On the heels of Amazon’s new Kindle Fire and the passing of technology visionary Steve Jobs, I wanted to share some thoughts on digital reading that were inspired by a recent question from a colleague. Here, in part, is my response to her email:
As you invite your students to explore digital reading, I think that you are asking a smart question: how can we help students generate meaning from these texts? You note two kinds of digital texts — ebooks and online texts — and I think we can probably even tinker with those categories even more. For ebooks, we might include different kinds of ebooks (ones that are simply a PDF-style copy of the book and those that are interactive and allow for highlighting and other notations, as well as audio narration to be played, not to mention syncing across devices). Also, we might include the new interactive magazines (like Wired) and newspapers (like NYTimes.com) that are read on mobile devices and tablets. Then, when we consider “traditional” online texts like web pages, audio and video clips, and databases, we have a really broad range of text types that students are drawing from.
We consider all of this about digital reading in an era where teaching reading has been influenced, for years, by socio-cultural perspectives on literacy development as well as many, many educators working on a strategies-based approach to help kids comprehend texts. For socio-cultural theorists, we can see the traces of their work showing up in the way we use lit circles, explore contemporary themes in YA Lit, begin to see illustrations as important to children’s lit as the words on the page, and a number of other social influences on how and why we read. For comprehension strategists, we see an increasing number of them looking at text types and features, as well as helping students connecting information across texts.
It is interesting to note that the new standards simply note literature and informational as the broad text types from which we can choose. I know that there are points in the CCSS that indicate that we should be using technology in appropriate ways, and that the reading strategies that we employ can help in both print and digital texts. Yet, here we are, in a time of reading where Pew Internet reports that 93% of teens are online, where ebooks have outsold regular books for the first time, and where mobile devices and services continue to amaze us with their ability to track and save our information across time and space. Reading is changing in so many ways, yet — at its heart — still remains a process of creating meaning from words and images.
So, where do we go to begin to understand all of this? I think that you can get some good theoretical background from researchers like Colin Lankshear and Michelle Knobel, and their book New Literacies, as well as from this paper by Donald Leu and some of his colleagues from the New Literacies Research Team at UConn: “Toward a Theory of New Literacies Emerging From the Internet and Other Information and Communication Technologies.” This perspective suggests that reading online and with hyperlinked/multimedia text is a very different, more social and interactive experience than reading on paper alone. And, while you already know that, these two texts really help explain why in much more detail.
Then, to get more to the heart of your strategy question, I think that you can look in a few directions. First, one of the UConn team now at Rhode Island, Julie Coiro, has done some great work on online comprehension. For instance, in this piece in Ed Leadership, “Making Sense of Online Text,” she highlights strategies to navigate a website, question the authority/authenticity of the text, and synthesize information. An NWP teacher, Kevin Hodgson, has written a similar piece for Instructify called “Strategies for online reading comprehension.” In all of this, the researchers and theorists begin with the idea that online reading is different partially because we have to search for and sift through lots of information (not that we didn’t have to do that in the library, but the floodgate seems so much bigger). I think that it is interesting to consider the effects of RSS, too, and how students can set up their own list of prioritized readings (and listening and viewing, for that matter) from blogs, news sites, and other feeds (For instance, here is a recent blog post called “Really Simply Structured: My RSS Feed Strategy“). The thing that I think is missing from both of these types of articles is a list of tools that you can use — such as online book sites (Google Books or Good Reads), social bookmarking tools (Diigo), notetaking tools (EverNote), and bibliographic managers (Mendeley, Zotero), to help students take what they have been reading and to save, annotate, and cite their work. Also, we need to think about how this reading changes when it moves from a computer screen to a mobile device, as many websites are now formatted to read easier on a mobile device, but you may lose some of the context of the rest of the page since things are so small.
Next, you have to go back to the question of how to “read” ebooks, really taking advantage of the fact that they are digital, networked texts? First, I know that some of the readers allow you to interact with the text in different ways — to look up a word in the dictionary, to highlight words, to insert notes, to add bookmarks. How might we be able to use these tools to do the same types of reading and annotating that we have been doing for years with strategies similar to those described by Kylene Beers, Cris Tovani, Kelly Gallagher, Keene and Zimmerman, and others? In what ways can we use the social aspects of the ebook reader to engage kids in conversations (Kindle, for instance, will show what others have highlighted while you read — we might ask students, why is it important that so many people highlighted this particular passage in a text?) Also, the fact that students can use some of the devices to connect to the internet and then immediately share their reactions is important, too — what if you had an ongoing Twitter conversation about a book, both inside and outside of class? In other words, we have been asking students to keep post it notes and reading logs for a long time — how might we use ebook readers and social media to share, collaborate, and respond in more productive ways?
Finally, we move into ways to respond to texts. If we are taking the same old book report, yet just having students post it online, then are we really doing them any good? We must consider how, when, and why we are asking students to respond to texts. For instance, on the Youth Voices social network, they have a whole section for responses to literature and also offer their students guides for thinking as they write their responses to books, as well as write responses to each other (the guides don’t seem to be up there right now, as they must have recently redesigned their site). This kind of guided scaffolding is important, as it helps students understand how to effectively craft a response that others will be able to gain value from as readers, and not just summarize the book. Also, there are more creative ways that students can engage in reading and responding, like podcasting and role playing, as described by Robert Rozema and Allen Webb in their book, Literature and the Web.
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