As the new president of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Kathleen Blake Yancey is leading a charge to update and expand the means by which student writing is taught and assessed in a digital age that has redefined "literacy."
Director of Florida State University’s graduate program in rhetoric and composition, Yancey is focusing her own research and considerable clout on innovative approaches to writing assessment that take into account more fully the diverse literacies of 21st-century students. She believes that students should write the way they always do—on computers—when taking national standardized writing tests, and promotes the use of "digital portfolios" to better gauge their progress in the classroom. She’s already widely recognized and often quoted as an expert on the ways that a now-ubiquitous text-messaging lexicon affects other forms of written expression.
Yancey—FSU’s Kellogg W. Hunt Professor of English—officially took the NCTE presidential reins during its annual convention, held Nov. 15-18 in New York City. As the council’s president-elect, she served as chairwoman of the convention program. The theme for 2007—"Mapping Diverse Literacies for the 21st Century"—helped draw more than 8,000 attendees, a record for the 97-year-old event.
"Today, literacy—the ability to read and write many different and diverse kinds of texts—is undergoing significant change," Yancey said. "We read books, create Web logs or ‘blogs,’ e-mail resumes to apply for jobs, and present our credentials in multiple texts that could include word-processed documents, streaming videos, podcasts and more. When it comes to reading and writing these new texts, it’s literally a new world, and most of us will need considerable help navigating it."
The intersections of 21st-century culture, literacy and technologies—"diverse literacies"—have fashioned Yancey’s own research. She is examining the role played by the means of delivery (e.g. through digital technologies) in shaping or misshaping students’ use of syntax, organization and evidence in college compositions.
The news isn’t all bad, according to Yancey.
"Text messaging does encourage a certain distillation of thought," she said. "It’s like shorthand, in that you don’t really need your vowels, which is great in terms of helping someone create a very short and very succinct kind of message." Still, as the text-messaging lexicon creeps from cell phone screens into serious schoolwork, she acknowledges "There are English teachers who aren’t happy to see ‘LOL’ (‘laugh out loud’) in the middle of a paper."
In addition to studying the effects of texting on more formal written expression, Yancey is looking at new ways to assess that writing: digital portfolios. She serves as co-leader of the International Coalition on Electronic Portfolio Research and as a member of the Advisory Board for the American Association of Colleges and Universities VALUE initiative, which is focusing on the use of digital portfolios to illustrate student progress and achievement.
"An electronic, or digital, portfolio could include everything from resumes and PowerPoint slides to podcasts of a talk a student gave to a Web page that he or she created, or a video of two students conducting an experiment," Yancey said. "For English teachers, such a tool could showcase ‘diverse 21st-century literacies’ while also tracking the student’s progress."
Yancey also has served on the Steering Committee for the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Writing Exam—and her service may change the face of testing in ways 20th-century teachers and students could never have imagined.
"This particular writing test is given every four years to selected students in fourth, eighth and 12th grades, and the results are published as the ‘nation’s writing report card,’" she said. "As the steering committee, we helped to develop a new framework for writing assessment that reflects current theory and research. My role was to advocate for digital technology."
Her advocacy worked. As a result, beginning in 2011, all eighth-graders and 12th-graders will take the NAEP writing exam by composing at the keyboard. "For the first time on a national exam, students will write the way we know that people in the real world do—on a computer, using word-processing resources such as spell-checker and italics," Yancey said.
"Thus, this writing test will provide a more valid measure of the students’ abilities, and since they actually ‘like’ writing on computers, we’ve made the exam more attractive to them as well," she said. "It’s possibly the most significant change to testing in 30 years."
To learn more about FSU’s graduate program in rhetoric and composition—with courses such as "Digital Revolution and Convergence Culture"—visit www.english.fsu.edu.