Beyond Text: reThinking Literacy

Take a moment and think about the websites you view as an adult.  BBC. ESPN. CNN.  Visualize a site you visited recently, or even click away from this post to take a look at it at one of the sites listed above. What do you see?




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Chances are the websites you visit are dominated by visuals. Today, images and video capture more real estate on websites, sometimes dominating text by three to one. This shift in how information is presented yields new opportunities and challenges educators to amplify  instruction to include all types of literacies. To be effective consumers and more importantly, effective communicators, we must explicitly teach kids to analyze, evaluate and create messages in a variety of print and digital media (See ISTE Student Standards, Center for Media Literacy or CCSS Anchor Standards for more information).  

To do this, we expand our definition of what it means to “read” by providing multiple entry points to learning as students study images, view video and think deeply about multimedia.  We build background knowledge with photographs and analyze infographics to infer the artist’s message. As with print, we provide explicit instruction on how to read and annotate a video and guide students to ask questions, clarify and rewatch the video to build knowledge. Today we embrace new opportunities to connect students to their passion and leverage tech as a way to bring kids to text. Most importantly, we engage students to create their own content so they can understand the role of media in society and communicate effectively in today’s participatory culture.

I can’t wait to explore this more in April at reThinking Literacy and together discover new ways to ask students, “What do you wonder? Where can we find that information? How do you want to share your thinking?” My hope is that we move beyond terms “print,” “digital,” and “media” and simply teach kids to be effective thinkers in every context. I believe it’s time to rethink literacy and teach kids to read the world.  

The Shift in Reading: What Do We Mean by “Text?”

Not so long ago, when talking to teachers about reading strategies and the use of texts in classroom, conversations commonly centered around print books and traditional strategies that promote fluency, vocabulary knowledge, and comprehension.  However, in recent years, our views on reading have shifted drastically, along with notions about what constitutes “text.” Today’s students and teachers encounter texts in many different forms including digital, print, linear, multimodal, and interactive texts. Some texts, like traditional print novels, are read in a linear fashion, while others require a much different approach. For example, when reading a webpage, students typically skim and scan, navigate hyperlinks, and move through the text in a nonlinear way. Interactive picture book apps, and some e-books, are often enhanced with animations, audio, music, or embedded video files. This type of text challenges readers to make a wide range of strategic decisions about how to best approach, navigate, and comprehend the text.

As recent advancements in digital reading platforms allow for a more portable and interactive reading experience. No longer do we associate e-book reading experiences with desktop computer reading. Instead, we read on tablets, laptops, and smart phones. We can access e-books and story apps instantly through the Internet and even participate in online book discussions or other interactive reading experiences. In schools, students’ exposure to and interaction with digital reading are also increasing rapidly. A vast supply of e-books, coupled with falling prices of both e-books and tablet technologies, has prompted a rise in e-book reading among kids.  According to the Kids and Family Reading Report (Scholastic, 2015), almost two-thirds of school-aged children in the United States reported having read an e-book. While most e-books are still read at home, e-book reading at school nearly doubled in the last two years. This is good news! However, to adequately prepare students for 21st-century reading, it is not enough to provide access to digital texts but rather help students discover and utilize the many affordances and features unique to each type of e-book and digital text. Here are some common e-book features and suggestions for how students can strategically use them to improve reading fluency, develop vocabulary, and support overall comprehension.

Customize the “Digital Page:” Many e-books and picture book apps allow readers to change settings and personalize text size, font, layout, background color, margin size, and so on. For struggling readers in particular, making the font bigger – and consequently displaying less text on each “page” – can make a big difference.  Some students may prefer reading black font on a white background, while others benefit from white font on a dark page. Regardless what settings are applied, it is important that students learn how to strategically select settings that suit their individual needs.

Use Digital Dictionary: To support students’ vocabulary development, using a digital dictionary can be very helpful. In many e-books and story book apps, by simply clicking on a word, a written and/or spoken definition will appear. Students who have such easy access to vocabulary support tend to look up more words than those who have to rely on a print dictionary. In addition, some e-books offer translation features. For example, a student who reads a book in English may opt to have words translated to German. This tool is particularly helpful for students who are multi-lingual or studying a foreign language.  

Listen to an Audio Narration: In a recent article, I discuss the benefits of using audio support in combination with digital texts. Students who listen to a narrated story may gain fluency skills and they can benefit from hearing unfamiliar words pronounced correctly. This, of course, is particularly helpful for struggling readers and those who are learning a new language. While some teachers may question whether “listening” is acceptable form of “reading,” there is ample evidence to suggest that strategic use of audio support can be very beneficial.

Just like teachers have taught traditional print-text reading strategies for centuries, we need to support our students in becoming strategic readers of digital texts. This, of course, includes helping students identify different types of texts and subsequent text structures, tools and features. I look forward to sharing more ideas for transforming literacy learning through the use of digital text at both the keynote session and workshop at the re-Thinking Literacy Conference. See you there!