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

imageI 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. image 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.




Click here to visit my online non-fiction resource collection in Pearltrees (you will need an account if you do not have one). It’s a collection of online resources including videos, blog posts, infographics, and articles.






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. (Coiro, 2005. p. 30)

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.

photo (4)

 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).

photo 1                 photo 2 (1)

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).

photo (2)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.                                       photo (1)

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.