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.
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.