Literacy and Service Learning

There was a great article by Amy Conley on edutopia this week about teaching literacy skills through service learning. Her school has implemented a “Change the World” project with the senior class that blends Project Based Learning and literacy to create a student-driven service project that will have an impact on the broader community. Students got to design and implement their projects, which culminated with a presentation about their work to the school community.

The projects were designed to incorporate real-world literacy skills. Students did research on their interest and wrote project proposals, learned about professional email etiquette, honed their presentation skills, gained strategies for approaching authentic, complex texts, and practiced how to interact in a professional setting. The project required students to problem-solve, revise plans when obstacles arose, work under real-world deadlines, and connect with leaders in the community. I’d encourage you to check out the original article if your school requires seniors to complete some form of a capstone project. I thought I’d also share some ideas for adapting this model to a smaller scale. The pieces of this project that I thought were most valuable were:

  1. Projects were chosen based on students’ passions and interests. This type of project requires a lot of buy-in and commitment to be successful, so allowing students to decide on their focus is key. If you are adapting this project on a smaller scale, you might want to have your class work on one project as a team. If this is the case, be sure to leave room for students’ voices to be heard when choosing the project.
  2. Assessment was ongoing throughout the project. Although students had a final presentation, feedback and support were given multiple times throughout the process. Because this assignment allows for so much student choice and is completed in collaboration with community members, support is especially important at times when students need to reevaluate their plans. This reminds me of Kuhlthau’s information search model and how it honors the affective aspect of research. Although students get to take the lead with this project, teachers, librarians, and adult mentors should be ready to guide and coach students’ through the uncertainty, anxiety, and excitement that stems from the project.
  3. Literacy skills were applied to real-world situations. This type of project is a perfect opportunity to examine authentic texts through the lens of critical literacy. Giving students strategies for approaching professional e-mails, company or government documents, and even casual conversations with professionals and leaders will empower students and provide them with tools for their lives beyond the classroom.

Here are a few ways you could adapt these principles into a smaller service project of your own:

  • Ask students to brainstorm ways they could improve the school community. It could be adding a student garden, having healthier or tastier choices in the cafeteria, starting a mentor program for younger students, or redesigning an underutilized space. Once the project is chosen, guide students through the process of writing a proposal for school administrators to review, implementing the project, and evaluating the results.
  • This idea is borrowed from a classmate – please check out her original post on “Blending the Digital and the Just” here. In a literature or history class, ask students to identify problems or issues people faced historically or in the text you are reading that are still present in our world today. Have students choose one of these issues and create a PSA to inform viewers about the problem and the organizations in the community that are working to improve the problem. The teacher who shared this idea suggested that next time, she might have the students then chose one issue that stood out and have them design a project to benefit the community organizations they found.
  • Do a mini-version of a TED conference, where students in the class become experts on a topic and present their findings to the school community. If possible, invite community members that work on issues related to the students’ presentations. The research that students did to prepare for these presentations could then be used to design projects in those fields.
  • Connect with a class abroad via skype or email. Students from both classrooms can share the issues that impact their local community and swap ideas for how to make a difference. You could have the classes work on their local issues and share their progress for motivation, or you could have your students work on a project that would improve the community abroad.
  • I was impressed by this article on edutopia about fourth and fifth graders running their own food business that helps educate others about farming, nutrition, and hunger in their community. This type of project provides students with opportunities to create flyers, websites, or brochures about their business, present their work to members of the community, and partner with local organizations to widen their impact.

Any other service learning projects that you have used to increase literacy skills in your classroom?


Conley, A. (2014). How to Change the World: Service PBL in the Common Core Literacy Classroom. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/service-pbl-common-core-literacy-amy-conley

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Incorporating Current Events into the Classroom

Earlier this month, The New York Times published an article called 50 Ways to Teach with Current Events that included tips and resources for teachers who want to incorporate the news into their classrooms. Although much of the article promotes The New York Times own features and contests, many of the ideas are creative and effective ways to begin conversations about current events and journalism. Here are my favorites:

3) “Read about News-Making Teenagers” – The New York Times has a page each month where they compile news stories that feature teenagers. You can check it out here. There are lots of great stories about teens taking action and making a difference in their communities, and the page breaks the stories down into helpful categories. You could also collect stories from your local newspaper that feature teenagers. This makes the news stories more relatable and gives students ideas for how they can get involved.

7) “Compare News Stories” – I thought this suggestion would be a good way to talk about bias in the news. Choose a controversial topic and select two articles that address the topic from different news outlets. Have students compare how the sources report on the issue and incorporate critical literacy skills by asking students to analyze the language the articles use and how it influences the reader’s understanding of the event.

8) “Be a Journalist Yourself” – This one is common sense, but if you’re working on a unit about different forms of writing and the differences between journalism and fiction, ask students to pick a local or school issue that they are passionate or curious about and then have them write an article on the issue. You could compile students’ work to create a class newspaper to share with parents and other students at the school.

21) “Analyze Photographs to Build Visual Literacy Skills” – I thought this might be an effective way to introduce students to a unit on current events. You can project a provocative photograph from a recent story the class will be investigating and ask students to a complete a modified Know, Wonder, Learn activity to analyze the image.

24)  “Create an Infographic” – This is a great way to translate the data provided in a news article into visual format. Programs like Piktochart are free and easy to use with students, and asking students to create visualizations of statistics will help them conceptualize the data and deepen their understanding. This would also be a great opportunity to discuss how different ways of presenting data can have an impact on your understanding, and how it is important to examine sources’ original data to insure the author is not manipulating the presentation.

28) “Create Storyboards” – I think this could be helpful with events that are ongoing with new developments each day. Creating a storyboard or timeline could be a visually engaging way to teach students how to summarize the main points of a story and how to connect a series of events.

31) “Create a Twitter Feed” – For this activity, students could report each day on an ongoing event, using the summarizing skills mentioned in the last activity. If other classes or teachers follow your class on twitter, this could start a conversation about the events throughout the school. This could also work with a historical event; students could create a twitter page as a class that tracks the timeline of the events you are studying, or students could adopt the voice of a historical figure and comment on the events of the time as that person.

32) “Explore a Particular Community” – I think this could be an interesting activity in conjunction with #7, compare news stories. Students could choose a particular cultural, religious, professional, or ethnic group and look at the ways they are reported on in the media. This could be a way to start conversations about stereotypes, and to offer a more representative perspective by drawing in stories from alternative news outlets.

35) “Create an Audio Podcast” – If you don’t have a student radio station at your school, have students create podcasts on a current event and post them on the school website for other students and parents to listen to. Translating stories into their own words and then working on scripts for the report will help students deepen their understanding of the issues.

36) “Connect the Past to Today” – If you a studying a particular historical event, ask students to look for connections in the current news and talk about how the events are related and how they differ.

37) “Pair the News With Literature and Poetry” – This is similar to the last activity, but as you are reading novels or poetry in English class, look for current events that connect to the themes in those works. Have students write a comparison piece between the two texts, or ask the students to interpret the event through the eyes of a character.

41) “Take Informed Action” – If students are impacted by a particular story in the local or national news, ask them to brainstorm ways they might be able to contribute. Help them organize outreach into the community and market their ideas to the entire school.

Incorporating current events into the classroom is a great way to increase students’ traditional, visual, and media literacy skills. Current events also present opportunities for students to practice critical literacy skills, analyzing the language and perspective to see who is the intended audience and whose views are being privileged. Current events don’t need to just stay in a civics or history class, students can track current developments in the science and math community, learn about what is happening globally in language classes, and connect themes and conflicts in literature to today’s world. Does anyone have other examples of ways they’ve successfully used current events in their classroom?


Gonchar, M. (2014). 50 Ways to Teach With Current Events. Retrieved from http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/10/07/50-ways-to-teach-current-events/?_php=true&_type=blogs&ref=education&_r=1

The Importance of Writing for Critical Reading

This week in my education class, we are reading about writing instruction and what makes writing “good” (the answer – it depends!). One of the benefits of incorporating writing into reading instruction is that it gives students insight into how writing is structured, demystifies the writing process, and gives students the skills to become more critical readers.

I think it is important to emphasize the connection between between writing and reading. Students can sometimes see these as as separate tasks, because we often focus on the themes, plot, and characters in our reading instruction, at the expense of elements like structure, language, and word choice. We can give the students the impression that the books we read are flawless and disconnected from their own experiences as a writer. Of course, we choose texts we find valuable and well-written to share with students in class, and they usually have undergone editing and revision before we look at them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have discussions about their strengths and weaknesses and how the choices the author made impact the text.

Although we talked about the elements of writing in high school, discussing things like alliteration, metaphor, and word choice, I don’t remember having critical conversations about literature or non-fiction until I was in college. One professor I admired not only showcased a student’s work each week, she also encouraged discussion about craft when we were reading the assignments for the class as well. If we critique students’ writing we can use those same guidelines to identify the strengths and opportunities within the texts we assign. This doesn’t need to be the type of conversation we have about everything we read, but the more we can connect students’ own writing process with published authors’ work, the more students will develop an identity as a writer.

Here are a few ideas for starting those conversations:

Find a short story or poem that has the revisions available, and share these with students. Seeing the way another writer’s work evolves may help them understand the editing process. It also reveals that authors’ stories and books are not perfect from the beginning and undergo many changes before they are ready to be published.

Better yet, if you or the library has connections to a local author, see if they are willing to come in and talk to the class about the writing process. Tweet authors the students admire to see if they have any tips for revising writing.

Before you do peer workshops with students, model the workshop format with a short story or poem from class. Make sure to push students from saying that they like or dislike a certain part to explaining their thoughts with evidence from the text. This will demonstrate the expectations for workshopping without the pressure of sharing their own work.

If you’ve created a rubric for student writing, try having the students apply it to a short text you are reading in class. Again, include evidence from the text in your explanations.

Model this type of thinking for your students by asking questions about the texts. Why do you think the author chose that word? What word would you have chosen? Why do you think the author decided to write in first-person? What impact does that perspective have on the story? Do you think that was the most effective choice for this passage? Opening texts up for this type of discussion will hopefully allow students to engage more deeply in the text and empower them to form evidence-based opinions about what they read.

Display and discuss good student writing with your class, alongside the reading you assign. If students are comfortable enough to have their work shown to the class, chose a passage from a student’s assignment each day or week to project, and have a conversation about why you thought it was effective.

Any other ideas about how to make this connection between reading and the writing process?

Literacy Beyond the Classroom

I’ve been focusing on reading and literacy within school, so I thought today I’d look at the importance of reading for pleasure. There has been a lot of research pointing to the importance of reading for enjoyment outside of the classroom, and this Education Week article sums up some of the main points nicely if you’re interested.

  1. Reading for pleasure has “a significant impact on…educational attainment and social mobility” (Wilhelm and Smith, 2014, para. 9). Research has shown that the more you read the better you read and that reading for pleasure translates into stronger literacy skills in the classroom.
  2. Reading about experiences that mirror your own life is important for positive identity development. Relatable texts can provide teens with a “roadmap” for dealing with the struggles they face, and it is particularly important for librarians to collect books that are reflective of the population they serve (Tatum, 2006, p. 48).
  3. Although these relatable texts are crucial, reading diverse texts also helps teens develop empathy for others. Research has shown that reading about other people’s lives and experiences helps teens develop skills to understand others’ mental states and emotions, which is an important skill for social interactions.

Reading for pleasure is crucial for children, teens, and adults alike, and the great thing is that all reading matters. Reading novels, poetry, online articles, newspapers, magazines, graphic novels, comic books, and everything in between will lead to stronger reading skills. Reading for enjoyment builds confidence and starts a habit that will continue to provide benefits throughout the reader’s life.

I try to make time every day to read for pleasure, and lately I’ve primarily been reading young adult books to deepen my knowledge of what is being written for teens. Here are my thoughts on the books I’ve read recently:

Plus One – Elizabeth Fama

Plus OneThis story takes place in a dystopian United States where the population has been divided into “Smudges” who must live their lives during the night and “Rays” who live during the day. Sol, a sixteen year old “Smudge” who lives with her dying grandfather, is separated from her brother who was transferred to day because of his technological skills. When her brother has a child, Sol will do anything to let her grandfather hold the “Ray” baby, even if it means stealing her from the hospital. When Sol begins her plot to kidnap the baby, she discovers secrets she never imagined, and finds unexpected help in a “Ray” medical apprentice, D’Arcy.

Recommended for: I would recommend this novel to teens who like dystopian romances, like the Hunger Games and Divergent. NovelList recommends the book for grades 6-12.

Everything Leads to You – Nina Lacour

everythingEmi is a high school senior living in Los Angeles who interns as a set designer in the film industry. Recovering from a break up with her ex-girlfriend, Emi distracts herself by tracking down a woman mentioned in a letter she and her best friend Charlotte found at a recently deceased Hollywood star’s estate sale. The letter leads them to a teen named Ava, who has a troubled past. Ava and Emi grow closer as they collaborate on a film, and Emi learns to trust her vision and stand on her own.

Recommended for: I would recommend this novel to teens who like realistic fiction with love stories or are interested in the film industry. NovelList recommends this book for grades 8-12.

The Kingdom of Little Wounds – Susann Cokal

woundsThis novel is set in the fictional Scandinavian kingdom of Skyggehaven in the 16th century. Ava Bingen, a young seamstress in the palace, gets caught up in the intrigue and betrayal that pervade the royal court. When the royal children suffer from a mysteries disease, no one is safe from suspicion. Cokal weaves together Ava’s story with those of the mute nursery maid Midi and the queen of kingdom, Isabel. The Kingdom of Little Wounds was a 2014 Printz Award Honor Book.

Recommended for: I would recommend this novel to teens who like dark historical fiction, multiple narrators, or strong female characters. NovelList recommends this book for grades 8-12, but be aware that there are depictions of rape and that the plot is geared towards mature readers.

The Impossible Knife of Memory – Laurie Halse Anderson

knifeHayley and her father, a trucker and veteran of military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, finally settle back down in their home town for Hayley to finish high school after years of traveling together. Hayley has a hard time adjusting to school, however, because she is surrounded by “zombies” who are simply playing the game and comes home to a father whose struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder make daily life difficult. A fellow student, Finn, shows interest in getting to know Hayley, but for Hayley getting close to someone means facing her past and the reality of her father’s condition.

Recommended for: I would recommend this novel to teens who like realistic fiction, unconventional love stories, and books about family. NovelList recommends this book for grades 6-12.

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out – Susan Kuklin

jacket.aspxThis book features interviews and portraits of six teens who identity as genderqueer, transgender, or intersex. The teens talk honestly about their challenges, triumphs, relationships, family lives, and transition processes. Because this book follows the stories of six different teens, it captures some of the complexity of gender identity and adds more voices to the diverse conversation about what it means to be trans or not fit into society’s rigid conceptions of gender.

Recommended for: I would recommend this book to anyone interested in gender identity and how gender is socially constructed. It would be valuable to both teens who are exploring gender identity or those who are hoping to learn more about others’ experiences. The School Library Journal recommends this book for grades 9-12.

Even though most reading for pleasure happens outside of school, librarians and teachers can play an important role by encouraging students’ interests, suggesting books based on students’ preferences, and offering students choice in what they read. Teachers, librarians, and community members can serve as role models for their students, so let’s start having conversations with students about what we like to read!


All images from NovelList.

Tatum, A. W. (2006, February). Engaging African American Males in Reading. Educational Leadership2006(2), 44–49.

Wilhelm, J. D., & Smith, M. W. (2014). Don’t Underestimate the Power of Pleasure Reading. Education Week, 33(18), 25. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/01/22/18wilhelm.h33.html

Critical Literacy and the Power of Multiple Perspectives

One thing I am interested in is how to deepen and complicate students’ understanding of issues by introducing them to multiple perspectives. We are learning about critical literacy in one of my courses this week, which involves examining the relationship between language, power, and privilege, and asks students to engage in authentic explorations of these issues in their lives and the broader community.

Thinking about critical literacy and exploring ways to incorporate it in the classroom reminded me of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s powerful TED talk on the danger of a single story. If you haven’t watched her talk, I’d encourage you to check it out here.

She discusses issues related to critical literacy and reveals the power and complexity that comes from telling your own or another person’s story. She explains that:

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story. (TED, 2009)

She recalls how when she was growing up in Nigeria she was primarily exposed to British and American literature, and so when she began to write her own stories they involved characters that were “white and blue-eyed” and “played in the snow.” When she discovered Nigerian authors that wrote about their experiences she realized that her stories “could also exist in literature” (TED, 2009). Adichie’s experience emphasizes how important it is to offer students multiple perspectives on current events, conflicts, and problems, and how critical it is that we seek out these alternative perspectives ourselves.

One way I think librarians can teach critical literacy is through lessons on media literacy. We can encourage students to analyze and question issues of value and power in advertising, news stories, and other media. Pulling in primary sources like first-person narratives, photographs, and other documents to supplement a history textbook could also complicate the single story and add richness and multiple perspectives to students’ study of historical events. I’m also interested in how this focus on incorporating multiple perspectives might be applied to a book club or literature circle. I can imagine asking students to pick different books, short stories, media clips, or articles surrounding a particular event or issue and then have them discuss the different perspectives offered by their texts. These activities would engage students’ critical thinking and evaluative skills and start conversations about the messages behind these texts.

Are there other ways you’ve implemented critical literacy or the use of multiple perspectives in your classroom?


TED. (2009). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en

The Digital Literacy Gap

In an article this week in the New York Times, Motoko Rich focused on a recent study that revealed that not only is there an achievement gap in traditional literacy skills based on family income, there is a similar gap in the skills students need to navigate the web. The study compared the online research and evaluation skills of seventh graders from two schools in Connecticut. One of the schools studied had a median income of around $120,000 and the other had a median income of around $60,000 (Leu et. al., 2014). Students were given two assignments in the sciences. The first asked students to research the health impacts of energy drinks and the other asked students to investigate a claim that Chihuahuas can cure asthma (Leu et. al., 2014). Both assignments involved locating resources, evaluating websites for reliability, synthesizing findings, and presenting them on an online platform.

These web-based skills have become increasingly important as more jobs and daily tasks require sorting through information in a variety of formats (Rich, 2014). Only 16% of the students from the lower income school performed well on the assignments, demonstrating a greater need for digital literacy instruction in the classroom (Rich, 2014). The students from the wealthier school, despite having more access to high speed internet at home and more required online assignments in school, also performed poorly, with around 25% passing the assessment. This research demonstrated not only that there is an income gap for digital literacy skills, but also that these skills are surprisingly lacking, regardless of income.

The researchers in the study suggest that one possible reason for the score disparity between the schools is the pressure to focus on skills that will be directly assessed in standardized testing. They write that “economically challenged districts are often under the greatest pressure to raise test scores and may focus limited resources on…standards and assessments in an attempt to increase student performance” (Leu et. al., 2014). This leads to their argument that “Until and unless online research skills are more visible in both standards and assessments, economically challenged schools may be less likely to incorporate them into their curriculum” (Leu et. al., 2014).

This call to incorporate digital literacy skills into standards and assessments is powerful, and I believe that one step in this direction is to increase collaboration between school librarians and the teachers and students they serve. The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) has four standards for librarians that relate to inquiry, the discovery and creation of knowledge, and the ability to share that knowledge ethically (American Association of School Librarians, 2007). Within this framework, the AASL defines specific skills, dispositions, and responsibilities that students must demonstrate to meet these standards. Embedded within these standards are the digital literacy skills that are missing from broader standards like Common Core. The AASL claims that students must be able not only to “Evaluate information found in selected sources on the basis of accuracy, validity, appropriateness for needs, importance, and social and cultural context” but also to “read, view, and listen for information presented in any format (e.g., textual, visual, media, digital) in order to make inferences and gather meaning” (AASL, 2007). The language of online research that is missing from other documents is ubiquitous in the AASL standards, in which students must “Demonstrate mastery of technology tools for accessing information and pursuing inquiry” (AASL, 2007). Although these skills may not be reflected in end of year assessments, they should be a priority for school librarians. By seeking opportunities for collaboration and partnerships with teachers, librarians can help address the digital literacy gap and advocate for greater emphasis on these skills in the curriculum.


American Association of School Librarians. (2007). Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/guidelinesandstandards/learningstandards/AASL_LearningStandards.pdf

Leu, D. J., Forzani, E., Rhoads, C., Maykel, C., Kennedy , C., & Timbrell, N. (2014). The New Literacies of Online Research and Comprehension: Rethinking the Reading Achievement Gap. Reading Research Quarterly. Advance online publication. doi:10.1002/rrq.85

Rich, M. (2014, September 23). Academic Skills on Web Are Tied to Income Level. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/24/us/academic-skills-on-web-are-tied-to-income-level.html

Social Media in the Classroom

Social media is ubiquitous in most teens’ lives – as of 2012, 81% of teens who used the internet used social media, with 77% on Facebook and 24% on Twitter (Pew Research Center, 2012). Teens use these sites to connect and socialize with friends, but also to express their opinions and create and share their own content. (Check out this great video of Mimi Ito discussing the ways students use social media outside of the classroom to further their learning.)

Despite social media’s widespread use among teens and adults, social networking is banned in 52% of American schools due to fears of bullying, inappropriate use, and distraction from learning (Finley, 2014). Although these are all valid concerns about students’ use of social media, we limit ourselves and our students when we remove social media from schools. Because students and teachers use social media in their daily lives, schools miss a valuable opportunity to educate them about digital citizenship, media literacy, and the potential power of creating and sharing content when they ignore its ubiquity. Although it may seem easier to ban the sites to avoid difficult conversations, it is our responsibility to educate and encourage students to use these tools effectively and responsibly.

Bringing social media tools into schools can help with the following:

  1. Identity Development: Social networking is a space where students can express themselves and connect with peers as a community. Using sites like Instagram and YouTube, students can create their own content that reflects their beliefs and creativity.
  2. Collaboration: Social media platforms allow for organic collaboration outside of the classroom. Students can comment on and respond to each others work, expanding their learning by reflecting on peers’ ideas.
  3. Audience for Writing: Students may be more motivated knowing their peers will be reading and reflecting on their work. Starting a classroom blog is a simple way to allow for this type of dialogue outside of school.
  4. Connection to the World Outside of School: Incorporating social networking into the classroom connects school to students’ worlds outside, making the work more relevant to their daily lives. Depending on the project, students can also use social media to reach a broader audience, making an impact in the community.
  5. Media Literacy: Social media uses images, video, text, and graphics to communicate a message, creating an opportunity for students to explore how to navigate and interpret multimodal texts. As creators of content, students can learn about fair use and how to responsibly cite and respond to others.
  6. Skills for the Future: As technology becomes a primary means of communication globally, students will be asked to use these skills in higher education and future careers. Students who begin to think critically about these tools and use them creatively will have an advantage later on.
  7. Student Engagement: If teachers use these tools in authentic, rather than stilted ways, students will be more engaged with these projects that connect to their experiences outside of the classroom.
  8. Reflect on Reliability: Using social media provides school librarians and teachers with the opportunity to talk about reliability. Students must evaluate authors’ biases, backgrounds, and messages before successfully interpreting their content.
  9. Deeper Learning: When students create personas for characters or historical figures on Facebook or Twitter, they are forced to explore the person as a whole, reflecting on the way they would communicate with the various people in their lives, how they would react to certain situations, how they would write, and what types of music, books, and other media they would enjoy. This pushes students further than traditional reports and allows them to reflect and build upon their learning.
  10. Types of Writing: Using social media also allows teachers to talk about how tone and style shifts when writing for different audiences. Although learning to write academically is a critical skill, students can be introduced to more informal discourse through social media.

Of course, teaching with social media also allows librarians and teachers to open up conversations with students about cyberbullying, respect for others, privacy, safety, and being a responsible digital citizen. By incorporating social media into the curriculum, we can encourage students to use these tools thoughtfully, creatively, and effectively.


Finley, T. (2014). Siphoning the Fumes of Teen Culture: How to Co-opt Students’ Favorite Social Media Tools. Retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/teen-culture-social-media-tools-todd-finley

Pew Research Center. (2012). Teens Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/teens-fact-sheet/

Digital Reading

After watching a TED talk on “A next-generation digital book” I was both amazed at the possibilities digital tools offer for enhancing learning and concerned about the impact interactive digital texts have on students’ attention spans and comprehension. The featured book, Our Choice by Al Gore, contains over an hour of documentary footage, interactive maps and charts, and responsive animations that illustrate various concepts (TED, 2011). Although this book is geared towards an adult audience, it is easy to see how these features could be used to supplement a science, history, or math e-book in the classroom. Students could watch videos that demonstrate the content they are reading about and even practice applying the new information without leaving the interface.

Despite these benefits, I worry about students’ ability to gain a deep understanding of texts when their attention is constantly being drawn away by features like interactive images and hyperlinks to external sources. Although these features may assist struggling readers in understanding the content, they might also prevent them from engaging in the text in a sustained and meaningful way.

Because digital texts are fairly new, there are not many studies yet that examine how the digital reading experience impacts students’ understanding and performance long-term. Despite this lack of data, there are many writers, teachers, and researchers who are currently exploring this issue, and beginning to discover how print and digital reading experiences differ, and the benefits and drawbacks of both. A recent article in the New Yorker, “Being a Better Online Reader” by Maria Konnikova, examines this issue, and calls for researchers and teachers to explore students’ experiences with digital texts in order to develop strategies that will help students use them more effectively.

Konnikova highlights a study done by Anne Mangen, which compared the retention of a story when read in print versus a digital format. She found that “When readers were asked to place a series of events from the story in chronological order…those who had read the story in print fared significantly better, making fewer mistakes and recreating an over-all more accurate version of the story” (Konnikova, 2014, para. 6). A part of this retention issue may be that reading a digital text offers more opportunities for distraction and requires students to “exercise much greater self-control than a physical book” (Konnikova, 2014, para. 8). Although features that provide definitions for words or more background information within digital texts may help scaffold students’ learning, they also pull students away from the text itself and make “deep-reading” more difficult. If I have the opportunity to select digital texts in the future, I think it will be important to experiment with the features to see if they add to the content, or simply serve as an entertaining distraction.

Julie Corio, a professor at the University of Rhode Island, makes a similar argument about features sidetracking readers, saying that “each time you click a link, you’re constructing your own text” (As quoted in Konnikova, 2014, para. 10). Because of this ability to construct your experience in a digital text, it is a different process than reading a print book, and requires teachers and librarians to introduce students to new comprehension strategies. Konnikova argues that “The digital deficit…isn’t a result of the medium as such but rather of a failure of self-knowledge and self-control” (2014, para. 10). This new reading process makes teaching students self-regulation skills and how to navigate a digital text while maintaining continuity crucial. While some readers may be able to successfully use features to solidify their learning, others may need more help staying focused on the task at hand. This offers an opportunity for educators to help students reflect on their personal learning process, and discover which features enhance their understanding and which ones they should avoid.

Although there are studies that have shown that digital texts can distract from learning, there others that offer a more hopeful picture. One study featured in the article found that an interactive annotation feature in a digital text improved fifth graders’ comprehension of the story (Konnikova, 2014, para. 14). The tools and features offered by digital texts, when used purposefully, can help further students’ understanding and engagement. With digital texts becoming more ubiquitous in students’ lives both in and out of the classroom, librarians and teachers can support students by giving them strategies for deep-reading within these interfaces. Instead of ignoring the differences between print and digital reading, we can use them to help students become more digitally literate and more self-reflective as they navigate reading in multiple formats.


Konnikova, M. (2014, July 16). Being a Better Online Reader. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/being-a-better-online-reader

TED. (2011). A Next-Generation Digital Book. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/mike_matas?language=en