Ensuring Full Literacy team to study how literacy is changing in a digital and multicultural world changed by COVID-19

  • Janet Werker

  • January 13, 2021

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The literacy landscape is changing: Canadians are increasingly reading in a digital format, and speak a language, or are from a culture, not represented in commonly available reading materials.

Literacy remains one of life’s critical skills, especially during COVID-19 school closures and quarantines. How can Canada ensure that its literacy research and instruction are effective and best prepared for this new landscape?

‘Ensuring Full Literacy in a Multicultural and Digital World’ aims to address this. Led by Professor Janet Werker, the project received a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Partnership Grant in May, which provides $2.5 million over seven years. The project was born from Werker’s realization that her work on language acquisition was one part of the larger puzzle that is literacy.

The project reaches across the globe, and beyond academia, connecting from the outset with community and industry partners. It has six core themes led by academic experts including technology and new media, language background and culture, neuroimaging and computational modeling, an interdisciplinary approach to address a multi-pronged problem, says researcher Professor Guofang Li.

Transdisciplinary research and engagement

The project’s research questions are varied and include: which oral language skills are transferred for reading online? Which skills transfer across languages? What happens in the brain when we read?

Oral language and literacy skills interact and intersect with linguistic and cultural diversities, notes Associate Professor Mark Turin, Language Background and Culture theme co-lead. As such, methods for teaching literacy in a largely English and French-focused Canada may not work so well for speakers of other languages. The project will investigate how a person’s cultural background and mother language affects learning in another, as well as how we define literacy and how we might refine the definition.

“I’m struck by quite traditional definitions of literacy that are still prevalent in our schools, which don’t always do a good job of including and celebrating pre-existing literacies that children and parents bring to the classroom and to wider society.”

Associate Professor Mark Turin

The Neuroimaging theme will measure perceptual and cognitive processing while participants perform tasks and use learning materials. This theme aims to identify what happens in the brain when readers are fluent in a language versus when they learn a new language, says Associate Professor Anthony Herdman. “This will give medical professionals and educators more insight into how to help readers become more proficient in reading in their first and/or additional languages.”

Working alongside are Assistant Professor Muhammad Abdul-Mageed and Assistant Professor Alona Fyshe, who lead the Computational Modeling theme. Their team will provide machine learning expertise to develop models that will answer some of the research questions, including using deep learning on big data to model and analyze reading in the human brain.

“We are tracking the progression of how we understand meaning, from infants to adults, to study how our representations of meaning shift and change over a lifetime.”

Assistant Professor Alona Fyshe

Connection and roll out with industry and community

The project’s industry partners, such as digital literacy company Eyeread Inc., can help test the research and products, providing productive feedback to further inform the work, says CEO Julia Rivard Dexter.

“Digital technology that delivers adaptive instruction for literacy is up and coming but has a long way to go. We are eager to be part of building the newest research-based technology that is highly effective.”

Eyeread Inc. co-founder and CEO, Julia Rivard Dexter

Outreach partners, such as the Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation, will help to share the project’s findings broadly to help support families and communities in building early literacy skills, says CEO Ariel Siller.

“We believe that programming and social policy need to be informed by research…It is especially important for us to work together, so that groups delivering programming to families can bring real-world input into the research questions and outcomes.”

Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation CEO, Ariel Siller

Community partners, such as libraries and school boards, will help ensure that the foundational research and rich knowledge generated through the project gets into the hands of those who most need and can benefit from it, says Werker.

Re-centering literacy

According to a 2018 report, more than 40% of Canada’s workforce do not have adequate levels of the literacy skills needed to learn efficiently and be highly productive in their work.

“Literacy gives children a window into the experiences and perspectives of others, opening doors to understanding, empathy, critical thinking and the capacity for lifelong learning.”

Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation CEO, Ariel Siller

Literacy theme co-lead Professor Hélène Deacon says skill in reading is even more essential than ever before. “Engaging in our simplest social conversations through to high level policy engagement is all happening in writing, placing skill in reading at the heart of full social and democratic participation.”

Abdul-Mageed believes improving literacy will improve all aspects of human life, given the importance of language to humanity.

“A 1% improvement in literacy will lead to a ton of improvement everywhere. It’s a big service to humanity if I can be part of even 0.001%.”

Assistant Professor Muhammad Abdul-Mageed

Literacy in the time of COVID-19

Eyeread Inc. saw a 400% increase in activity in March and April, including downloads and sales of its products, says Dexter.

The project itself has changed, with research moving online. The teams are having to adapt: Herdman is working more with machine learning models and existing data rather than in-person data collection, opening up new possibilities to better understand how our brains read.

The pandemic has accelerated new media use and online reading, says Werker. “Now, everything is happening from our computers, so COVID-19 has accelerated the trend we wanted to study and made this work that much more important.”