Some Thoughts on Digital Reading

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 (MendeleyZotero), 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.

For me, when I watch my youngest son, who is a kindergartener, learning how to read with interactive games and storybooks on our iPad, I am simply amazed. All of our children are reading, both in print and online. For them, what will reading be in a year? Two years? Ten years?

In the past 100 days, I have become a reader again through a device that, no surprise, has opened up a digital vista of books and other sources of reading to me. Of course, it isn’t too difficult to figure out that I am talking about an iPad, but the change has been more than I would have expected from a device that was billed as “magical”and “revolutionary.” When, for years, I bemoaned the fact that I didn’t have time to get to the library, it is now at my fingertips, and I can download a book and begin reading it as if I were browsing the shelves. Better yet, the cumbersome chore of converting audio books on CD into burned copies has now been replaced with the ease of a media player bringing me the latest titles. I have been able to read more in the past 100 days — at least in terms of what I would call “pleasure” reading — than I probably did in the past 100 months.

I am so glad to know that your district is looking ahead, trying to find resources and ideas to help develop thoughtful readers in a digital age. I hope that some of these ideas and resources will get you moving in the right direction.

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My Response to the White House

Here at the eleventh hour, I am submitting my response to the White House’s “Advise the Advisor” survey. While I don’t really agree with the ways that they have framed the questions, I am sharing my responses here. Hope I get news of this much earlier next time so that I have time to compose longer, more thoughtful responses.

Parents: Responsibility for our children’s education and future begins in our homes and communities. What are some of the most effective ways you’re taking responsibility at a personal and local level for your child’s education?

Along with the traditional modes of volunteering for field trips and working concession stands, we are also inviting our own children to take typical kinds of homework assignments and infuse them with new technologies. For instance, when our son was asked to write a list of ways he used and conserved water in the house, he took a digital camera and documented all the ways we use water, presenting his final work in an online slideshow. We talk with our children’s teachers about ways that they can use technology to support critical and creative thinking.

Teachers: President Obama has set a goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. How are you preparing your students for college and career? What’s working and what challenges do you face?

As a teacher educator, and a Director of a site of the National Writing Project — the Chippewa River Writing Project at Central Michigan University — I see the challenges that teachers face as they are asked to “cover” mandated curriculum in ways that stifle student writers. I unequivocally encourage you to reinstate funding for the National Writing Project, as it is both the most cost-effective and professionally powerful way we can use federal dollars. Each site has at least a one-to-one match of local dollars to the federal grant, and we need to have high-quality professional development for all teachers if we ever expect our students to be strong writers and be prepared for college and career.

Students: In order to compete for the jobs of the 21st century, America’s students must be prepared with a strong background in reading, math and science along with the critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity needed to succeed in tomorrow’s workforce. How has your education prepared you for a career in the 21st century? What has worked and what challenges do you face?

My children would tell you about their experience in their elementary school where they are enrolled in a Chinese Immersion/International Baccalaureate program. They are, in all senses of the word, being educated in a “global” manner — through language, culture, math, social studies, science, reading, and service learning. We need to stop forcing our schools to compete for funding and, instead, share enough resources with all schools so that they might develop innovative programs like this.

I hope that one more voice added to this dialogue helps… now, I look forward to engaging in professional conversations during a great weekend at MRA 2011.


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Notes from Kelly Gallagher’s Talk at the Dublin Literacy Conference

Kelly Gallagher kicks off the Dublin Literacy Conference with his keynote on “Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It.” Here are some notes from his presentation.

  • Kicks off with Barry Lane’s “Basalreaderville” parody. Interestingly, Barry asked me to have my students create accompanying slideshows that he could use in his performances. Here is a link to Katie Eckardt’s portfolio/slideshow she made for him.
  • Read-i-cide — “the systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools”
  • Mike Schmoker’s new book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials To Radically Improve Student Learning.
  • Gallagher is talking about sacrificing teaching in name of standards… I am not sure that this rhetorical approach of attacking standards is necessary anymore. The standards are not the curriculum, and we if we are engaging in a more holistic, integrated approach to teaching reading and writing, aren’t we meeting these standards and moving beyond them? In what ways can we move beyond this conversation about whether or not standards are useful or good? How can we think about teaching standards and not always seeing them as standardization?
  • Gallagher is talking about the fact that we are losing a focus on writing. Very true. See also the new “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” from WPA, NCTE, and NWP.
  • Jeff McQuillan – The Literacy Crisis — more books equals more reading equals better reading
  • Concept of “word poverty” — Gallagher is showing political cartoons and and talking how context and background matters to reading comprehension. He argues that our mission is to build background knowledge for our students. I wonder, is this, in some ways, an argument for teaching cultural literacy or, at least a more liberated vision of cultural literacy, ala E.D. Hirsch?
  • Gallagher idea — read and respond to article of the week. Digital twist — have students post this to a blog or wiki, and copy quotes, make hyperlinks to the article, embed images, make connections to what others have written in their posts.
  • “Many kids are literally starving the lobes of the prefrontal cortex of their brains.” Jane Healy, Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Can’t Think and What We Can Do About It
  • Gallagher cites Kenneth Burke — imaginative rehearsals
  • Gallagher — need to find the “sweet spot” of instruction, not too heavy and not too light
  • Gallagher – “What you bring to the page is often more important than what’s on the page.”
  • Ideas from Gallagher
    • Sometimes the framing of the text should be motivational in nature. Reading an article about olestra and giving having them taste test potato chips.
    • More often, the framing should be to help gain surface-level comprehension. Carol Jago talks about the idea about giving students a guided tour during the first part of reading a text, and then dropping off and helping the kids go on the budget tour by themselves.
  • I had to leave before the end so I could go get things set up for my own session! I appreciate Gallagher’s humor and insights and look forward to hearing him talk again at the NWP Spring Meeting in a few weeks.


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Advance Reviews: Because Digital Writing Matters

In just a few weeks, Jossey-Bass will release the new book that Danielle Nicole DeVoss, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and I wrote with the National Writing Project: Because Digital Writing Matters. Here is part of the official blurb about the book:

As many teachers know, students may be adept at text messaging and communicating online but do not know how to craft a basic essay. In the classroom, students are increasingly required to create web-based or multi-media productions that also include writing. Since writing in and for the online realm often defies standard writing conventions, this book defines digital writing and examines how best to integrate new technologies into writing instruction.

Over the past few weeks, a number of NWP folks have received copies of the book, and here are some of their reviews. If I have missed someone’s, please let me know:

Andrea Zellner’s Book Review

The authors address all of the issues that surround taking one’s students into online and digital environments.  They begin with a discussion defining the nature of this type of composition.  The text then moves into more prosaic concerns, those concerns that ultimately make or break the taking of instruction online or digital: issues of copyright, acceptable use policies, standards and benchmarks, assessment.  I was impressed that even the physical layout of a computer lab was considered: the very physical positioning of the students and teacher has an impact on the overall learning ecology.

Steven Moore’s “Guns, Germs, and… Digital Writing?”

Because Digital Writing Matters speaks to the important idea of balance in many ways; talking first about the value of using writing to organize ideas in new and useful ways and then about the significant role that tinkering with technology plays in learning. You can do too much of either and the communication event fails to have an effect. Too much technology and not enough methodology and the writer or writing teacher becomes encumbered like a soldier whose sword has a one ton hilt. It won’t matter how sharp the blade is if you can’t lift the weapon.

Kevin Hodgson’s Book Review — check out the link, because he has an embedded Glogster file there!

That aside, there are many things that stand out for me in this book (which is the companion to NWP’s Because Writing Matters, which laid out the rationale for writing as a means of learning across all curriculum). Among the points where I grabbed my highlighter and marked up the text (much to the surprise of my sons, who kept asking me why I was writing in a book):

  • I like and think it is important that much of what we are calling writing falls under the term of “composition,” which involves using elements of words, audio, video, image and more to create a sense of meaning. That mixed-up, mashed-up element is highlighted throughout the book, as is the need to be able to teach those elements to our young writers/composers.
  • The book highlights many NWP teachers in the classroom, showcasing a wide range of projects on various themes: engagement, assessment, curriculum alignment, etc. That is very helpful to have. I know a lot of the folks mentioned here, and admire their work immensely from afar. I like that they are being recognized, even though there are plenty more NWP folks doing amazing work, too.
  • The chapter on the ecologies of digital writing was fascinating for me. I guess I hadn’t given this idea enough thought when it comes to the physical setting of a connected classroom. I have thought about the online environment, but pulling these two strands together (physical and virtual space) was an interesting turn.
  • I appreciated the long list of “traits and actions” that are associated with digital writing because they highlight a vast array of elements of what is going on when young people compose with computers and devices. This list runs from creativity/originality to observations/inquiry to the remix culture. Plus, I am a sucker for lists.
  • The sense of play is all over the stories in this book. We need time to play with technologies ourselves, and we need to give students the time to play and experiment, too. It’s hard to overstate this.
  • The authors use the phrase “double helix” to describe the meshing (or not) of technology curriculum standards with writing standards. I love that phrase because it shows both the connections and the separate qualities of both.

Finally, there is Bud Hunt’s thoughtful photo composition: Lenses

Plus two more critical reviews, which I welcome, from reviews on Amazon.

This book makes it seem like digital writing is *special*, different than other writing; but we could say the same thing about writing on wax tablets, then parchment, then on paper, then on a typewriter… I don’t really believe the medium of Microsoft Word or Google Docs significantly impacts how we *think* about how we write. It possibly has more to do with the issue of *audience*, not medium — and in that case, a good “digital writing” book should make this more apparent from the first page. (Dame Droiture)

While this book covers the basic ways of communicating via e-mail, texting, and the way these ‘genres’ have influenced “standard” writing, it’s not a very creative way of addressing the problem. Cultural practice changes very fast, and digital cultural practice changes superfast, so I think it’s preferable that teachers do their own “cultural study” of digital writing and decide for themselves its significance and influence, or better yet, develop personal assignments figuring out ways to get students to meta-analyze the way they write depending on the medium and to whom their writing. (JackOfMostTrades)

So, that’s what people are saying. I look forward to continuing the conversation.

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Notes from Harvey Daniels’ “Best Practice Across the Curriculum”

This morning, I am pleased to be a part of Littleton Public Schools’ Adolescent Literacy Institute, and I am able to participate in Harvey “Smokey” Daniels’ keynote, “Best Practice Across the Curriculum.” Here are some notes from his session:

  • Goals for today
    • Define “Best Practice”
    • Consider the missing link: student collaboration
    • Watch video of kids working together
    • Introduction to Inquiry Circles
  • Books: Best Practice, Content Area Writing, Subjects Matter
  • 91& of the time, 6th graders spend their time listening to teachers talk of doing commercially prepared seatwork (Pianta et al, 2007)
  • What’s missing?
    • Engagement
    • Curiosity
    • Content
    • Thinking
  • Best practice
    • In 1993 when we worked on the first edition of this book, we were thinking about how other professionals look at the “state of the art” in their field and consider what is “best practice.”
    • Sadly, it is now showing up in “best practice” workbooks
    • So, what is “best practice?”
    • Coverage vs. Inquiry
      • Cover the curriculum (a “curriculum of mentioning”) vs. slowing down and going deeper, screened content
      • Atheoretical vs. driven by learning theory (whatever you subscribe to, all theories agree that students must act upon information in order to make it their own)
      • Assigning reading and writing vs. modeling reading and writing
      • No strategy instruction vs. explicit strategy instruction
      • Backloading instruction vs. frontloading instruction (Jeff Wilhelm)
      • Little or no support during reading and writing vs. time, activities and tools that support students (before, during, and after)
      • Textbook-based vs. variety of texts
      • Teacher chosen topics and assignments vs. student choice and responsibility
      • Solitary vs. social
    • See Consortium on Chicago Schools Research
      • Students in interactive classrooms had nearly 1/3 more gain in achievement than non-interactive classrooms
    • Small group work
      • Groups of four seems to be the magic number for group work
      • Small groups are lifelike
      • In small groups, we are smarter
      • Small groups generate energy for challenging work
      • Small groups make the most of diversity
      • Small groups bring “best practice” teaching to life
      • Small groups help us differentiate instruction
      • Employers increasingly require small group skills
      • Linda Darling-Hammond’s book on Powerful Learning
      • Social skills predict earnings better than test scores
    • Common Core Standards
      • “Engage productively and respectfully with others”
    • How do we get predictable and positive outcomes from students?
      • Make personal connections
      • Get them to know each other
      • Mix up the groups periodically
      • Know who can, and can not, work together
      • Teaching them to ask follow-up questions
    • Modeling an open inquiry
      • Studying the future
  • Points to consider when thinking about collaboration with Google Docs
    • We spend our weekend grading student papers while they are out — how can we invite them to collaborate?
    • Students often get information from only one source — how do we help them find more?
    • Solitary vs. social — how do we effectively structure group tasks to involve everyone?
    • Asking follow-up questions — how do we teach students to really interact with one another and ask pertinent, empathetic follow-up questions?


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