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!



Teaching, Revising, and Assessing Digital Writing

Digital writing allows students to combine words, images, sounds, and videos into multimedia compositions that can reach a global audience. With this wide range of choices, they have numerous opportunities to express their ideas ranging from a personal essay recorded as a podcast to a research project presented as a web site or even an argument created as a blog post, complete with links and supporting graphics.

And, while these creative possibilities are useful and engaging for our students, it can be difficult to know exactly what we are looking for when we, as teachers, need to assess their work. Consider the following:

  • In much the same way we would use a rubric to evaluate a traditional academic essay, are we looking for distinct qualities in their digital writing such as organization and cohesion? What if disorganization — through a series of links or a cryptic video introduction — is actually part of the intended effect?
  • Even if we avoid grading on specific rubric-like criteria, are we searching for a checklist of component parts? Must all pieces of digital writing include certain elements like a title page, a list of references, or embedded quotations, statistics, or other evidence?
  • Or, if we offer narrative feedback without a grade or score attached, what is it, exactly, that we are looking to describe in a piece of digital writing? Do we comment on the final product only? Or, do we want some documentation of the students’ processes?

Revising words, sentences, and paragraphs presents a challenge to any writer, from novice to expert. When we add in components of digital writing such as images, audio, and video, the task becomes even more complex.

These are all questions that I have faced when working with teachers, and I decided to tackle the conundrum head-on. In my recent book, Assessing Students’ Digital Writing: Protocols for Looking Closely, I worked with seven teachers on students’ projects ranging from elementary school to first year composition in college. One of the things that we discovered in the process was that traditional “rubric-like” measures alone were not adequate in the ways that they could describe the work that students were doing.

Moreover, we recognized that just grading the final product did not provide enough insight into the work that these students were doing as digital writers. We needed a more robust language for talking about student work and, in turn, what we could learn from it as teachers.

Thus, we used two frameworks for talking about students’ digital writing, in terms of both process and product. First, we explored the Council of Writing Program Administrators, National Council of Teachers of English, and National Writing Project’s “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing.” The framework outlines both the “habits of mind” for students to develop as college-ready writers as well as the types of “writing, reading, and critical analysis” that they must perform in order to learn these habits of mind.

we recognized that just grading the final product did not provide enough insight into the work that these students were doing as digital writers. We needed a more robust language for talking about student work and, in turn, what we could learn from it as teachers.

Second, we looked at the National Writing Project Multimodal Assessment Project Group’s work on “Developing Domains for Multimodal Writing Assessment: The Language of Evaluation, the Language of Instruction.” The MAP Group’s work began with a question, “What would the assessment of digital writing look like if we began with conversations between writers and readers, students and teachers, children and adults?” We took that question up in our work, too, and we explored how the domains — looking at the piece of digital writing, or the “artifact,” itself as well as examining the context, substance, process and technique, as well as habits of mind used to create it — could contribute to a richer dialogue not only about evaluation, but about curriculum and instruction as well.

Revising words, sentences, and paragraphs presents a challenge to any writer, from novice to expert. When we add in components of digital writing such as images, audio, and video, the task becomes even more complex. I look forward to the conference keynote session, when we will pursue these ideas surrounding assessment and explore samples of students’ work with the goal that you can bring these types of rich, sustained conversations about the craft of digital writing back to your classroom.