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Reviewed by:
  • Language, Literacy and Technology by R. Kern
  • Catherine Caws
R. Kern. (2015). Language, Literacy and Technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 291, CDN$116.95 (hardcover)

In his latest book, Richard Kern invites his readers to take a critical and historical journey into the many ways in which interactions between language and technology shape or transform literacy. The plain and clear book title reflects the author’s intention perfectly: to offer insights into how technology matters to language by exploring changes in how we read, write, connect, interact or share knowledge in online environments. Design is the metaphor that Kern adopts to connect the multiple segments of the book, taking the view that “language, technology, and literacy are all processes and products of design” (p. 2). From examining language manifestations in Aristotelian times to emphasizing symbiotic linkages between culture and technology, the book focuses more specifically on showcasing “people’s eco-social adaptation to technological change, and how this adaptation is reflected in and shaped by their language use” (p.9).

The book is divided in three main parts, each subdivided into chapters (for a total of 10 chapters). The first part is the lengthiest one, with 113 pages. It is focused on design, and more specifically on communication by design. This section of the book is rich in historical and cultural insights. In the first chapter (“Communication by design”), the author reveals his values for dialogical, relational models of communication within the context of textual and non-textual communication. In this chapter, the reader will get a deeper understanding of processes and products of communication, systems of signs and codes, concepts of textualization and recontextualization, and other material, social or individual creative forms of communication. Most importantly, this chapter explains methods used by humans, in various cultural and historical contexts, to adapt to technological constraints. In subsequent chapters, Kern addresses questions of human interactions with materials resources, showing how our choices of medium will greatly influence language uses, how we shape, invent or redefine semiotic resources to suit our needs, and how social ecologies also interact with technology. Readers will benefit from many concrete examples taken from contemporary situations (such as the critical analysis of the concept of friend in social networks) or from ancient or literary manifestations of language (e.g., the examples of invented languages).

In Part II of the book, Kern shifts the focus to interactions using four case studies (writing, paper and print, technology-mediated writing, and multimodal digital discourse). Through a careful analysis of each case, Kern demonstrates that the material, the social, and the [End Page 103] individual create an ecology of literary practices and language uses that have adapted to technological change for centuries. If we take the case of writing, we see that people have been highly creative in their use of phonological or iconic codes to invent novel forms of communication. Likewise, in multimedia environments, users are confronted with many opportunities to potentially and actually transform literacy.

Educators will appreciate Part III of the book. When considering educational implications, Kern does not seek to separate “old” from “new” literacies or to engage in an endless debate about the benefits and/or dangers of technology. Instead, his intention is to consider the principles that “should guide language and literacy education in the current era of globalization and intense social and technological innovation” (p. 215). In that respect, the second part of chapter 9 (“Principles and goals in language and literacy education) is particularly useful because it proposes explicit guiding principles and education goals that are inspired from the discussions earlier in the book. In the last chapter, Kern emphasizes the requirement to foster among students a critical awareness about the uses, conventions, and limitations of digital spaces for communication. To this end, he introduces the idea of “relational pedagogy” (p. 233), namely a pedagogy that embraces the many material, social, cultural or symbolic contexts of literacies to inform teaching. This is an ambitious goal, but one that is well worth pursuing.

All in all, the book has several attributes. To start, the reader will appreciate the fact that Kern insists on using historical, social, and cultural facts to paint...


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pp. 103-105
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