When I was in middle school, there was a bit of a hubbub when Star Trek: The Next Generation first appeared. It was considered to be written at a “rocket scientist” level. Well, “rocket scientist” in this case translated to “eighth grade”, not exactly challenging for a population that dedicates thirteen years of their lives to learning how to read.
That was twenty-five years ago, and now analysis of various novels and perdiodicals shows that we aren’t doing much better. Studies are showing that thriller novels tend to be written at a seventh-grade level; romances are written at a fifth-grade level (and let’s all try to ignore how creepy that is, even if it does explain how teenagers successfully publish with Harlequin). Periodicals aimed at a general population don’t tend to be written at anything more than a eighth-grade level. I guess it’s how you compromise when anywhere from 20-25% of American citizens are considered functionally illiterate.
So what do we do? We turn things into icons so those who can’t read words can interpret symbols.
But here’s the problem: A language that requires you to look at symbols and decode them still requires training in literacy.
Let’s look at an example. First, I’ll tell you a little bit of me. I read a college book in kindergarten for fun. My reading level has been considered at or near college level most of my life. I teach reading. I’m generally considered a reasonably intelligent person.
And the second symbol in this row completely threw me when it first showed up in my inbox a few months ago.
To this day, I’m still not sure what Gmail meant for that image to be. I had to figure out that if I hit that button, the marked emails were moved into my archive.
While we tend to think of reading when we say “literacy”, there’s really so much more involved. There are different types of literacy. Switching between them won’t “fix” or even address the problem. It will only shift it. Regardless of the basis of the symbolic language, without education we can’t hope to make sense of any of it.