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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.





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