Assessment and a Culture of Learning

It was a lightbulb moment. One where something you believe becomes tangible and the evidence you didn’t know you were looking for falls onto your lap. Our province was in an almost year long state of jobaction and within the hold-out mandate was report card writing. No report cards were going home. This did not eliminate families’ requests for progress reports however. Mandate or not, families want to know how their children are doing. In lieu of reports I simply decided to send home my students’ portfolios. Within each portfolio were artifacts of learning; samples of writing, tests, reading records, projects. With each was a highlighted criteria sheet, a sticky note with student reflections and sometimes a “mark”. What wasn’t included was a grade. There were no letters attached to progress or summative evaluation. I discovered two things: parents didn’t ask for one and students were more focused on learning. I soon discovered why the parents weren’t asking for a grade; they didn’t ask because they had rich information in the portfolios. They weren’t asking me about percents and letters. Instead they were asking about performance scales and next steps. Furthermore, without grades my students weren’t waiting for that single indicator of their achievement. They were focusing on the progress of their learning. Who knew the strike of 2014 would shift my practice and depth of understanding!

Judgment and A Culture of Learning

When considering assessment we have to ask ourselves how much our students are involved in the process. In Peter Elbow’s article Ranking, Evaluating and Liking: Sorting Out Three Forms of Judgment (1993) he offers insights into the impact of assessment practice and the results on student learning. What stood out to me was the term judgement. It made me think- how is a teacher judging a student through their assessment practice? How is a student judging themselves based on their assessment? What culture are we creating when we choose assessment strategies and tools? Wait!! Do we fully realise how our assessment practice impacts our culture of learning?

Elbow discusses the lack of reliability with ranking, or providing a holistic grade. When considering a healthy class culture, reliability and trust must be at the heart. While some might argue that grading is objective and a means to creating an equal playing field, Elbow argues that ranking implies fairness and fairness isn’t guaranteed. A student must therefore trust that their teacher will read with an unbiased and fair eye. Or, they may choose to play the game and come right out and ask what the teacher is looking for to achieve a grade and as Elbow states, “rubs our noses in the unreliability of our grades” (pg. 2). 

As educators we have also heard students ask, “What did I get?” or “What’s my mark?” Yet another demonstration of the negative impact of ranking on a culture of learning. When students get hung up or seek validation (for good or bad) from a grade, they are not attending to strengths, stretches, their improvements or otherwise. Instead, they are asking for a single number or letter that reflects understanding, knowledge or skill in what could be multiple topics or competencies. 

In an Edutopia post, Assessment, Choice, and the Learning Brain, author Glen Whitman describes two goal oriented mindsets students develop in connection to motivation, learning and assessment; a performance-related goal or a mastery goal. In his words, 

“Performance-related goals are those linked to more traditional types of assessments. Students become motivated by the grades they achieve, their rankings compared to other students, and extrinsic rewards such as honor rolls or school awards. In contrast, students who develop mastery goals are motivated by the actual learning experiences. Their rewards arise from the challenges of acquiring and applying new knowledge and skills.”

When considering these two mindsets (and Whitman acknowledges that a student can have a combination of the two) we can make a correlation to interaction with and perception of learning. Which lends better to a growth-based approach, where mistakes are valued and process is acknowledged? Granted, some people are driven by external motivators, and those people will always show up in our classes, but how can we reduce the reliance on competition and ranking, and support a healthier relationship with learning?

The Shift

Much has been discussed about the role of feedback in the learning process. While feedback, or evaluation as Elbow references, can perpetuate “feelings of approval or disapproval” (pg. 3), effective feedback, or feed forward (see Cult of Pedagogy post Moving from Feedback to Feedforward for more) can in fact generate more learning, instill a growth mindset and support intrinsic motivation.

Creating a culture of learning, with feedback at the heart of the assessment process, strengthens the student-teacher relationship. In Zaretta Hammond’s book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, she explores the important connection between equitable assessment practices and supporting culturally and linguistically diverse students. Feedback, she asserts, is an essential element. In discussing feedback and trust she states, 

“By engaging in frequent feedback cycles that lead to change, teachers deepen and strengthen their learning partnership with the student. The student recognizes the teacher’s willingness to help them get better. This builds trust between them.” (pg. 102)

Aligned with a trusting relationship, is a relationship based on ‘liking.” While some of the strategies Elbow shares are now outdated, he does hit the nail on the head when discussing the feasibility of liking. Not only is there a beneficial outcome when a teacher goes into reviewing a piece of work from a place of liking, but there is a beneficial outcome when a student likes their own work and can value their strengths and growth. This is what Williamson, LeeKeenan and Peixoto refer to as “appreciative assessment” (pg. 291) in their article, More, Faster, Neater: Middle School Students’ Self-Assessed Literacy Concerns. Having an appreciative assessment stance encourages feedback on a student’s growth over what still needs to be accomplished. Liking, or appreciative assessment builds a student’s positive identity as a learner, reader, writer, mathematician, problem solver…

Pieces of the Puzzle

In the end, for now, ranking, or providing a holistic grade has a place in our system. Our provincial reporting guidelines require it; our scholarships, awards, placements, and post-secondary institutions demand it. Many educators and students rely on it. For these reasons, grades remain a piece of the puzzle. However, if we can shift the middle ground and enhance teacher capacity and student participation in on-going, embedded, and growth-oriented assessment practice, perhaps we can reduce the reliance on a summative grade as a definitive marker, strengthen the instruction-assessment connection and hopefully minimize our students’ attachment to a ranking.

Elbow, P. (1994). Ranking, Evaluating, Liking: Sorting out Three forms of Judgement. College English. 12.

Linking Teacher Identity and the Process of Change

“If you ask people to brainstorm words to describe change, they come up with a mixture of negative and positive terms. On the one side, fear, anxiety, loss, danger, panic, disaster; on the other, exhilaration, risk-taking, excitement, improvements, energizing. For better or worse, change arouses emotions…”

Michael Fullan

Ask any educator about their assessment practice. What do you notice? What do you hear? If you look and listen intently, what is not being said aloud? The topic of assessment is a deeply personal one for most educators. They are emotionally tied up in their beliefs. Their understanding, values, and practice not only stems from what they learned in their teacher education or professional development opportunities, but also from their own experiences as a learner. What was their relationship with assessment practice? What worked for them? What didn’t? Because of this, educators can sit in a space of discomfort – the space between what I should do and what I know how to do. Or perhaps they don’t see a need for change. Assessment is therefore deeply entwined in teacher identity.

Why do I bring up teacher identity when reflecting on Lorrie Shepard’s article, The Role of Assessment in a Learning Culture? As I read I was intrigued by the conversation around the legacy of the scientific measurement model of assessment in today’s classrooms. Why are we moving so slowly? Why, when we have mass amounts of research, multiple curriculum revisions, and publications in abundance are we still creeping along? We can look to the systemic structures; they are most certainly holding us back. However, a mass movement is not imminent until we can name our beliefs, dismantle our misconceptions and develop capacity for change.

Teacher Identity

In a recent conversation with a teacher colleague I asked how she has shaped her understanding of assessment. Immediately she began talking about her memories of red marks on tests, her fears of being wrong, her ability to memorize and the positive impact that had on her grades. As she continued she shared how that has led to her own insecurities when assessing her students. She has asked herself, because it worked for me, does that mean it should work for my students? Shepard states, “…the way that assessment is used in classrooms and how it is regarded by teachers and students must change” (p. 7). Both teacher identity and student identity, and their involvement with assessment has a deep impact on the progress that we make. Many of today’s educators experienced homogenous learning environments that valued right and wrong, compliance and rote learning as students. These lived experiences shape who we are as educators and Shepard reminds us, “…dominant theories of the past continue to operate as the default framework affecting and driving current practices and perspectives” (p. 4).

When we consider teacher identity we must also explore one’s belief about access to learning and inclusive pedagogy. What do we believe about learners and learning? What assumptions do we bring and what hidden biases exist? Ironically, this is an area where we can see the system changing faster than the people within it. In our recent curriculum revision in British Columbia, we have dismantled or revamped a number of courses which previously streamed our students in secondary schools. In a recent blog post, Shannon Schinkel explores the discomfort experienced by her colleagues as courses mandated change, “When levelled classes were eliminated, there was much consternation amongst English department members, and I respected the fear and frustration that came with that. No longer levelling students meant that English teachers would have quite the range of learners in their English classrooms. It would be a big, daunting shift.” This reminded me of the conversations I had within my own school with our grade 12 teachers. With concern they asked, “what will we do with our Com kids?” Our first step was to reframe and end referring to these students as “Com kids” and our next step was to unpack what we meant by “Com kids” and the assumptions we held. (Note – Com is a reference to Communications – an English course that was removed from the Ministry course guide.)

When levelled classes were eliminated, there was much consternation amongst English department members, and I respected the fear and frustration that came with that. No longer levelling students meant that English teachers would have quite the range of learners in their English classrooms. It would be a big, daunting shift.

Shannon Schinkel

When digging into the conversation, we uncovered questions about differentiating instruction. But more importantly, our teachers expressed their worries around assessing students who are at such diverse stages of learning. And here lies the rub between the legacy of test driven assessment (evaluation) and assessment for learning practice.

The Shift

Lorrie Shepard suggests that our teachers need, “…a sense of how to develop a classroom culture with learning at its center” (p. 12). No longer can we see assessment and instruction as two separate entities. This does present a challenge for many educators, especially in secondary settings, as their identity is tied into the courses they know how to teach and they continue to work in a system that asks for a grade and percent in the end. For these reasons, for some, it is hard to reshape the culture of learning in their classrooms and to see assessment as an ongoing process versus an endpoint. Furthermore, some educators may measure their own competency through their students’ grades. A paradigm shift to their assessment practice and the uncertainty of learner outcomes may cause apprehension.

In a recent seminar I participated in through the Canadian Assessment for Learning Network, a secondary Socials teacher asked the presenter, “How am I supposed to take time to teach these assessment tools and strategies when I have so much to teach and no time?” To which the presenter replied that the job of a History teacher is no longer to teach all of history, it is to teach how to learn about history. She went on to share that explicitly teaching assessment strategies, that using assessment as learning, is accomplishing this goal as you are developing thinking skills with your students. You could feel the quiet amongst the participants as they let that sink in.

Where does this leave my thinking? Reading Shepard’s article certainly caused me to think more deeply about the legacy of curriculum change and learning theory in today’s educational setting, which led to deeper thinking about the implications for change when considering teacher identity. While further movement in our understanding and practice is imperative, meaningful change is slow. Inviting educators to evaluate their beliefs, to challenge their assumptions, to shift their practice and to be comfortable in the unknown is necessary, but this change won’t happen over night. We need to continue to create safe spaces where teacher knowledge and expertise is honoured, while inviting new thinking. We can start by asking question such as, What do you believe about learning? What do you want for your students as they leave your classroom? How do your assessment practices align with what you believe? What shifts are you noticing in your learners? Safety is key as we know emotions will be aroused.

Ultimately, we must explore our truths and acknowledge that our teacher identity is a driving factor in the speed of change.

Shepard, L. (2000). The role of assessment in a learning culture. Educational Researcher, 29(7). Pp. 4-14.

Inclusive Assessment Practice

An invitation came to me this year from our seminar teachers who were supporting a group of university education students who joined our school weekly to observe in classes. Each week their visits included a presentation or discussion. I was pleased to be invited to talk about assessment. To understand my starting point for the presentation I sent a quick survey to the teacher candidates. Reading the results, it was immediately evident to me that I was starting at the beginning; the students were at various entry points, and the questions they shared let me know that they were still grappling with their own understanding of assessment practice. So I asked myself – “What is at the heart of assessment practice? What do I wish I knew right away when I began teaching? What foundational understanding do they need to know to plan with assessment in min?” In essence, I thought of this presentation in a know-do-understand model. What do they need to know? What do they need to be able to do? What do they need to understand? The following slides became the heart of the presentation – however they have evolved a little after a further presentation with a Masters class and a staff presentation. The bottom line – assessment practice should be inclusive and to plan for assessment we can use a backward design model to assure instruction and assessment are aligned.

Evaluating Online Information…The 5 W’s

As I have previously posted, explicit instruction is essential for supporting our students’ online non-fiction reading skills. Traditional reading strategies are simply not sufficient when navigating the internet. One of the important skills students need is the ability to evaluate and critique the information they locate. I appreciate Will Richardson’s perspective in his article, Creating Student Editors, that we must see our student readers as editors. As he states,

It’s no longer sufficient to be able to simply make sense of the words, sounds and images we ‘read’. We have to get behind those words and images. We have to do the work of the editors whom we have relied on for most of our lives but who in many cases have been eliminated from the publishing process on the Read/Write web.

What skills do our editors require? Amongst others, they need to be able to question content, identify authors and publishers, locate supporting information and utilize online text features.

When thinking about what this would look like in my own classroom I wanted a reference or tool that students would ultimately be able to internalize as part of their reading repertoire. I put together a set of questions based on the 5 W’s that I can post in the class and simplify to create individual bookmarks. These can be kept with the iPads, at the computer stations and with students.


I plan on introducing these 5 W’s through modeling with think-alouds. While some of the W’s will be easily answered, a number of them will require their own lessons and extended practice – namely determining audience, identifying, defining & utilizing online text features, and recognizing bias.

As the students start to take ownership they can work in partners or small groups:

  • groups can be assigned a W and become close readers or experts in that area for an assigned site
  • partners/groups can choose a site and answer the 5 W’s
  • partners/groups can present a site they evaluated to the class by annotating a screen shot with an app such as Skitch, creating a video screen capture, or…the list goes on.

The end goal is for students to routinely ask themselves these questions as they conduct their own research.

And, as we work through this as a class I anticipate some changes and adaptations to the 5 W questions as I’m sure  students will come up with essential questions I haven’t even considered!

Richardson, W., (2008). Creating student editors. District Administration. December, p. 80.

From There to Hear: Moving forward with online non-fiction reading comprehension


I began this inquiry asking, how can we develop student proficiency with digital non-fiction reading? but my question changed along the way. Originally I was working from the perspective of implementation; however, I found I was more often considering the need for implementation; instead of asking how I was asking why. I was drawn to the discussions about changes in literacy ethos and found that while traditional reading comprehension strategies have a place in new literacy they simply are not enough.

As readers transition to Internet reading environments, emerging work suggests these transitional strategies are necessary, but not sufficient, to successfully navigate and make sense of online informational texts” (Coiro, 2011. p. 108).

The following is a summary of the answers I found to the 4 driving questions I asked when beginning my inquiry.

How do traditional reading skills transfer to digital platforms?


Coiro (2011) and Leu et al. (2011) discussed the intermixing of offline and online comprehension strategies. Both bodies of work acknowledged the role of traditional skills in digital reading environments. Students must still search for information, access their prior knowledge, understand the role of and utilise text features, make connections and synthesise information. If reading online was a static experience, as print based reading usually is, there would be little difference. What we see instead is a new interpretation of these skills. Online comprehension strategies are similar, but take on a new complexity. For example, when reading text books students can locate text features to help make predictions and locate specific information. These text features (headings, images, highlighted text…) are fixed, common and predictable within the non-fiction genre, whereas similar online text features are far more dynamic. A heading may be hyperlinked to another source and highlighted words can offer pop ups, links to dictionaries, or audio clips of oral definitions. Furthermore, as websites are revamped and blogs are updated the text features may be taken away or added to. Students must be more flexible and prepared to rewrite their prior knowledge of text features in an online setting. Locating information is similarly more complex online. In traditional reading, students use the table of contents, glossary, headings and sub-headings to hone their searches. When reading online, locating information requires a far more sophisticated process. Students must learn how to conduct effective queries, evaluate the numerous sites from the search results, and question the accuracy of the information. In my own experience, I have frequently noticed students perform a search and use the first site in the results (usually Wikipedia – not that I forbid the use of it. See here for a Media Smarts article on explicit teaching of Wikipedia for the classroom). More proficient online readers may sift through the search results to locate useful sites by clicking on and scanning the pages. This is a technique O’Bryne, Zawilinski, Mcverry, & Leu (2008) call the “click and look strategy” (p. 355) However, with explicit instruction for reading search results students will move from using these simple and inefficient strategies (which resemble offline processes) to complex online strategies. While students may utilise their offline reading strategies in online settings, they also require unique skills which are online specific. What new literacy skills are required for online non-fiction reading?

The field of new literacy includes digital literacy and media literacy – sometimes more specifically referred to as critical media literacy. Each is intertwined with the other. While lines can be blurred between deciding which skills and strategies are offline or online specific based on individual interpretation, critical media literacy does present a new skill set for our students. Unlike print based reading, students must critique bias, purpose and validity in a recursive and open ended environment.

“Most offline informational texts used in classrooms are not embedded with commercial interests to the extent that online informational texts may be” (Coiro, 2011. p. 272).

Students need to be aware of the influential information they read and be prepared to evaluate its reliability. They must also be able to decide how this information fits with their research. Evaluating text and purpose in this manner is far more manageable when reading print based materials – especially when the text is chosen for them. However, when online, students are not confined to a single source – they are confronted with thousands of unvetted sites. Another unique feature of digital information is its degree of multimodality. Students must now interact with text on a number of levels. They require auditory and visual reading skills as well as strategies to sift, focus and synthesis multiple modes of information. When reading online, our students require a much larger tool box of strategies.

infographic from through
infographic from through

Another unique feature of online reading is the opportunity for collaboration – locally and globally,  as it “takes place in a context where readers regularly communicate with others about the problems they’re trying to understand” (O’Bryne et al. p. 354). Students can collaborate to shape and share their learning in offline reading situations; however, the Internet expands their learning community. Without opening a can of worms and diverting the discussion, the skills and strategies required for online comprehension and online communication fall within the umbrella of digital citizenship.

(click here or on the image for a larger discussion on digital citizenship)
How do digital tools impact a student’s reading performance?

While we can be inclined to immediately think of the benefits digital tools and technology offer our students, we must also consider the challenges. On one hand, digital and online reading opens a door for many students – information is presented in a number of ways which increases accessibility. On the other, access can be limited because of new skill and strategy requirements. Schugar, Smith & Schugar (2013) make a distinction between multimedia text features as comprehension tools and strategic reading. They point out that it is not the text features themselves that enhance comprehension, but the strategic use of the media (p. 616). They also draw attention to the “seductive details effect” (p. 616) where students’ attention can be drawn away from important or relevant information as they attend to embedded distractors. As I discussed earlier, students must be able to maintain focus. This requires being able to read with intent; continually revisiting the purpose for reading.

How does teaching need to change to support students’ online/digital non-fiction reading?

Before providing recommendations for classroom practice, I would like to state that I believe the most important change that needs to occur must be with policy and curriculum development. While curriculum change is often slow, slower than the current speed that technological influences have in education for certain, it is essential that new literacies are explicitly included in the outcomes. Recommendations:

  • Let go of assumptions: As teachers we cannot assume that students are independently applying the necessary skills required for online reading comprehension. We also cannot assume that they are aware of required skills.
  • Explicit Teaching: While most of our students are coming with technological know-how we must still explicitly teach online comprehension strategies to support their digital literacy. Using think-alouds to model online reading processes and providing time for guided practice is especially important.
  • Inclusion: In the past, technology was often exclusively used as an assistive tool to support students with individual education plans. Fortunately, with the inundation of new tools and the awareness of new literacies technology can be part of the class for all students to use. Meaningful and purposeful integration of technology in the classroom lends an inclusive setting which recognizes the needs of all learners. In the past I have had students on IEPs who did not want to use lap tops or other tools as they did not want to seem different than the other kids. Now, these students do not have to feel that they are trying to integrate; rather they are part of a class where all students are using technology to assist and promote learning.
  • Professional development: We cannot expect teachers to keep up with their students, nor can we expect that they can keep up with every new advancement in technology. However, it is important to take part in professional development opportunities to acquire a working knowledge of technology implementation, an understanding of the skills our students need, and to develop strategies for classroom practice. One of the best things, I believe, a teacher can do is take part in professional development through social media. Teachers will develop a digital insider perspective which will translate to their teaching. Also, work with colleagues to create a school plan: likely faster than waiting for curriculum development, teachers, along with administration, can develop a plan for strategic instruction of digital literacy. By creating a school goal or action plan there is a stronger likeliness of in-house professional development.

It is important to understand that as we provide online reading comprehension instruction for our students we are supporting them in becoming literate digital citizens.


Coiro, J. (2011). Talking about reading as thinking: Modeling the hidden complexities of online reading comprehension. Theory Into Practice, 50. pp. 107-115.

Coiro, J. (2011). Predicting reading comprehension on the internet: Contributions of offline reading skills, online reading skills, and prior knowledge. Journal of Literacy Research 43. pp. 352-392.

O’Byrne,I. W., Zawilinski, L., J. McVerry, G., Leu,D. J., Mokhtari, K., Kymes, A., & Edwards, P. ( 2008). Assessing the new literacies of online reading comprehension: An Informative interview with W. Ian O’Byrne, Lisa Zawilinski, J. Greg McVerry, and Donald J. Leu at the University of Connecticut. The Reading Teacher, 62, (4), pp. 354-357.

Schugar, H., Smith, C., & Schugar, J. (2013). Teaching with interactive picture e-books in grades k-6. The Reading Teacher, 66(8). pp. 615-624.

Classroom Applications – Teaching Digital Non-Fiction Reading Strategies

To fully prepare students for reading digital text, teachers need to incorporate…new literacy skills into the reading curriculum and support online reading comprehension during content-area lessons.


In my previous posts I demonstrated how the changing landscape of literacy, influenced by the Internet and ICTs, necessitates explicit teaching of online/digital non-fiction reading comprehension. A very important consideration within the field of new literacies is how the dynamic features of technology affect the reading performance of our students. As Schugar, Smith and Schugar state, “Although it is tempting to think of today’s students as digital natives who are comfortable using tablets (or other mobile devices, like an iPhone), teachers cannot assume that students’ prior experiences with these devices have prepared them for the unique demands required of the reader” (2013, p. 618). Digital text features such as hyperlinks, pose challenges even for proficient offline readers (Coiro, 2011. p.353). Therefore, we must equip our students with skills and strategies to evaluate website, navigate multimodal features and collaborate to make meaning. In this post I’m going to share modeling strategies, lesson plans and online resources to support classroom instruction.

One of the biggest tasks students face when reading for information online is effectively evaluating websites for readability (at their level), accuracy, and purpose. I think we can relate, as teachers, to the inundation of Wikipedia sourcing, the pasting of vocabulary and concepts beyond their understanding and mediocre search queries performed by students. In her Edutopia blog post, Teaching Adolescents How to Evaluate the Quality of Online Information, Julie Coiro shares essential teachings & strategies to explicitly teach for online evaluation:

  • critical evaluation dimensions (such as relevancy, accuracy, bias and reliability)
  • modeling and practice
  • prompting
  • considerations for healthy skepticism

Furthermore, in her article Making Sense of Online Text (2005), Coiro uses the Think and Check strategy to encourage students to check for validity.

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 As she states, “The Think and Check activity…holds students accountable for considering each question carefully and then checking the validity of the information by recording evidence to support their answers – before they incorporate sources of factual information into a research project” (pp.33-34).

Multimodality presents additional challenges for online reading comprehension. While  providing alternate modes of information, hyperlinks, graphics, audio and visual clips can also distract and disorient students. Furthermore, they can potentially affect a students’ textual reading skills as they “might channel students’ attention away from the actual reading of the text, and students might be tempted to ‘read’ through the pictures and interactions rather than looking at the text itself” (Schugar, Smith & Schugar, p. 620).

In the attached lesson sequence Exploring Multimodal Websites and handout student tracking sheet for online multimodal comp,  I have developed lessons which explicitly teach students how to explore multimodal websites when searching for specific information. Using a think aloud, the teacher models the reading and viewing process which students then practice in pairs. Finally, students create a multimodal blog post to apply their understanding and to “fully realize the interactivity of the Web” (Vacca, Vacca & Mraz, 2014, p. 40).

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Collaboration is an essential skill of 21st century learners. Social bookmarking tools provide students with opportunities to share opinions, make connections, co-ordinate resources, interact with online non-fiction text and ultimately support each other’s construction of meaning. Diigo is a good example of one such tool which allows users to tag, organize, highlight and annotate online articles (Ferriter, 2011). The following video is a concise tutorial that teachers could use to familiarize themselves with Diigo.

I’ve touched on 3 key areas of online non-fiction comprehension instruction; however, there are others to consider:

  • synthesising information
  • assessing digital literacy
  • access to technology and its impact on student reading performance
  • the role of e-books in supporting non-fiction comprehension

Fortunately, research is growing in this area, resources are readily available and conversations are shifting.


Coiro, J. (2011). Making sense of online text. Educational Leadership, pp. 30-35.

Schugar, H., Smith, C., & Schugar, J. (2013). Teaching with interactive picture e-books in grades k-6. The Reading Teacher, 66(8). pp. 615-624.

Vacca, R., Vacca, J.,& Mraz, M. (2014). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (11th ed.).  Pearson.

Is it enough? Considering Digital Non-Fiction Comprehension

If you were to sit down with a book about west coast marine life, what skills would you need to proficiently read and comprehend the text? What if the book was an EBook on your tablet? Would you require the same skills? What if you were on your computer and performing a query on the topic to browse webpages? Are your comprehension skills the same ones you initially used?

With the print-based text, a proficient reader would be predicting, making connections, questioning, drawing inferences, summarizing, synthesising, and altering strategies along the way as they monitored their understanding. Similarly, a skilled reader would employ these strategies as they navigated online or digital text. But would they be enough and would they look the same in a digital context? Which leads to the question – are traditional, offline reading comprehension strategies sufficient for comprehending digital text?

The notion of literacy has always been evolving (Alexander & Fox 2008). Continued research and developing theoretical perspectives have influenced classroom practice and shaped the skills teachers foster in their students. However, we are in a unique period of time where change is happening faster than ever; “The emergence of the internet has brought about a period of rapid, continuous technological change and, as a result, rapid, continuous change in the nature of literacy” (Leu, McVerry, O’Bryne, Kiili, Zawilinski, Everett-Cacopardo, Kennedy & Forzani, 2011. p. 5), thus shaping the field of new literacies.

Yet, within educational research and school policy development, not all perspectives have caught up with the need for change (Coiro 2011 & Leu et al. 2011). A point well illustrated when considering the new literacy skills required for online non-fiction reading. As Coiro points out, “despite both informed speculation and evidence to the contrary, our field often assumes online reading skills to be primarily the same as offline reading skills or sets them aside as technology skills rather than new reading comprehension skills” (2011, p. 353). Through their commentary, Leu et al counter this mindset and support a shift in thinking, “online reading comprehension is not isomorphic with offline reading comprehension”. Furthermore, they state, “new online and traditional offline reading comprehension skills are both required, often in complex and interrelated ways” (pp. 6-7). Offline skills such as accessing prior knowledge and synthesising information are necessary and utilized strategies in digital contexts; however, the “new technical stuff” of the 21st century “require new literacies to effectively exploit their potentials” (Nahachewsky, 2013. p.76).

In a quantitative study of 118 grade 7 students, Coiro (2011) sought to evaluate student reading performance when using online reading comprehension strategies over and above their offline strategies. In her research, she reported that, “successful Internet reading experiences appear to simultaneously require both similar and more complex applications of (a) prior knowledge sources, (b) inferential reasoning strategies, and (c) self-regulated reading process” (p. 357).  In addition, she found that online comprehension requires the use of a unique set of skills such as, “accessing search engines, generating reasonable search terms, understanding web addresses, navigating multilevel websites, and using new information and communication tools” (p. 372).

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References to comprehension can also be found within definitions of digital literacy. In a blog post, 4 Principles of Digital Literacy, author Terry Heick lists comprehension as the first principle of digital literacy, simply defining it as, “the ability to extract implicit and explicit ideas from a media”. In the 5 Resources Model of Critical Digital Literacy, developers Juliet Hinrichsen and Anthony Coombs designate 3 of their 5 resources to comprehension skills: decoding, meaning making and analysing. While both offline and online comprehension strategies, Hinrichsen and Coombs define how each is applied in a digital setting.                                      

If you answered the questions presented in the beginning of this post, I don’t think these findings and definitions will be shocking. It is understandable that offline or digital reading would require its own set of comprehension skills while still utilizing traditional skills, albeit with adaptations. What these finding do is reinforce the importance of explicit instruction. The dynamic and complex nature of the internet and ICTs (Information and Communication Technologies) demand dynamic and complex reading skills from students. The findings and definitions also help to shape our understanding of the ethos, “the ‘kinds of values, emphases, priorities, perspectives, orientations and sensibilities’” (Lankshear & Knobel in Nahachewsky, p. 75) of new literacies.

If policy makers and educators continue to ignore the growing evidence that new skills and strategies may be required to read, learn and solve problems with the Internet, our students will not be prepared for the future .

(Coiro, p. 353)


Alexander, P., & Fox, E. (2008). Reading in perspective. In M. Fresch (Ed.), An essential history of current reading practices (pp.12-32). Newark, DE: International Reading Association

Coiro, J. (2011). Predicting reading comprehension on the internet: Contributions of offline reading skills, online reading skills and prior knowledge. Journal of Literacy Research, 43, pp. 352-392.

Leu, D., McVerry, J., O’Bryne, W., Kiili, C., Zawilinski, L., Everett- Cacopardo, H., Kennedy, C., & Forzani, E. (2011). The new literacies of online reading comprehension: Expanding the literacy and learning curriculum. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55(1), pp, 5-14.

Nahachewsky, J. (2013). Understanding the importance of ethos in composing the “everyday” new literacies classroom. Language and Literacy, 15(1), pp. 74-92.

Non-Fiction Reading in a Digital World

At a recent dinner party a colleague shared her dismay that a number of students had cut and pasted most of their information for an assignment from the internet – hyperlinks and all. An experience I think many teachers can identify with. While there could be a myriad of reasons for their plagiarism – time, apathy, disinterest, writing skill – the conversation piqued my attention as it touched on my interest in our students’ digital literacy experiences.

For the past few years I’ve been focusing on reading instruction in content areas. Alongside my colleagues, I have promoted the idea that we are all teachers of reading, regardless of subject area. I have reshaped my own practice to include more reading instruction in Math, Science and Socials. Specifically, I found the Smart learning framework especially helpful as it offered a number of strategies for students to access their prior knowledge, chunk or breakdown text to build their comprehension and apply their understanding through high inference tasks.

Investing time in strategic non-fiction, print based reading was paying off, but one day I had a proverbial “a-ha” moment as I observed my students in the computer lab. I realized that I was spending significant time supporting their non-fiction reading, but when it came to internet based research I was generally saying “off you go!” I was setting them free to navigate the massive amounts of information the internet has to offer. I was working from the assumption that they would independently connect and employ their non-fiction reading strategies with their digital reading experience. Furthermore, knowing that my students have grown up in the digital world I assumed that the working knowledge and skills they have acquired would sufficiently equip them to decipher online material. I was not considering the specific strategies my students needed to evaluate and comprehend online text, nor was I providing them with explicit reading instruction to develop these skills.

My “a-ha” moment has inspired my inquiry and leads me to ask, “How can we develop student proficiency with digital non-fiction reading?”

Digital Natives – Do they have what it takes?

In 2001 Marc Prensky introduced us to the term digital natives; students who have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using tools of the digital age. Growing up in a digital environment has given them a certain level of fluidity, confidence, knowledge and a degree of expectation for how they communicate and acquire information. However, can we assume that they have the necessary skills for comprehending and utilizing digital non-fiction text? Vacca, Vacca and Mraz (2014) invite us to think otherwise,

“As teachers it is necessary to suspend assumptions regarding the technological knowledge and experience students bring to the classroom and instead develop instruction designed to address curriculum goals and students’ individual needs.”

Despite their expertise, our students still need explicit instruction to help them process the vast amount of information they peruse daily. However, before we can begin to plan for this instruction we need to understand the context of learning – what is literacy in the 21st century and how does it affect our students?

Literacy – The Changing Landscape

The proliferation of digital tools has undoubtedly changed the concept of literacy. We can no longer expect our students to be isolated consumers of information. New literacies, instead, offer learning in a sociocultural context. Websites, wiki spaces, social media platforms, texting and emailing invite interactive learning experiences. Our 21st century readers must therefore become digitally literate and show media savvy.

“Being a literate person in today’s society involves more than being able to construct meaning from printed text. A literate person needs to be able to ‘read’ and ‘write’ and learn with texts that have multimodal elements such as print, graphic design, audio, video, gesture, and nonstop interaction” (Vacca, Vacca & Mrazp. 33).

Multimodal and multimedia text features offer new opportunities and challenges for our students. When considering a student’s experience viewing web pages they are confronted with text, hyperlinks, images…the list goes on. Similarly, when reading with EBooks audio features and annotation tools affect a student’s reading process. Multimodality reconstructs how they make meaning as students move from a purely print based tool to a semiotic experience, where signs and images are interpreted (Roswell & Pahl, 2001, p.28). The opportunity to participate in these dynamic reading experiences is constantly present in our students’ lives and as you can see in the following video new platforms will continue to influence their digital reading.

Highlighted in this next generation of digital books, multimodality allows our students to make choices as they read. Purposefully constructed, digital media invites readers to deviate from a linear path. Students can make independent choices and jump to new elements with a simple click or swipe, creating an individualized and interest driven reading experience (Vacca, Vacca & Mraz p. 34).

With so much information to navigate, digitally literate students must also be able to view and filter with a critical lens.

Digital readers and writers need to make many decisions online and, as such, they need to have a critical eye towards different genres of texts and meta-awareness of these texts as promoting or silencing particular views (Alvermann in Roswell & Pahl p. 47).

As I consider my own students and think back to my colleague’s students who simply cut and pasted their assignment from the internet, this is a particularly salient aspect of new literacies. So often I have noticed students land on a website and proceed to gather information without evaluating the intended audience, quality of information, availability of embedded features, or source. Alongside digital literacy, students need to develop critical media skills (Morell, 2012) in the 21st century.

In addition to processing and evaluating information, another element of new literacies is the inherent collaborative nature of digital text.

a reader can now interact with other readers and even the author of the text being read…If there were ever a doubt that reading is a socially constructed activity, these characteristics of new media completely negate the stereotype of the lonely reader being ‘shushed’ by the librarian. Though individualized, reading is becoming a truly social and interactive experience (Vacca, Vacca & Mraz p. 34).

Media tools such as email, digital annotation, and social bookmarking allow our students to co-construct meaning and apply understanding.

When contemplating the many facets of new literacies I’m led to believe that we cannot expect or assume that our students are fully equipped, despite their digital awareness, to independently navigate, evaluate and collaborate in the digital world. It is our job, then, to support their skill acquisition.

My Inquiry

As mentioned in my inquiry question, I will be focusing on non-fiction digital text. As I explore this topic I will consider current research, offer practical solutions and provide recommendations and resources to colleagues based on my findings.

Specifically, I hope to find answers to the following questions as they apply to online reading comprehension:

  •  How do traditional reading skills transfer to digital platforms?
  • What new literacy skills are required for online non-fiction reading?
  • How do digital tools impact a students’ reading performance?
  • How does teaching need to change to support students’ online non-fiction reading?

Finally, I will keep in mind the 21st century literacy skills outlined by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) as published in 2008 in their definition of 21st century literacies :

  • Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  • Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  • Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments

Note: While I believe assessment is the driving force of all teaching, I will not be directly discussing assessment of online reading comprehension. Assessment is a big topic and even more considerable when you think of it in the context of new literacies. For that reason I am putting it aside for another time as I wanted to focus on literacy theory and strategic teaching in this inquiry. However, if you are interested in reading up on online reading assessment look into the work of Julie Coiro.


Morell, E. (2012). 21st century literacies, critical media pedagogies, and language arts. The Reading Teacher, 66(4), pp. 300-302.

Roswell, J. Pahl, K. (2011). Literacy and education: Understanding new literacy studies in the classroom. Second Edition. London: Sage.

Vacca, R., Vacca, J.,& Mraz, M. (2014). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (11th ed.).  Pearson.

Expanding our Community – Social Media as Professional Development

This new learning world is about participation,
not just consumption, and it’s only with that participation that the real
connections can happen.

The Inquiry Context

A common thread through my 10 years as a teacher has been a passion for literacy and professional development.  I have spent countless hours developing my own understanding of curriculum and pedagogy through workshops, in service, reading and writing; however, over the past few years I have found a new interest in working with and supporting colleagues in their own professional development.  As a literacy and numeracy support teacher for the past 3 years, mentorship and professional development has become not only a passion, but part of my job.  Choosing a new literacies practice which focuses on professional development, therefore came quite naturally. Personal circumstances also inspired my inquiry decision.  Recently on leave from teaching, I found that I wanted to stay connected to my colleagues on a professional level and wanted to stay abreast of current research and resources.  I discovered that through social media I was able to meet these needs. Seeing the opportunities offered through online professional development I set out to explore how social media can support professional development in the dynamic teaching and learning context of the 21st century.

Coming into this assignment I was not a novice social media user. On a personal level, I had been using various social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, to stay connected with friends and family from around the world.  I appreciated the ease and flexibility I was offered, the growing community I could connect with and the relatively simple and user-friendly platforms.  On a professional level, I had used blogging as a means of connecting with students and parents through a classroom blog using Blogger and more recently moved to using Edmodo as a home/school communication tool. Through these experiences I felt quite comfortable navigating the social media world.

With an interest in social media, an acute awareness of the changing landscape of literacy and questions around the effectiveness of traditional pro-d models, I set out on my inquiry with the following questions in mind:

  • How can I merge my outsider activities with social media to my insider practice?
  • What social media tools will I find most useful to meet my pro-d needs?
  • How can social media enhance professional development?

According to the Research

There is no denying that we are living, working and learning in a time of rapid change.  Within this context our social interactions, forms of communication, and the methods we use to search and gather information are being transformed.  With new media and new literacies we find that “Being a literate person in today’s society involves more than being able to construct meaning from a printed text.  A literate person needs to be able to ‘read’ and ‘write’ and learn with texts that have multimodal elements such as print, graphic design, audio, video, gesture, and nonstop interaction” (Vacca, Vacca & Maraz, 2014. p. 33).  Will Richardson (2013) suggests that the proliferation of technology and the influences of the web demand an ecological change in education.  More than just layering technology on traditional practices, schools need to focus on the needs of the learner.  Richardson asks, “What if we focused on developing kids who are ‘learners’ instead of trying to make sure they’re ‘learned’? What if, instead of delivering the same, common education to every student, we focused on developing the skills and dispositions necessary for them to learn whatever they need to learn whenever they need to learn it? That means rethinking classrooms to focus in individualized passions, inquiry, creation, sharing, patient problem solving, and innovation” (p. 14).

Research shows that Richardson’s thinking can be applied to professional development. Working within the same parameters, professional development needs to undergo its own ecological revolution.  Richard Beach argues that, “as classrooms change and as students bring more digital capabilities and sensibilities to school than ever before, our PD mechanisms also need to change” (2012, p. 256).  Traditional workshop models of pro-d are viewed as ineffective and teachers desire flexibility, individualization, increased collaboration and integrated support to meet the demands of teaching in a digital world.

Goals of professional development include supporting teachers’ understanding of current practice to provide meaningful learning experiences for their students. However, “Current professional development (PD) often does not effectively support teachers in transforming their instruction. One-shot workshops – ‘professional development’ days with little direct connections to classrooms, coaching support, or follow-up – often have minimal impact on teachers (Beach, p. 256). The success of educational reform rests in the success and effectiveness of professional development.  The continued prominence of mandated, short term pro-d proves to be “inadequate strategies for bringing about change” (McConnell, Parker, Eberhardt, Koehler, Lundeberg 2012, p. 267).  As an alternative, online professional development offers on-going, open ended platforms with an endless number of potential collaborators.

While traditional models of professional development provide opportunities for collaboration, teachers continue to be passive recipients of information.  Richardson and Mancabelli point out, “This new learning world is about participation, not just consumption, and it’s only with that participation that the real connections can happen” (2011, p. 37).  Social media is participatory by nature and teacher involvement in online pro-d connects them to a global community of colleagues with similar interests and inquiries. Through social media sites such as Twitter, teachers can become members of professional learning communities which focus on problem solving, planning, assessment and curriculum development (Beach, 2012).  The constraints associated with pre-determined or directive face- to-face pro-d are eliminated with social media as an, “online forum can support professional learning by giving teachers a platform for interacting with other professionals and providing a place to discuss current issues and trends” (Byington, 2011. pp. 282-283). Furthermore, Trinkle shares “A feature of PLCs that Twitter exemplifies better than many face- to-face communities is the ‘collective inquiry into best practice’ (Darfour 2008). By choosing whom you follow, you choose the best practices for your personal interests…and educators who Twitter, though spread out across the globe, are working together in a collaborative community for their professional development (2008, 18)” (2009 p. 22). The affordance of choice gives teachers a sense of ownership which increases their investment in developing personal practice (Bostock 2012, p. 223).  In addition to Twitter, research shows that blogs are effective online tools for collaboration. Blogs support the synthesis of ideas, connections with other teachers, communication around common interest (Richardson & Mancabelli, p. 50) and allow participants to access information at any time through archived conversations (Byington, p. 283).  Beyond collaboration, online professional development affords teachers the flexibility they desire, “Technology is providing new opportunities for creating professional connections within the field of education by eliminating time and space constraints” (Byington, p. 290).  Finding time within work schedules is not as challenging and cost restrictive as online learning and collaboration can take place in an ongoing, limitless timeframe.

When considering the necessity of educational reform to support 21 century learners, the research shows that increased meaningful professional development with digital tools and platforms is essential for sustained change.  As teachers develop their own digital insider perspective, they increasingly understand the skills they must bring to their literacy instruction (Colwell, Hutchinson & Reinking 2012, p. 233).  According to Bostock, “Active involvement in using digital technologies will enable teachers to better understand how to develop the types of learning activities that will be engaging and meaningful for their students, many of whom are familiar with these practices in their lives outside of school” (p. 223).

Personal Experience with Social Media as Pro-D

Resource sharing and gathering, I discovered, was one of the most useful elements of social media as professional development.  By choosing particular people or organizations to follow on Twitter I shared in their common interests and utilized the information they had to offer. With the favourites feature, I could save Tweets with links, inspirations, images and lesson ideas.  Furthermore, I could directly share the learning boards and pearls I created on Learnist and Pearltrees through sharing features on their sites. Collecting resources was simple with Pearltrees. I found that I could simply use their bookmarking tool to compile pearls (their version of a file) on specific topics. For example, whenever I came across a good website, blog, Youtube video, or image on digital citizenship I would add the link to my pearl.  Pearltrees has become one of my favourite digital tools as I finally have a place to efficiently collect the resources I come across. While Learnist is a good social bookmarking tool for searching information I have begun using it more to create my own learning boards which I can share with students and colleagues.  The layout of the learning board is more conducive, I believe, to sharing in a class, in a workshop, or with a group than Pearltrees as it is linear and the learnings (the links within a learning board) can be organized sequentially.

While comfortable with most of the navigational aspects of social media, I found that I had to overcome the fear of writing for an audience of my peers.  Writing for my blog was particularly stressful in the beginning as the nature of blogging invites opinion writing, personal perspective and experience – not to mention that I was being assessed for my Masters program. My opinions, writing abilities (or inabilities!) thoughts and feelings would be public property. With audience in mind, I had to craft my writing to assure the digital
footprint I was creating was one that portrayed a critical thinker who could support her ideas, and a reflective, supportive professional.  Finding myself in the position of writing in a public forum, with audience and voice in mind helped me understand the importance of explicit writing instruction in these areas for my own students. Students are likely writing more today than they ever have due to the connections they maintain in social media and through emailing, blogging, creating fanzines etc which means they need to be able to choose appropriate voice to fit their purpose and audience. Like the teachers in Bostock’s research, I “came to appreciate that these digital literacies were, in fact, a new and important language, a language that deserves recognition in the classroom curriculum as a significant form of communication” (p. 229).

I also went through a number of hair-pulling moments when transferring my blog from Blogger to WordPress. While it initially looked like a simple one or two-step process I quickly discovered that Blogger and WordPress work quite differently. I spent the better part of two days learning the new platform, making mistakes, emailing the helpdesk, watching how-to videos on Youtube and finally phoning my cousin who is a graphic and web designer who uses WordPress. In the end I was proud of the blog I created and pleased with the utility it offered viewers; however, I was slightly disheartened as it is quite simple in appearance and did not reflect the HOURS that went into its creation.  I did think of my colleagues a number of times throughout those two days and wondered how many would invest the same time in creating a professional development tool.  This could be a deterrent for many teachers and why Colwell, et al. suggest that “teachers not inclined to integrate digital forms of literacy into their practice may be more likely to do so with a tool that requires novice-level technical competence and minimal professional development” (p. 234).

My willingness to persevere speaks to my efficacy with social media.  Once I find a tool that I find valuable, I am willing to commit time and effort as I know the outcome with be worth it. Through my perseverance I have developed skills which lend to my efficiency; I can now filter, screen, upload, embed, summarize (to 144 characters!) and share with relative ease. I do still have areas to grow in. I would like to actively take part in some Twitter chats (I’m usually a silent observer)  and should utilize hashtags more often to find feeds on specific topics. It continues to be a learning journey.

What Others Need to Know

Here is one of the significant take-aways I have gleaned which could be helpful for anyone considering using social media as an online professional tool:

Online vs Combined Models: I found that there are two main ways to use online pro-d: fully online or a hybrid model (Byington, p. 287) of online and face-to-face collaboration.  The fully online model is useful for reaching out to educators across the globe, benefiting from a wealth of information and accessing resources. However, it can be an isolated experience and I find that without someone physically alongside you, there is no guarantee that the information gathered will translate into classroom practice or educational reform.  A solution  would be to set expectations or goals with a professional learning community and assign online meeting times where you could debrief and discuss progress made.  Alternatively, educators can use a combined model which can “sustain communities of practice between face-to-face events” (p. 287). I have appreciated my own experience with this model within my literacy/numeracy mentorship role. Mentors from across the district come together approximately four times a year. In between, we use Twitter to stay connected with a common hashtag – #sd61slm. A benefit of this model is that it supports localized goals and inquiries and provides a flexible model for participation. Here’s a teacher in our district who agrees:

Where do I go from Here?

For my own practice I have established three goals:

  1. Create an online professional learning community within my school
  2. Take part in the weekly BCEdChat on Sunday evenings
  3. Use a social bookmarking tool with my students to help them search and collect information to support their inquiries, research or personal interests

Want to get started?

Here is a handy resource with some quick and easy advice on how to begin collaborating with social media:

Social Media Savvy? Four Tips to Help You Get Started | Edutopia.

p.s. thanks to some Twitter friends for their insights!

The above is a shortened and modified version of a recent M Ed inquiry assignment

Beach, R. (2012). Can online learning communities foster professional development? Language Arts, 89(4), 256-262.

Bostock, S. (2012). Thirdspace: A perspective on professional development. Language Arts, 89(4), 222-231.

Byington, T. (2011). Communities of practice: Using blogs to increase collaboration. Intervention in School and Clinic, 46, 280-291.

Colwell, J., Hutchison, A., & Reinking, D. (2012). Using blogs to promote literacy response during professional development. Language Arts, 89(4), 232-243.

Darfour, R. (2008) Revisiting professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

McConnell, T., Parker, J., Eberhardt, J., Koehler, J., & Lundeberg, M. (2013). Virtual professional learning communities: Teachers’ perceptions of virtual versus face-to-face professional development. Journal of Science Education and Technology. 22, 267-277.

Richardson, W. (2013). Students first, not stuff. Educational Leadership. March 2013, 10-14.

Richardson, W. & Mancabelli, R. (2011). Personal learning networks: Using the power of connections to transform education. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Trinkle, C. (2009). Twitter as a professional learning community. School Library Monthly, 26(4), 22-23.

Vacca, R., Vacca, J., & Mraz, M. (2014). Learning with new literacies.

Using PLCs to support student writers in the digital age

Here is a video scribe that a friend and I created that demonstrates the importance of using professional learning communities to support writing in the digital age.