Teaching Reading in the Digital Age

Blog Series, Smart Teachers

Earlier this summer, following a deep dive into the paradigm shifting models of design thinking and gamification in education at the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE 2013), I found myself settling in to a week-long study of the time-tested, best-practices pedagogy at the Reading and Writing Institutes at Teachers College, Columbia University. It felt a bit like inhabiting one portion of my brain and then taking up residence in an entirely different thinking space – both equally valid to my professional life. Searching for a way to reconcile my learning, I am left wondering most about what it means to be a reader today.

Common Ground

The educational visionaries at ISTE, who call for creating a radically different learning environment for today’s self-directed learners, can find surprising common ground with some of the basic tenets of the Lucy Calkins approach to teaching reading (at least as I understand it as a first-year attendee of the Reading Institute).

  • For both, student choice remains central to learning, whether students are choosing the books they want to read from a classroom library or researching how to modify classroom furniture for a project employing design theory.
  • Another crossover, the role of the teacher as coach who provides mini-lessons on learning strategies, might succeed as easily with a teacher seated at a chart and easel as with the digital-age teacher who uses short flipped lessons to deliver directed instruction.
  • Innovators who tout the merits of gaming as a way to fire up students about their learning, for — ISTE keynoter Jane McGonigal, for instance — surely must recognize how the storytelling narrative sparks engagement in a gaming environment; likewise, the Reading Workshop method employs “leveling up” strategies familiar to gamers to move students through “leveled” classroom libraries that present offer more challenges and require greater sophistication as a students gain mastery of reading skills.

Digital Readers Reading

What, then, does this mean for those of us who teaching readers today? I am still searching for answers to questions that won’t let go of me.

  • The Reading Institute puts a lot of emphasis on “eyes on print” time – that is, on classroom time given over to readers engaged in the act of reading. This requires creating a culture of readers with books in their hands and sticky notes at the ready for jotting questions and tracking observations (leading to critical thinking). As a teacher who recognizes that students read in digital contexts as well, I find myself wondering if “eyes on text” (eyes on media?) might be a better term. Or is it even the same thing?  My students are constantly reading as oodles of different kinds of text-based media cross their paths. Don’t we need to prepare them with the nuanced skills required to read in every way possible?
  • My students who use tablets or e-readers for reading time love the easy access to digital dictionaries. This frees them to engage with their reading even more deeply. Are they absorbing vocabulary more thoroughly and accurately than the students who are too lazy or too engrossed to open a dictionary? Digital readers do not necessarily preclude commenting on texts. Students with e-readers can certainly annotate their reading with digital comments. Is this any different from the kind of critical questioning students do with pen in hand?
  • My goal is to teach my students to develop a passion for reading, but I also want them to use any effective means that can help them go beyond the surface in their reading. I also recognize the value in sharing their ideas with others. Is there something magical about the handwritten (and easily sharable) sticky note comment favored by the Reading Institute, or can my students do just as well (better?) with a sticky note app like Popplet?
  • The Reading Institute went to great pains to introduce lessons about the reading of nonfiction, acknowledging a new pedagogical emphasis on nonfiction in the Common Core. As a result, considerable (though not exclusive) attention at the Institute was given over to using historical fiction in classroom libraries and as “anchor texts” for mini-lessons. I want to go further. I would venture that most students don’t know enough about the variety of nonfiction forms to know the difference between what is basically made up (fiction) or basically true (nonfiction) – in my experience, they tend to see everything they read in terms of story. Students need to be able to read an article online and identify it as a blog or a news story or a reference source. They need to recognize rhetorical strategies like comparison or illustration and understand how they affect a reader. As my section leader at the Reading Institute stated, students need to question perspective and bias in every kind of writing. I wonder, are we really doing enough to address these skills in our classes?
  • Reading also represents an intersection of design, image, and text. The picture book, at its best, uses each avenue of communication to the fullest. So I am excited to follow the Reading Workshop method and return to picture books and image-rich texts (online or otherwise) as a means of teaching reading skills. I also like how the Reading Institute breaks down the skills needed to deconstruct a page and address the increasing complexity of the relationship of image to text, as this builds from mere illustration to direct contradiction. How can teachers of reading in a digital context build upon this work? At the same time, how might we all step back and consider more thoroughly the elements of design and their relationship to meaning?
  • Reading for pure pleasure is certainly something we still want to nurture – whether the children we teach are “trapped” by an engaging story (as one of my rising sixth-graders put it on a recent discussion board about his summer reading) or whether they follow the meandering path of their burgeoning curiosity by skipping from website to website (we used to call this browsing when we did it in libraries or bookstores). Still, what are the ways we can encourage our students to extend their reading – yes, by reading for depth and understanding in a traditional sense, but also by accessing auxiliary information available to us online, by following hyperlinks to make more connections, or by engaging in a rousing backchannel chat?
  • At the same time, we certainly also need to teach students how to handle the distractions of reading in a digital context, just as we help them mediate the distractions of an antsy classmate or a nearby whispered tutorial. How can we do this if we never allow them to read on their own devices and in ways that are second-nature to them?

A New Generation of Readers

After participating in these two very different learning venues, I went off the grid and experienced three delicious days of beach reading. I felt the pull of the stories like the tide, and I gave into where they took me. I want my students to feel that. But since I’ve come home, I’ve caught up on my Twitter feed, read my personal and work emails, and browsed for articles related to the topic of this blog post. This is the kind of reading my students will do – and already do – on a daily basis.

What does it really mean to teach reading in a digital age? It means teaching both ways and also in new ways. It means going back to school and learning to read along with our students, in a world in which we are surrounded by text from which we must derive meaning.

Photo Credit: MegMoggington via Compfight cc

Susan Lucille Davis

Susan Lucille Davis

Susan Lucille Davis teaches 7th- and 8th-grade English at the 'Iolani School in Honolulu, HI. Follow Susan on Twitter at @suludavis.