Reading Complex Texts In Digital Environments: Four Teaching Practices

By Thomas DeVere Wolsey

Go to the parking lot of almost any school and ask ten adults (parents, school staff, faculty, etc.) if technology is helping students to be better readers in general or if it is detrimental to student reading.  While you will have ten very different answers, it is very likely that most of those adults will tell you that digital technology hinders students’ reading capacities.  This need not be the case, however.

Fortunately, teachers hold the answer to improving how their students interact with digital texts. Many have anticipated that asking students to read complex texts also mean asking them to navigate digital environments more often. In this post, we explore effective practices to help students navigate complex digital environments and the texts found there.

As schools move toward increasing the amount and the complexity of texts students read, digital environments will become increasingly important in meeting the goals to prepare students for college and work (CCSS, 2010). Reading online differs in many ways depending on the text itself and the electronic format (e.g., Kindle or Nook, PDF or HTML webpage, etc.). Here are four effective practices for teachers to encourage engagement with complex digital texts. In a future post,  I will explore those four practices in context of four reading tasks students might confront when reading digital texts.


Model, Name, Overcome obstacles, Probe

Teachers can do a great many things to help students find, engage, and comprehend complex materials in digital environments.  Four critical teacher practices include modeling, naming, overcoming obstacles, and probing.

M (source: Modeling may be the most time-honored tradition of the effective teacher, with good reason, we add.  When students see their teachers or peers employ effective reading habits, they tend to mimic those habits. Moreover, as they do so, they expand their repertoires of skills that serve them when they encounter new or challenging texts.

N (source: Naming recognizes that students have skills on which they draw. However, students don’t always know why a skill or strategy might work effectively or under what conditions. When a teacher names the strategy, the student learns that it is an effective approach recognized by others and that it can be replicated.  For example, Howard is a sixth grader who skimmed several search results finding one near the bottom of the page that met his purpose for searching and reading.  His teacher noticed what he had done and specifically named the strategy as “skimming for the best website.”

O (source: Overcoming obstacles suggests that novice readers of digital content often arrive in class with preconceived notions of what reading online is all about.  Sometimes those ideas are accurate, but at other times, these ideas present obstacles to comprehension of digital content.  For example, readers of webpages typically use a skimming strategy that resembles the shape of an ‘F.’ They read the top line, skim the left margin, and occasionally read a portion of a line partially down the page.  The strategy is effective when readers try to determine if a site is worthwhile for their purposes; however, it may hinder reading of complex content if the same skimming strategy is employed.

Read more about the F-shaped pattern on this blog:

P (source involves teachers watching their students read online and probing for insights into their thinking processes as they read. For example, Sheila’s tenth-grade social studies teacher noticed that she selected a link with challenging vocabulary about a Civil War battle site instead of an easier site intended for younger readers.  He asked her why she chose the site, and she explained that the easier site presented information she already knew; she wanted to challenge herself.

Next month, we explore how these four teacher practices can be applied as students work with complex digital texts.

  1. Find and read materials that meet academic and other purposes
  2. Determine the best approach for reading digital material
  3. Synthesize multiple sources to create a deeper understanding
  4. Integrate multimodal resources into their reading experiences


Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Common core state standards for English/language arts and literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Retrieved from

Images source

abaverman. (2012). Letters M, N, O, and P. Retrieved from [creative commons CC0 public domain dedication]


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