Warner increasingly encounters students looking to become teachers who do not identify as readers. She says, “Very often, students will say things like, ‘Well, you know, I was a reader up ‘till . . .’ It would always sadden me that people would say, ‘I no longer read.’”

In her course, "Literature for Young Adults," however, each of her students readily lists a book they read as a child or teenager that had an impact on him or her. This demonstrates the power of the young adult genre, which Dr. Warner researched extensively for her 2006 book, Adolescents in the Search for Meaning: Tapping the Powerful Resource of Story.

The young adult genre exploded in the 1970s with authors like Judy Blume and continues to grow with series like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. Dr. Warner believes young adult novels are valuable resources for teenagers who struggle to find meaning in their own lives. “Teenagers want to know who they are and what life holds for them, and they are in the search for and development of identity with peers who are equally adrift,” she writes. With relatable teenage protagonists, she argues, young adult novels allow teenagers to learn about various life challenges from a "safe and neutral distance."

Dr. Warner's book, .
Dr. Warner's book, Adolescents in the Search for Meaning: Tapping the Powerful Resource of Story.

But when teenagers express themselves in abbreviated terms on the Internet, the potential for loss of meaning grows. The stories we tell about ourselves on social media do not necessarily reflect the depth of our struggles and could perpetuate unrealistic expectations among youths who have not experienced enough to recognize the editing and airbrushing of our digital selves.

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Dr. Warner says, “Literature and reading is so much about connecting with someone else’s story. Finding my story in someone else.” Empathy is in high demand when "cyber bullying" plagues social media. Paradoxically, as communications increase in the information age the amount of time we have to reflect on the written word has decreased.

“There isn’t a single reason why literacy is a challenge, and if there was a single reason, then it would be much easier to address,” says Dr. Warner. The distractions technologies present are far from the most serious challenges students in Silicon Valley face. Economic disparity prevents many students from even accessing the materials necessary to become literate -- much less aliterate.

“In an area, which by its nature privileges technological advancement, it’s easy to de-emphasize that which does not seem to be directly connected,” says Dr. Warner. However, she maintains that even those in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) fields will all encounter problems in their lives that cannot be solved with a computer or an equation. This is where she sees the value of literature and the meaning it offers to us all.

“I would argue that there’s still a place for the actual, not the virtual,” says Dr. Warner, as someone who doesn’t have a smart phone. She believes presenting aliterate teens with a physical book and a recommendation is still the best way to establish a personal connection to a text. Many young adult writers, including Gary Paulsen, author of the Hatchet series, trace their interest in literature to such a recommendation from a teacher, librarian or other significant adult in their lives.

Starting with a significant quotation or powerful passage is another way Dr. Warner creates interest in specific books. These often speak to certain universal themes that can be meaningful to any reader. “It’s a matter of finding what’s at the core and trying to share it,” she explains. We can even reverse engineer context for teens by starting with the isolated quotes proliferated on Pinterest and other social media platforms and providing literary background wherever possible.

And for those teens who still refuse to read, Dr. Warner reminds us that we can always take a cue from story time and read to them. She recommends audio books that feature talented readers like Jim Dale who recorded the Harry Potter series.

Dr. Warner’s enthusiasm for reading comes through as she discuses characters from young adult novels as if they were life-long friends -- these are not friends she made in 140 characters or less.

For more of Dr. Warner’s recommendations read, Adolescents in the Search for Meaning, or find her reviews of young adult novels in SIGNAL (The Journals of the International Reading Association’s Special Interest Group: Network on Adolescent Literature).

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