the written word

Yesterday I had another three classes of 12,13,14 and 15-year-olds with whom I had an open discussion about media.
This was my 8th focus group of children (since Jan ’12) to whom I listen and discuss the type of media they use, the type of content they love on TV or internet, and their daily media consumption.

I won’t speak details because I’m still in the process of writing the work (second part from a two volume research) but I noticed the youngsters’ prevailing perception towards newspapers, books, and the written word.

Their prevailing perception towards newspapers, books, and the written word was negative, combined with vivid facial expressions and not much reasoning. Fair enough, you’re free to dislike one medium or prefer it over another. That wasn’t new to me and the fact that they classify newspapers and books as “old” and “old-fashioned”.


Whenever I asked them to suggest how they would have improved newspapers if they were given the chance, in order for them to read a printed medium more often, all my respondents (12-15-year-olds), again in one voice, said:

on design and feel
– ‘make them with colour’ (specifically, when they suggested that for newspapers, which do have colours, showed that kids don’t see it that way)
– ‘add more pictures’
– ‘make them small, the size of a magazine’
– ‘change the paper and the ink because your fingers get dirty’
– ‘staple the pages and make them gloss’

on content
– ‘remove politics’
– ‘add gossip’
– ‘add stuff about young people’
– ‘put stuff on entertainment’
– ‘more games and crosswords’

Within an ageing society as in Malta, and pretty much everywhere else, except for China, maybe (correct me if I’m wrong), this is a problem to the ‘newspaper guy’. Perhaps, an opportunity to his competitor  (internet live streaming broadcast, maybe?).

Newspapers across the world are going through a rough phase. Advertising revenue plunges while regular readers switch from the print to the online version of their daily.
I don’t wonder as much whether the newspapers will disappear (except for the tabloids, gossip will never die), nor I wonder when, if they do.

I wonder what will matter to [my] kids in terms of information and delivery methods.
Because for the digitally born now, ‘news’ or ‘information’ should be short, instant, and in an image form.

My analyses from the focus groups lead me to believe that kids look for the image – the concrete language and the concrete representation of reality – that doesn’t require much thought, translation, or explanation, to say nothing about patience (to read a book and find out the end of the story takes a lot of self-control).
What I mean is that, a picture of a banana is understood by a 3-year-old as a ‘banana’. He doesn’t need reading skills or translation and interpretation.
The written word ‘banana’, however, will not be understood, first because the 3-year-old is unlikely to be able to read. And even if he was, he needed a context to figure out if ‘banana’ was to be understood as a direct object or an adjective, as in “I’m going bananas”. That last part also requires cultural understanding, and if the language isn’t the 3-year-old’s mother tongue, then he needs to be familiar with the phrases and idioms and customs that go along with that foreign language. Because, it doesn’t rain ‘cats and dogs’ in French, but ‘il pleut des cordes’. And if you understand neither of the languages you’re likely to think France and England have a weird weather.

When I prompted students about the associations they have with a book, again, in one voice, they all said:
– ‘old’
– ‘boring’
– ‘too many words’
–  ‘hate them’
And to be convinced about reading a book, they’d rather have one that has:
– ‘more pictures’
– ‘less words’
– ‘bigger text’
– ‘a screen in the middle that shows you what the book is about’
– ‘a button that, when you press it, it reads the book for you’

What do we make of all this? Mind you, it’s not just among Maltese youngsters.
It’s among all teens and tweens around the world.
They live in the age of the image.
VCR killed the radio star, while image (on internet) killed the written word.
Could that be true?
Are we going back to drawing in caves?

I have introduced the printed book to my son, one of those that doesn’t have colours and pictures (Folio Society have amazing ones that only have a few b&w fine drawings or sketches).
He seems to love the stories – from the Grimm’s to the more moderns ones.
And although he always asks me “mama, can I see?” a visual to what I’m reading, which annoys me a little, I tell him, “close your eyes and imagine it”.
It seems to be working so far.
In fact, he’s been asking me to continue from the “green fairy book” every night for the past week now.

I know that this will change.
He’ll jump in the pool of colour and images one day.
And he’ll love swimming in it.
Or maybe not.
Maybe his peers will pressure him and he’ll concede to the ‘current trend’ – if he wants to be part of the chat, of the click, of the fun. Media galore and it’s mostly, if not only, moving images, which will take most of his awake time.
The written word, the little fellow, will sit still and quiet in the corner of all that noise and colour, and I wonder how my son, and my daughter, will ever bother to notice it and learn to love it as simple and as black and white as it is.

I wonder, how can I instil the love for the written word then?

2 thoughts on “the written word

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