Expanding Opportunities for Professional Development: Online Conferences and Professional Learning Communities

A post by Jill Castek

We’re all familiar with the impact of shrinking school budgets over the past few years.  One unfortunate consequence has been the decline in funding for teacher participation in national and international conferences. Avenues for teacher learning have shifted and expanded as technology has given rise to new forms of professional development. When it comes to effectively using new technologies to support student learning in particular, these seeking out professional development opportunities is essential.  The IRA Position Statement, New Literacies and 21st Century Technologies (IRA, 2009) calls for professional development that provides opportunities for teachers to explore online tools and resources expected for use with students.  The statement asserts that it isn’t enough to just make new technologies available to students but to provide options in ways to use them to access information and share ideas. To inspire new ways of thinking about the use of technology, tangible ideas and examples of what knowledgeable teachers have implemented need to be shared widely and discussed.  This post introduces free PD resources and online communities that support teachers in integrating digital technologies into learning activities in meaningful ways.

The IRA Standards for Reading Professionals (2010) encourage teachers to integrate technology into student learning experiences. More specifically, learners are expected to engage in opportunities that utilize traditional print, digital, and online reading and writing and represent various genres and perspectives, as well as media and communication technologies. The integration of technology into literacy learning is also called for in the Common Core State Standards (2010). Students that meet the standards are able to, amongst other aspects, use technology and digital media strategically and capably.

Professional development efforts such as the New Literacies Teacher Leader Institute (http://nli2012.wikispaces.com/Home) offer transformative models that expand beyond the school level and help build extended learning communities that promote lasting change. This week-long institute addresses ways that new digital tools can create challenging and engaging learning opportunities for students and teachers in K-12 and higher education. Participants come together to network, share ideas, boost their leadership skills, and create technology infused curriculum units they can implement in their own classrooms. For teachers who are unable to attend such an institute in person, online resources can be explored and discussed with colleagues to support implementation.

Available resources include videos, instructional suggestions, readings that link theory to practice, and online networking tools which allow teachers to connect with others who have similar goals and interests. Teachers who tap into the wide range of social networking tools that are available to educators can participate in virtual learning experiences that can be customized based on the needs in their own setting.

Special interest groups such as the Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group, (http://tilesig.wikispaces.com/) affiliated with the International Reading Association (IRA), the 21st Century Literacies Group, (http://ncte2008.ning.com/group/21stcenturyliteracies) affiliated with the National Council for Teachers’ of English (NCTE), and the New Literacies Collaborative affiliated with North Carolina State University (http://newlitcollaborative.ning.com/ ) put teachers in touch with an extended network of colleagues with whom to discuss instructional approaches, share resources, and collaborate.

Rick Beach (from the University of Minnesota) and I will be giving a talk at the K-12 online conference (http://k12onlineconference.org/) coming up Oct. 15 – Nov. 2, 2012. This is a free online conference open to anyone. This all volunteer event is organized by educators for educators with the goal of helping educators make sense of and meet the needs of a continually changing learning landscape.  Presenters will share ways to integrate emerging technologies into classroom practice.  The schedule of session is available at http://k12onlineconference.org/?page_id=1091.  Our session, entitled Using iOS App Affordances to Foster Literacy Learning in the Classroom is available for download at http://ge.tt/6EtYbCP/v/0.

Literacy Beat aims to build a professional learning community amongst its readership. Please make a comment suggesting other professional development outlets or professional learning communities we can learn and benefit from.  These shared resources will allow us to expand our online networks and be in touch with new resources and ideas that benefit our teaching and our students learning.  We look forward to your comment!


Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects (2010). Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards/english-language-arts-standards

International Reading Association. (2009). New literacies and 21st century technologies: A position statement of the International Reading Association International Reading Association. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

International Reading Association (2010). Standard for reading professionals—revised 2010. Newark, DE: Author.

Insights From A Service Learning Project: Creating Digital Projects with iPads to Encourage Safe Driving

A new post by Jill Castek

Melanie Swandby, a 7th grade teacher at Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland, CA was conducting a service learning project geared toward promoting safe driving habits.  Melanie was happy to explore digital content creation with her students, extending her original vision for the project with the goal of producing clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style were appropriate to task, purpose, and audience (CCSS Initiative, 2010). She invited Heather Cotanch and I to explore the use of iPads to create digital products that would resonate with teens and the wider community. We were excited to witness the content creation process which included elements of collaboration, experimentation, and flexible grouping to support peer facilited tech-help.

Why Digital Content Creation?

Digital tools are transforming what it means to be literate in today’s world. In the past, it may have been that decoding words on a page was enough to consider a student literate. Today, we live in a world with ever increasing importance on digital tools and technologies as a means of accessing and sharing ideas.  Students need to become facile with the full range of communicative tools, modes (oral and written), and media. Having the ability to comprehend, critically respond to, and collaboratively compose multimodal texts will play a central role in our students’ success in a digital information age (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2007; IRA, 2009).

Setting the Context for Digital Content Creation

Melanie’s class  worked to actively create projects that resonated with their intended audience without needing elaborate direction with the use of iPad apps. First, we provided a basic overview of the affordances of three digital composition apps (ShowMe www.showme.com, VoiceThread www.voicethread.com, and iMovie for the iPad www.apple.com/ipad/from-the-app-store/apps-by-apple/imovie.html – these three content creation apps were chosen because they allow users to integrate still images, include a drawing tool, and have the capacity to include voice and sound effects).  Then, we shared an example product from each app and students were off and running. They soon discovered many features of the apps themselves as they worked.  This new knowledge was distributed throughout the classroom as peer support and flexible grouping was implemented.

Students completed digital products can be viewed from their student-created website Hitting The Road Safe http://hittingtheroadsafe.webs.com and at Safe Driving VoiceThreads https://sites.google.com/site/swandby/safe-driving-voicethreads and also ShowMe http://www.showme.com under the username jill.castek@gmail.com and password safedriving.

iMovie. While using iMovie, students worked in groups and took on different roles such as creators, actors, and editors. Collaboration came in many forms, for example, some students did not want to appear on camera, but were willing to write a script and film a partner.

 Other groups took turns incorporating found pictures and discussing sequencing to communicate a strong, clear message. Because of the ease of use and multiple options within the iMovie app, the editing process can become never ending.  To support a more skilled use of the app, we pointed students toward a YouTube editing tutorial. Students who found themselves with extra time added captions or experimented with the background music offered within the tool. These “extras” gave the movies a professional feel while extending the students’ knowledge of the technology and supportive the processes of reflection and revision.  While the iMovie app proved easy for students to navigate, explore, and edit, teachers would be well advised to guide students through ample planning of their project during their first few interactions with this tool.

ShowMe.  Possibly the greatest successes were achieved with students use of the ShowMe app. Like iMovie, it produces a video, but its affordances allowed students to deliver the most complete, succinct messages of all three tools (student work is available at showme.com under the username jill.castek@gmail.com and password safedriving). During the showcase at the end of the project, the student audience commented on the ability for students to appropriate humor about a serious topic to be showcased. This was achieved through the use of voice, drawing, and integration of selected images. This app has limitations in the amount of media that can be uploaded and may have prompted the students to choose wisely from their options, making the message clear rather than being lost in elaborate visuals.

From the first introduction of this app, the students demonstrated an eagerness to peruse the tools and begin incorporating images, drawing and voice together rather than compiling images for a later use (a pattern we noticed with other tools). Even after several projects were lost due to glitches with the system, students simply started over learning from their mistakes, making strategic use of the drafting process, and integrating their new knowledge into final products.

VoiceThread.  This tool offered the most structured means of conveying ideas and the students took to the tool readily.  Once slides containing images were created, they could be moved around as the message was drafted and revised. Once sequenced, students could voice over the visuals to communicate their message.  Completed VoiceThreads can be viewed at https://sites.google.com/site/swandby/safe-driving-voicethreads.

Students created multiple drafts of their VoiceThread project and practiced their voiceover several times to ensure the tone and quality of the message was spot on. Unfortunately, the VoiceThread interface selectively saved some of voiceovers, which required students to re-create their projects more than once.  However, this redrafting wasn’t something students balked at and the message conveyed in each subsequent draft was more extensive, and richer in vocabulary and details.  The limits of the technology were not discouraging, but rather a valuable introduction to the process of creating technology-based multimodal products.

What Did We Learn?

Students completed projects included a logical sequence but also incorporate personal touches through the use of music, voice, sound effects, and pictures remixed and used in creative ways.  By including a specific focus on intended audience, Melanie’s students were readily able to form and frame a persuasive message. For example, students who chose parents of teen drivers as the target audience drew on experiences from their out-of-school lives and combined them with statistics from a school-based text. This resulted in charts and graphs representing percentages, an articulated message free from teenage jargon and pictures free from gore (as opposed to an increased shock value to presentations geared toward teen drivers).

Collaboration is key. Collaboration was widely fostered by encouraging students to turn to each other as resources and to help each other figure out how to accomplish their goals. For example, one group of students was using the ShowMe app and wanted include text in their presentation (there is no feature in which students can type using a keyboard). Students offered each other a workaround demonstrating the use the notepad feature and taking a screenshot to import it into the project. Other students offered another option and hand-wrote text on a piece of paper in bold marker and took a picture to import into the project.  Still others shared how to use their finger to write the message manually. As was the case here, students often knew what feature that they wanted and found innovative ways to use the app to meet their goals. These observations reinforce the idea that step-by-step instruction by a teacher is not necessary before students use new apps.  We discovered taking the time was not worthwhile and may, in fact, detracted from the collaborative and discovery nature of the work and curtail digital competence.

Time for experimentation is vital.  We recognized at the outset of the project thatstudents were eager to learn how to use the apps offered to them in the act of content creation.  While our instincts told us to model for students, it became increasing clear to us that experimentation with the apps supported student learning much more efficiently.  It became evidence that when technology is being used, a new role for the teacher is created.  She is no longer the “sage on the stage” and must be more comfortable circulating to support implementation by being the “guide on the side.”

Creativity and humor were strategically to convey ideas. As students created their projects, they infused persuasiveness through their use of creativity and humor.  Creativity extended well beyond being able to draw well.  When asked to reflect on the project, students reported being more engaged in the digital creation process, than the paper and pencil task (even though they needed to develop digital skills quickly to use the tools).  They also enjoyed viewing the projects created by other classmates (even though they were very familiar with the content contained within them).  Students created multiple digital drafts of their project (and were glad to do so).  They appeared to use the multiple drafts to improve the project iteratively.  If a student wanted to revise or rethink a portion of the digital creation, the opportunity to do this was manageable as opposed to the static poster version from which the students began. As pairs worked collaboratively, new ideas for improvement were shared amongst partners, which led to subsequent (improved) drafts. Even though students might have stumbled through the first couple of tries, they got better at it each time. Persistence was key!

Student Insights

Through the implementation of this project, we aimed to test a process by which students could create digital products (including drawings, images, and voice)  that could be shared with a school and community audience.  At the end of the project, students were asked to share what was different about digital content creation. One student remarked, “It’s more creative and more fun to play around with. It’s more exciting. You can put your voice into it and you can make it more fun.” This student aptly points out that digital projects are flexible.  If a student wants to revise a portion of the digital creation, this is manageable. In contrast, changes on a static page can be messy or difficult and offer little room for rethinking of an idea. Another student shared, “You can use funny pictures but you can still have a serious message.”  This learner points out that students could develop and incorporate their own multifaceted literacies. Although humor was never mentioned as a component of the project, students freely infused their personalities through media to reach their intended audiences on a level that demonstrated a high degree of literacy skill. A third student pointed out, “It’s a lot faster than when we usually do projects, you can write in different ways like voicing your message.”

Communicating with a Real Audience

In viewing the final projects,  the audience (made up of members of the school and community) found the addition of suspenseful music, images, and the story-lines conveyed through multiple modes generated a tangible impact that was memorable. Witnessing the audience’s reaction interaction was one way that the students owned their success. It was clear that all students felt accomplished and through the act of digital content creation, they became more skilled in the digital literacies that are a vital  part of our 21st century world.


Common Core State Standards Initiative. 2010. Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Available at http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf

International Reading Association. (2009). Integrating literacy and technology in the curriculum: A position statement.  Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2007). Learning for the 21st century. Available at http://www.21stcenturyskills.org/reports/learning.asp

Supporting English Learners’ Literacy Development in a Digital Age

A new post by Jill Castek

Lit Beat is back in action!  It’s wonderful to have had a bit of the summer to relax, refresh, and explore new ideas.  Wishing you an upcoming school year filled with promise.  I hope this post sparks your thinking.  Please post a comment to share additional connections or implementation ideas.  We look forward to hearing from you!

Supporting English Learners’ Literacy Development in a Digital Age

The diversity present in our classrooms requires us to think differently about the literacy instruction we offer our students. We need to offer new opportunities for students learning English to enhance and extend their language, literacy, and content learning.  This new post suggest ways to (1) use digital videos and animations to promote students’ vocabulary development and content knowledge, (2) use bilingual texts to encourage language and content learning across the curriculum, and (3) involve students in sharing ideas with the aid of digital tools.

Using Digital Videos and Animations to Promote Vocabulary Development and Content Knowledge

ELLs benefit from a multi-faceted approach to learning that makes use of interactive visuals.  The Internet offers easy access to a great many of these visuals across a range of topic areas. Providing students opportunities to view media that presents ideas both textually and visually creates a meaningful learning context that supports the acquisition of academic vocabulary in writing and speaking (Dalton & Grisham, 2011).  Using digital resources brings concepts to life for students. Pairing them with opportunities to read, write, and share ideas helps support and enhance ELL’s content understanding.

Sea Otter Interactive

Children of all ages and backgrounds seek to better understand the fascinating animal species found in our world.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium, home of several sea otters and other marine creatures, makes reading about animals an adventure.  The Sea Otter Interactive http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/media/all_about_otters/whatsanotter01.html  is one of many resources that will spark students’ curiosity about the natural world.  The visual support offered by the animated otter, along with the illustrative diagrams and animations, provides visual support that aids students in making connections across languages.

Sea Otter Interactive developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Providing opportunities for students to discuss the interactive in their native language before participating in whole-class discussion can reinforce these connections.  The native language discussion serves as a form of language rehearsal where students can organize their thinking, plan, test their ideas, and make appropriate revisions before sharing their thoughts with the whole class. Discussion techniques such as Turn and Talk or Think-Pair-Share are some examples of ways to provide opportunities for language rehearsal.

When introducing a new interactive to your class, set up a digital projector and talk through one part of the resource as a demonstration while generating guiding questions together as a class. Then, offer students time to explore the digital resource in small groups during literacy center time.  This second self-guided viewing will provide a means to read for a purpose, investigate the questions posed, and deepen students’ interest.

Below is a brief list of videos and animations that connect to common content topics covered in elementary and middle grades:

BBC Schools Science Clips

Carbon Cycle

Discovery Dino Viewer

Endangered Animals 

Habits of the Heart

NASA eClips

PBS Play Amazon Explorer (Rainforest) 

Water Cycle Interactive from Discovery Education

To locate additional resources in curriculum areas you teach, search Google by typing in your topic area + interactive (e.g. solar system + interactive).

Using Bilingual Texts to Encourage Language and Content Learning

Effective literacy instruction makes connections to students’ linguistic, literacy, and cultural resources. These resources can be used to support learning in their second language. Utilizing educational resources in both languages builds students’ cognitive flexibility and increases meta-linguistic awareness (Gort, 2008). Bilingual websites such as Monterrey Bay Aquarium’s Pup’s Supper/La Cena del Cachorro http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/lc/activities/book_pups_supper.asp encourage home school connections and encourage learning across the curriculum.

Bilingual English/Spanish e-book about Sea Otters developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium

NASA’s Sun-Earth Day Multimedia Children’s Books http://sunearthday.nasa.gov/2006/multimedia/books.php are free animated multimedia books that present concepts both visually and textually.  Because these resources make it possible to see and experience phenomena such as aurora, they support the development of language, literacy, and content simultaneously. Accessible in both English and Spanish, each book poses essential questions and presents concepts that help students address them. Related resources such as an image gallery and dictionary, extend ideas presented in the text.

The Rainforest Alliance Virtual Story Books http://www.rainforest-alliance.org/kids/stories offer engaging and colorful fiction and non-fiction books in three languages English, Spanish, and Portuguese.  These texts engage young readers by introducing them to children who live in areas that surround rainforests.  The imagery and first hand accounts captured in these unique texts make students more aware of these diverse environments and the wildlife that inhabit them. Exploring these engaging texts extends emergent bilingual students’ comprehension and vocabulary while helping them make connections between languages.

The International Digital Children’s Library http://en.childrenslibrary.org/ is a portal site that makes children’s books from around the world available in a variety of languages. Over 2,800 books are available in 48 languages, free of charge. The simple search feature makes it easy to find books that match the age range and interest level of all students. Each text includes a feature that allows the reader to switch the language for instant translation. Because the books on this website do not require a trip to the library, students can access them at school and at home.

Sharing Ideas with the Aid of Digital Tools

The Internet has made it possible to write in a variety of forms and reach a wide audience almost instantaneously. By introducing new outlets for sharing ideas, ELLs can make important connections between reading and writing.

Wordle http://www.wordle.net/  is a resource that makes it possible for students to generate word pictures using an assortment of words that they chose (in any language).   How frequently the inputted terms appear determines the size, placement, and prominence in the final product. The interface eliminates common words such as “the” or “and” so that key words take on greater emphasis. The selection of layout schemes can be used to highlight ideas and relationships among terms.

This easy-to-use resource provides students a powerful tool for expressing their developing understanding of words, concepts, or ideas in a motivating and engaging way.  For example, Wordle can be used to extend quick write activities.  For example, after reflecting, students can be paired up in small groups to input their writing into the interface. Printing out students’ Wordles and creating a gallery walk can be a useful review and reflection activity to summarize what they have learned about a topic they’ve studied. Repetition of similar learning statements in this case would be beneficial since key concepts would pop visually and aid students in recalling important ideas. These alternatives for formal writing activities would also provide teachers a way to formatively assess students’ understanding of content studied.

ELL students can create Wordles in their home language.  Below is one that Iliana created to reflect the concepts she had learned about the sun and its importance the solar system.  She placed a tilde ~ between words that she wanted displayed together, such as sistema~solar so that these terms would appear side by side.

Iliana’s Spanish wordle about the sun and its importance the solar system

RealeWriter (“Really Writer”) http://www.realewriter.com/ is a free Web site that invites users to upload images or drawings, write their own text, and publish professional looking books that can be printed or posted online. Educators have used RealeWriter to author books collaboratively as a class project and also as a tool for individual student authors. Innovative educators all over the world have used these resources to help students express ideas.  The ease of the software enriches the writing experience and helps English learners find their voice as writers.  RealeWriter  turns writing into an experience that is enjoyable, authentic, and social.

To get started with RealeWriter, explore the wide selection of student published books.  Topically focused texts can be found by typing key words into the site-specific search engine at the top of the page. Clicking on the featured or popular books tab to view examples that will appeal to all ages and interest levels. El Mercado  is a delightful Spanish/English bilingual book that takes readers on a trip through a market place in Mexico City in search of a birthday present for six-year-old Sean.

Reflecting on Implementation

As new technologies continually emerge, new skills and strategies will be required by students to effectively make use of them. Though many teachers have yet to possess these skills themselves, it is nonetheless our responsibility as educators to provide an educational context in which all students can acquire them.  Extending these digital learning opportunities is central to students becoming participatory citizens and achieving success in school, higher education, and the workplace.


Dalton, B. & Grisham, D. (2011). eVoc strategies: A dozen ways to use technology to build vocabulary.  The Reading Teacher, 64, 306–317.

Gort, M. (2008). “You give me idea!”: Collaborative strides toward bilingualism and biliteracy in a two-way partial immersion program. Multicultural Perspectives, 10(4), 192-200.

Expressive Learning: Encouraging Students’ Multimodal Expression to Enhance Content Learning

A New Post by Jill Castek

I’ve been exploring the use of iPads to support literacy and science learning in middle school classrooms throughout the school year.  One of the most powerful ways I’ve found to help students make deep and lasting connections to content learning is to design meaningful classroom projects that engage students in working collaboratively to convey ideas  using digital tools that support multimodal expression.  As student design and create, they purposefully use key vocabulary and integrate examples that illustrate their thinking.  Student projects can be celebrated, showcased, and shared with an authentic audience made up of peers, teachers, and the wider community.  They’re also a great way to formatively assess student learning.

Students work collaboratively on digital projects to support content learning.

The Power of Student Collaboration

By working collaboratively, students are challenged to think through the important processes of choosing a focus, reflecting on what they know and how to represent it, and designing an action plan. As peers enact their plans, they critique and rework their representations iteratively until they’re satisfied their work has achieved the intended goal.

Working with iPads has provided students easy-to-use apps that support drawing and annotating images, inserting photographs, and creating voiceover capabilities. These features make it possible for students to express their understanding in multiple ways through multiple means, an aspect central to Universal Design for Learning (UDL). This post focuses on two examples of digital collaborative projects and the apps that supported their creation.

ShowMe for the iPad

ShowMe (see http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/showme-interactive-whiteboard/id445066279?mt=8) is an FREE iPad app that allows users to use images, drawing tools, and voiceover to communicate ideas.  Once a project is created, it can be shared on the ShowMe website http://www.showme.com/ or embedded into any digital forum (blog, wiki, website, etc.)  While this tool is often used by teachers in a receptive way, for example to deliver short lessons or tutorials to students,  I was interested in getting ShowMe into students’ hands so they could use its features creatively to express their understanding of concepts and ideas (thus enhancing and extending content they had learned).

Using ShowMe to Summarize Important Ideas from Reading

Linda Wilhelm’s 7th graders at Valley View Middle School in Pleasant Hill, CA were studying genetics in their Science class.  ShowMe was used to support an enhanced jigsaw activity where students created were expected to weave key ideas from their textbook and web-based reading into a short project that expressed their understanding of the content and provided examples. There were several subtopics; and pairs were assigned one of four themes to convey:  1) Some genes are dominant while others are recessive, 2) Mendelian laws apply to human beings, 3) All cells arise from pre-existing cells through the process of cell-division, 4) Sex cells have one set of chromosomes, body cells have two.

Students were shown a sample ShowMe project created by the teacher to give a sense of what was possible with ShowMe (which included importing images, drawing features, stop and start capabilities, and voiceover).  Then, a project rubric was distributed and discussed with students to convey expectations for the project.  Finally, students were provided time to plan and record their ShowMe projects.

Although storyboarding on paper was modeled and provided as an option, students preferred to draft their ideas directly into ShowMe.  As they drafted, they created multiple takes that were played back and evaluated by students iteratively.  Critiquing and revising with the ShowMe tool was immediate and satisfying for students and sparked careful re-reading and reflection on the texts provided.  It also sparked discussion on important aspects of visual literacy as students carefully thought through what images would best help illustrate their main points.  Throughout, collaboration was evident and a vital part of the digital content creation process.

ShowMe Student Examples

Click on the URLs provided and the ShowMe projects will open in a new window:

Using iMovie for the iPad to Construct, Explain, and Show Understanding

Leon Young’s 6th graders at Realm Charter School in Berkeley, CA were studying plate boundaries during a plate tectonics unit.  They designed and built their own scientific models to show the characteristics of plate boundaries in different locations around the world.   Students were then invited to create a short video using iMovie to showcase and explain their model to their classmates and school community.

Pairs of students worked together to think through how to convey science content through their video productions.  As they discussed shot selection, they showed a keen awareness of audience and purpose and found meaningful ways to explain scientific terms and concepts for those unfamiliar with the content.  As was the case with the ShowMe projects, students created multiple takes and revised iteratively as they reflected on word choice and overall flow of ideas.  The result was a strong and solid representation of what they learned that showcased both creativity and collaboration.

iMovie Student Example

Using Digital Tools to Support Multimodal Expression

When asked about the making these digital products students said the work was “fun, active, and creative.”  Not only did these projects support engagement with content, they also supported the development of vital 21st century literacies.  Students were able to showcase their learning in ways that involved multimodal expression which requires higher level thinking skills such as synthesis, evaluation, and critique (and are also central to the Common Core State Standards).

If you’re looking for a step-by-step guide for the use of ShowMe, iMovie, or other iPad apps that support literacy and content learning, click on the Step-by-step Guide to iPad apps and HandoutForIRAPreCon.  These presentation materials are from the IRA session that Jen Tilson and I delivered in Chicago, IL in May 2012.  Other speakers’ session materials, including Bernadette Dwyer’s handouts, can be accessed from the IRA TILE-Sig website at http://tilesig.wikispaces.com/Conference2

Add a comment to this post and share ways you’ve had students to create content and reflect on learning through the use of digital tools.  Sharing examples is a great way to get our collective juices flowing and sparks our creativity.  In the process, we’ll learn about a range of new tools and techniques for teaching and learning with technology. Enjoy!

The 4 R’s of Collaborative Writing: Reading, Rating, Remixing, and Revising

A new post by Jill Castek

For the past several months I’ve been working with fifth and sixth graders in two urban schools in Berkeley and Oakland, CA. The project is designed to enhance integrated literacy and science learning and to explore how iPads can be used to support student engagement, self expression, and learning.  Although I’ve been involved in using laptops extensively with students in classrooms, shifting to explore science learning through iPads has been a true learning experience.

I’ve discovered that many applications and strategies for collaboration I’ve always drawn from aren’t directly transferable to working with a small touch screen.  However, because collaboration is a vitally important part of learning,  I’m dedicating this post to  approaches for facilitating collaborative writing.

One free platform I’ve used for collaborative writing is Mixed Ink www.mixedink.com.  This educator friendly tool allows small groups or the whole class to reflect on several versions of a text written on the same topic and to weave ideas  from peers’ work into a single text that credits multiple authors.  An overview of how the Mixed Ink tool works can be seen in the short video clip below entitled Mixed Ink for Educators.

Collaborative Writing with Mixed Ink:  A 5th Grade Example

Ms. Kretschmar’s students completed a waste audit to analyze the waste their school produced. Prior to beginning the collaborative writing assignment, students discussed their experiences with the waste audit and shared ideas about how to communicate the surprising results they found to the school and community at large.  The five phases  the class engaged in as they documented and shared their experiences included:  1) writing;  2) reading; 3) rating; 4) remixing; and 5) revising.  Not only is each aspect an important part of productive collaborative writing, these steps also address the Common Core State Standards that emphasize the use of digital technologies for reading and writing as support process skills such as collaboration, listening, and speaking.

Ms. Kretschmar’s students draft their waste audit letter to the school community.

With the aim of helping the school and community become more mindful about their output of trash, Ms. Kretschmar structured a five paragraph writing assignment for her students and assigned each table group to complete one paragraph.  Once she distributed Letter4School (a set of graphic organizers to support students when drafting), she encouraged table groups to discuss ideas before writing their paragraphs as individuals. Then,  students used the graphic organizers and iPads to complete a first draft.

Next, students learned about online collaborative writing using Mixed Ink and discussed the process of peer support for adding content, revising language choices, and reorganizing their presentation of ideas.

Then, students read each other’s work (staying within their original paragraph groups).  After presenting the purpose of reading and rating, Ms. Kretschmar had students rate each other’s work using a system of stars which ranged from 1/2 star (needs more development) to five stars (very well developed).   As students read their peers’ work, they looked out for ideas  and language they could incorporate into their own piece to improve it.

Using their peers’ pieces as mentor texts, students remixed new drafts  by incorporating in elements of each others’ wording and language into their own piece (creating co-written pieces with multiple authors).  The image on the left shows how the crediting process works (with each author recognized as contributing an element to the piece).

Students then rated each of the new paragraphs again.  Mixed Ink uses a specially designed algorithm that surfaces the most complete and well-written piece based on student ratings.  This featured “featured” version can then be discussed in terms of its organization, use of language, organization, or other characteristics.

With help from the students, Ms. Kretschmar compiled the top rated five paragraphs into a completed piece that incorporated all students’ voices.    The final version can be accessed by clicking on 5thLetter2Community.  It takes advantage of the collaborative writing process in the creation of a well-organized, well-structured final product.

A full set of slides documenting  Ms. Kretschmar’s collaborative writing lessons can be viewed here.

Collaborative writing in a digitally enhanced way has several benefits.  First, it is a process that draws upon the strengths of the collective. Although one student may be stronger in critical thinking skills, another may excel in organizing or adding detail to a piece. By working in groups, students learn from each other while they complete an assigned task in ways that benefit the whole group.  In addition, students working in collaborative groups can take advantage of other group members for  peer review as they complete writing projects.  More and more workplace activities involve working in these sorts of collaborative project teams. Giving students opportunities to work collaboratively can help prepare them for the advantages and pitfalls of collaborative work on the job.  I’ve seen collaborative writing activities such as the one featured here, support students’ abilities to work together and problem solve while providing the context for content-rich conversations.

We are eager to promote an exchange of ideas on this forum.  We invite you to please add a comment to share experiences you’ve had with collaborative writing.

Cultivating An Online Community of Literacy Learners in Your Classroom

A Post from Jill

The RAND Reading Study Group (2002) drew attention to the importance of reading comprehension as a social activity and asserted that text, the activity, and the reader are all situated within a larger socio-cultural context. The social context, in particular, influences how learners make sense of, interpret, and share understandings.

Over a period of years, Rafael, Florio-Ruane, & George (2001), Daniels (2002), and Guthrie & McCann (1996) guided teachers’ implementation of social reading activities such as book clubs, literature circles, cooperative book discussion groups, and idea circles. No matter the structure these reading activities take in an individual classroom, the purpose is the same – to create a community of learners who construct understandings together.

Group participation motivates students to read and write for a range of purposes, utilize knowledge gained from previous experience to generate new understandings, and actively engage in meaningful social interactions involving literacy. These activities tangibly illustrate to students that sustained reading and writing has an authentic, social purpose and are more than solitary, self-fulfilling activities.

Socially-oriented learning activities fulfill an important need since many students, especially adolescents, are driven by social interaction. One such indication is the proliferation of teen activity on social networking sites (Lenhart, Smith, & Magill,2007). Many adolescents spend their time connecting with friends by texting on cell phones, instant messaging, and using websites such as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter and are highly skilled in creating their own communities and establishing affinity groups within those networks to connect with others and exchange ideas.

Despite the proliferation of skilled Internet use among adolescents, the majority of students attend schools where they are required to “disconnect” (Selwyn, 2006) and rely solely on face-to-face communication as the primary means of sharing ideas.  This paradox brings to mind several important questions:

1)    What benefits to literacy and learning could be realized if students were encouraged to merge their powerful social networking skills to support their academic pursuits?

2)    In what ways could social networking skills, and the strong desire students possess to develop vast social networks, be used to positively impact literacy learning and academic achievement?

Integrating the resources shared in this post into your classroom can help cultivate an online community of literacy learners who collaborate, problem-solve, and negotiate multiple perspectives as they learn today’s important skills for reading, writing, and communication.

Developing an Online Community of Readers in Your Classroom:  Ideas for Implementation

The Epistemic Games collaborative (see http://epistemicgames.org/eg/) is an innovative collective that is made up of researchers, educators, and game designers who create games in which players learn ways of thinking that matter in the digital age.  One of the games they’ve developed is a simulated journalism community called journalism.net (see http://epistemicgames.org/eg/category/games/journalism-game/). Participants in Journalism.net work as reporters publishing online news magazines on community-based topics.  Within the game, they work with professional journalists, learning skills like interviewing and copyediting and become part of a simulated professional community. By participating in Journalism.net, students develop an awareness of community happenings, discover local scientific issues, and extend their writing, reviewing, and critiquing skills as they begin to see the world as journalists, all while capitalizing on the thrill of publishing their own work to inform the public.  Creating an online classroom newsletter as a space for students to report on what’s happening in your classroom, school, community and beyond serves a similar purpose (and is both fun and easy to get started).  Visit TeXt http://text.teachingmatters.org/, a  free eZine and Blogging Tools for Schools to get started.

Edmodo http://www.edmodo.com/ is a platform you can use to create a secure, school based social learning network for your classroom.   Edmodo provides a safe and easy way to connect and collaborate offering a real-time platform to exchange ideas, share content, access homework, and promote learning related student-to-student communication. Accessible online and from any mobile device via free smart phone applications, through Edmodo students can be connected everywhere they go – whether using a computer, phone, iPod, or tablet. Capitalize on the fact that technology is an integral part of kids’ lives and extend learning by implementing an educational network like Edmodo in your classroom.

Twiddla http://www.twiddla.com/ is a tool for co-browsing the Internet with other learners. This tool allows collaborators to co-browse websites in a shared, real-time whiteboard, while marking them up, sharing files, and chatting along. It’s called co-browsing; all the cool kids are doing it. It’s perfect for school use because you don’t need an account to use Twiddla. No plug-ins or downloads, are needed and students whom you invite to collaborate do not need to login to any system to share content in real-time with you.

Wridea http://wridea.com/ – Wridea makes it easy for students to become a part of a learning community.  Here students can collaborate and share ideas within a shared space. This brainstorming tool organizes and categorizes ideas onto different pages, provides unlimited storage, and allows users to comment on topics and ideas.

GroupTweet http://www.grouptweet.com/– GroupTweet is designed for Twitter users who want to be able to communicate and collaborate privately.  A perfect option for networking a classroom community to promote reflection and learning.

A Fundamental Shift From Page to Screen

The Internet has become today’s technology for literacy and learning, offering classrooms a wide-range of online reading, writing, and communication options that extend new opportunities for social interaction and collaboration. Developing communities of literacy learners online in your classroom broadens students’ perspectives and exposes them to different ways to approach and solve problems.  The tools featured here, when chosen thoughtfully and fully integrated into your classroom, can become fertile ground for students acquiring the skills necessary to communicate and collaborate in the 21st century.


Daniels, H. (2002). Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.

Guthrie, J. T., & McCann, A. D. (1996). Idea circles: Peer collaboration for conceptual learning. In L. B. Gambrell and J. F. Almasi (Eds.), Lively discussions! Fostering engaged reading (pp. 87–105). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Lenhart, A., Madden, L. Smith, A.  Macgill (2007). Technology and Teens. Pew Research Center Publications.

Raphael, T. E., Florio-Ruane, S., & George, M. (2001). Book Club Plus:  A conceptual framework to organize literacy instruction. Language Arts, 79(1), 159-168.

Rand Reading Study Group. (2002). Reading for understanding: Towards an R&D program in reading comprehension. Retrieved from http://www.rand.org/multi/achievementforall/reading/readreport.html

Selwyn, N. (2006).  Exploring the digital disconnect between net-savvy students and their schools. Learning, Media and Technology, Vol. 31, No. 1. (2006), pp. 5-17.

Using Multimedia to Support Students’ Generative Vocabulary Learning

A post from Jill

In our April 26th post we shared that Bridget, Dana, and I have written a chapter for the second edition of Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice (forthcoming, Guilford Press) to be published in 2011. In our chapter, Using Multimedia to Support Students’ Generative Vocabulary Learning we highlight ways to use digital media to support vocabulary learning.  In the chapter, we include multimodal examples, which are reproduced as figures.  However in static manuscript form, we found ourselves limited in showcasing these creations, which are meant to be interacted with digitally.

This post features each of the examples. What follows is a brief description of teaching ideas from the chapter  along downloadable files. These files allow you to click on links and interact with the content to get a better sense of the potentials and possibilities.  We hope these creations spark your creative ideas for ways to use digital media to support vocabulary learning!

Multimedia Hypertext Versions of Poems, Quotes, or Short Text Excerpts

Students often find it difficult to unpack the meaning of words and figurative language within a poem or passage. An alternative way to dive deep into word meaning is to engage them in creating hypertext versions of the text that include links to other media. The original text represents the first layer, and their personal connections and interpretations represent the second, hyperlinked layer. This activity works well in partner groups because it encourages students to talk about and use the targeted words as they design their linked text.

PowerPoint, or other multimedia presentation software, can serve as the hypertext medium. To introduce this kind of vocabulary and figurative language exploration, create a 3 slide PowerPoint template.: slide 1 explains the task and introduces how to make a hyperlink within a slide show, slide 2 introduces an example, and slide 3 provides the actual text to be expanded with vocabulary hyperlinks.

The example below demonstrates how key words and phrases in the opening of Martin Luther King Jr.’s  I Have a Dream speech can be hyperlinked to students’ elaborations and connections in different modes.

Click Hypertext to download and interact with this example.

Compose Multimodal Word Webs

Creating a multimodal word web is probably one of the simplest and most effective ways to use language and media to express word meanings and explore the relationship between words.  To begin, create a basic template that students can customize. At a minimum, the multimodal word web should include the target word or concept, an explanation, and examples of the word in a context. Further, at least two modes should be used such as text, sound, graphics, and video. For example,  a word web for the target word ‘habitat’ might include descriptive information that defines what a habitat is, as well as photographs of different habitats, video of wildlife in their habitat, and audio clips that offer a chance to hear sounds within a given habitat.

In the example below, words come to life. You can listen to whale sounds from the arctic and watch a video clip showing how the polar bear learned how to survive in the arctic, a habitat that offers few comforts.

Click Habitat to download and interact with this example.

Pictures Worth 1000 Words

You know the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words”; the same can be true of a word – what information, memories, images, and sounds are evoked when you hear the word ‘celebrate’ or ‘grandmother’? While we share cultural understandings of some visual symbols, the ways that visual representation can be connected to words is limitless. Even for something as specific as a car, our image memories will vary. To develop both visual literacy skills and vocabulary, challenge students to connect words to images or images to words.

The example below begins with the key word “challenge” together with images that match with it.  After students complete such as collage, ask them to add a title and explain why the images are a good representation of the word. This offers an excellent opportunity to teach how to critically read images on the Web.

Click “Challenge” to download and interact with this example.

Vocab Vids (see Bridget’s post “VocabVid Stories: Developing vocabulary depth and breadth through live action video“)

Bridget and Christian Ehret partnered to create an example that illustrates the power of video to illustrate word meanings. The video opens with a shot of a desk piled high with books. Ehret is sitting on the floor, hidden by the desk. Suddenly, his hand appears, pulling a book off. More books disappear as he pops up repeatedly, looking increasingly distressed. At the end, Ehret appears with a sign displaying the word “overwhelm,” saying, “I’m distressed, drowning in a deluge of books. This is an overwhelming amount of books to read! Can you tell I’m feeling totally overwhelmed?!” Note that all of the italicized words were found on a thesaurus during a Web search the pair did to prepare for the video. They used different forms of the word (overwhelm, overwhelmed, overwhelming) and incorporated related words (distress and deluge) to aid in the development of word concepts.

View the Video Example

We hope these examples have gotten your creative juices flowing and introduced some new possibilities.  We welcome you to share additional ideas for ways you’ve used digital media to enhance vocabulary learning. Please add a comment or send us an email.

Making a Difference: Extending Digital Literacy Through Participation in Online Advocacy and Social Action Projects

A Post from Jill

I’m excited to be heading to see Lara Lee’s new feature film Cultures of Resistance on Thurs. June 30th at City College in Berkeley, CA.  The film takes viewers on a journey across five continents as it documents the personal stories of creative change makers who aim to inspire engagement and social action around issues of social justice worldwide. The idea of this film caused me to stop and think about our efforts to educate students in meaningful ways that make a lasting impact in our collective lives.  It occurred to me that the Internet should be used not only as a source for information  but also as a means and a vehicle to spark action in our communities and around the world. When I reflect on social media use during the recent revolution in Egypt, I am struck by  how globally connected and interdependent we are locally, nationally, and globally. It brings to the forefront of my mind the need to prepare students with an orientation and a commitment to using online information and advocacy to improve our global community.

To help achieve this aim, this post focuses on several school-friendly social action projects that make strategic use of the Internet to connect people around the world.  These projects provide a promising means for engaging students’ intellectual potential, curiosity, and social networking skills to make a lasting change on important issues of the day.

Global Climate Change

To help kids better understand global warming, the Pew Center recently collaborated with Nickelodeon to research kids’ and parents’ attitudes and behaviors toward the environment and have made several great resources available (see http://www.pewclimate.org/global-warming-basics/kidspage.cfm). Such efforts have helped sparked several action campaigns led by adolescents and young adults.  One such effort is iMatter (see http://imattermarch.org/). iMatter began as a simple video, created by a 13 year old, that covered the problems, consequences and solutions of climate change. Now, it’s grown into a global campaign meant to unite the voices of a generation on the most urgent issue of our time.

Additional efforts such as Young Voices on Climate Change showcase the many creative and innovative ways young people are shrinking the carbon footprint of their homes, schools, and communities. This effort began as a series of short films from Lynne Cherry, author of The Great Kapok Tree, and  feature the inspiring work of young people who seek to increase climate change awareness and action. It then expanded to a book entitled How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Climate: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming.  Both the iMarch and Young Voices websites feature several ways students can get involved and make a difference. The inspirational trailer for Young Voices can be accessed here.

Cyberschool Bus Global Teaching and Learning Projects

The United Nations Cyberschool Bus Global Teaching and Learning Projects website encourages students and their teachers to engage in world wide social action projects. This portal offers curriculum resources to support finding solutions to combat world hunger, ending racial and ethnic discrimination, and providing universal human rights. Through collaboration with classes worldwide, students can participate in finding solutions that may impact the realities of tomorrow. Placing students in the role of problem solvers empowers them to find ways to use what they are learning in school and their communities to change the reality of the world around them.  The quizzes and games section includes interactive simulations such as Against All Odds (aimed at increasing students’ awareness and knowledge about refugee situations by putting players in the position of a refugee) and Stop Disasters (that encourages problem solving by teaching players how to respond to different disasters) are excellent ways to increase students’ awareness about global crises and ways to combat them.

Bucket Buddies

Bucket Buddies  is a curriculum-based inquiry project available on the Internet for elementary level students. In this project, students team up with other students from around the globe to test fresh water samples in their community. Students collect samples of water from local ponds to answer the question: Are the organisms found in pond water the same all over the world? In this project, students attempt to determine whether or not the same fresh water macro-invertebrates will be found in different locations. Participating classes collect samples from ponds near their schools and use a variety of resources to identify the macro-invertebrates (animals lacking a backbone and visible without the aid of a microscope) in the samples. The students then share their identifications with other project participants and use the collected data to answer the central question: Did classrooms sampling fresh water sources around the world find the same organisms? Finally, the students publish their conclusions in a report, which is posted to the project web site. Additional collaborative project ideas that address water quality and water conservation issues can be found by visiting http://www.k12science.org/collabprojs.html

International Schools Cyberfair

International Schools Cyberfair is an international learning program that encourages youth to connect the knowledge they learn in school to real world applications. This project has brought together more than one million students across 100 countries. Its purpose is for students, their schools and their local communities to use the Internet to share resources, establish partnerships and work together to accomplish common goals. Students work collaboratively to research and then showcase online what is special about their local community. Local and international collaboration through information and communication technologies is a key aspect of the program. Students are also encouraged to serve as “ambassadors”, sharing what they’ve learned in a way that contributes back to their local communities. Award-winning projects showcase people and programs that are actively providing solutions or solving problems.


Projects within iEARN are designed and facilitated by participants to fit their particular curriculum and classroom needs. Upon membership, the iEARN network is open to all teachers and students at a school, with resources available for finding iEARN projects across age levels and disciplines. iEARN features a Learning Circle, which contains highly interactive, project-based partnerships among small numbers of schools located throughout the world. All iEARN projects involve a final “product” or exhibition of the learning that has taken place as part of the collaboration. These have included magazines, creative writing anthologies, websites, letter-writing campaigns, reports to government officials, arts exhibits, workshops, performances fund raising, and many more examples of youth taking action as part of what they are learning in the classroom.

Participation in social action projects provides opportunities for young people to transform the world around them and makes it possible for them to see themselves, their abilities, and the activities at school in a different light. Not only does this give students the opportunity to affect change in the world and gain valuable experience with the new forms of online communication and social networking that are quickly defining our world, but it also builds confidence that the skills they are learning have value beyond the classroom.

Reflections from the International Reading Association Conference in Orlando May 8-May11

Jill, Bridget, and Bernadette @ the Peabody Hotel Duck Fountain (Dana is present in spirit!)

It was a fun and fulfilling IRA conference – a great opportunity to gather inspiration from some of the most innovative thinkers in the literacy field! We’re so glad to have had the chance to catch up with friends, meet new colleagues, and attend several amazing sessions. The Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-Sig)  session (see http://tilesig.wikispaces.com/Conference) was well attended and sparked many new ideas for using digital tools to support literacy learning.  As last year’s recipient of the Outstanding Research Award, David O’Brien (University of Minnesota) gave the keynote entitled Bridging Traditional and Digital Literacies: From Apprehension to Affordances which he skillfully presented from his iPad.  His talk sparked thoughtful reflection about the break-neck speed of change in the range of digital media and its potential to support and enhance learning. The keynote was followed by six round-table sessions that were both engaging and interactive.  Tons of new teaching ideas for using digital tools in the classroom were shared.  Many of the resources featured, as well as the best list we can find of the latest new online resources, can be found on the cool tools page http://tilesig.wikispaces.com/Cool+Tools.  On the same TILE-Sig wikispace, check out the slides and resources shared from the Pre-conference Technology Institute 

We each attended Literacy & Science: Exploring Connections that Promote Engaged Learning and met many new colleagues who focus on connections between science and literacy (and technology, too!)

The pre-conference institute entitled Science and Literacy:  Exploring Connections that Promote Engaged Learning (see https://sites.google.com/site/literacyandscience/) was chalked full of new ideas for addressing content learning.  Bridget’s delivered an outstanding presentation that addressed Reading and Learning Science with Digital Text and Media. The talk bridged research and practice and challenged participants to explore what it means to be a reader in the 21st century. Using a Universal Design for Learning framework, she shared several tangible examples that illustrated the power of digital tools to support literacy and content learning.   Laurie A. Henry and her colleagues from University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville connected 21st Century Literacy and Science in the Middle School Using the 5e Learning Model and showcased a range of effective teaching techniques.  Bridget’s and Laurie’s slide, as well as other resources, can be downloaded from the institute website! Videos of all the sessions will be added soon.

Bernadette was a finalist for the IRA Dissertation of the Year award!

We love that IRA brings us in touch with international perspectives that expand our literacy viewpoint.  Bernadette’s  poster summarized her dissertation study entitled Scaffolding Internet Reading:  A Study of a Disadvantaged School Community in Ireland and drew attention from numerous interested participants.  Bernadette skillfully described her development of an integrated inquiry-based curriculum which included cross curricular units that linked literacy, science, and the Internet in an authentic classroom-based study. She monitored in-depth the progress of three triad groups within each class cohort during Internet workshops and also conducted a series of Internet Inquiry Progress Tasks across the study. We congratulate Ber on her groundbreaking study.  Her findings have helped the literacy community worldwide better understand the nature of collaboration in Internet-inquiry and online learning.

If you’re looking for a high quality professional development experience that links literacy and technology, the New Literacies Teacher Leader Institute is holding an event that can be attended virtually or in person on July 25 – 29, 2011. To register for this exciting professional development experience go to: http://fi.ncsu.edu/form/new-literacies-teacher-leader-institute

Active Word Learning Using Web 2.0 Tools

A post from Jill

Jim Baumann (University of Missouri) and Ed Kame’enui (University of Oregon) are editing a second edition of Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice (forthcoming, Guilford Press) to be published in 2011. Bridget, Dana, and I were invited to submit a piece that addressed special topics in vocabulary instruction.

In our chapter, Using Multimedia to Support Students’ Generative Vocabulary Learning (Castek, Dalton, & Grisham, in process) we suggest that the use of digital media in vocabulary learning should not only be receptive (e.g., viewing vocabulary graphics), but also generative (actively engaging students in using language and media to express themselves and to create products that represent their new knowledge). We assert that the act of creation supports ownership, introduces authentic reasons for learning, and tangibly links reading, writing, and communication in ways that mirror learning outside of school. This post draws ideas from the chapter and suggests ways to promote students’ active word learning using Web 2.0 tools.

Create Vocabulary Videos:Today’s students have grown up with YouTube as part of daily life. As a way of extending word learning, consider having students’ produce their own vocabulary videos — 60-90 second videos that situate word learning in a specific context.  The varied student-created examples found at VocabAhead (e.g., the entry for amble, for headstrong, and fecund) illustrate how video creation and multimodal expression make the word learning experience more memorable for both the video producers as well as the viewing audience. For tips and tools for creating videos, see the VocabAhead Teacher Page.  Suggestions for video creation include incorporating visual cues and adding humor, dramatization, or emotions to help learners remember the word and its meaning more easily. There are plenty of free web tools available which can be used to create vocabulary videos such as Xtranormal (if you can type, you can make movies) and GoAnimate (make your own cartoons and animations using free tools that you don’t need to learn Flash to use).

Simulate Twitter to Promote Target Word Usage: Today’s widespread twitter phenomenon tells us something important about language use and engagement. In 140 characters or less, information about “what’s happening now” can be shared instantly with an online community. The defining characteristics of a ‘tweet’ are brevity, timeliness, and the ability to instantly respond to others. Educators can bring twitter-like experiences into the classroom to expand vocabulary learning, without actually creating twitter accounts. To simulate twitter, try Wallwisher. Once the topic themed-wall is set up, this free online application does not require individuals to login and everyone can post together in a shared space. Like tweets, comment space is limited (Wallwisher allows 160 characters).

To model a vocabulary related twitter, provide a target word or concept and challenge students to keep a related stream of tweets going as long as they can. Set the expectation that both target words and related words must be used in each post. Provide a context such as a breaking news event, a topic you’re studying in class, or a book you are reading.

The following interchange may serve as a tangible example. Imagine reading and watching online news reports about an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Students could then create a twitter- like stream to express reactions and questions, using the target words pollution and disaster. Before beginning, discuss the words’ meanings. Then talk through a few examples, as follows.

Twitter-like stream

Student 1: Bad news. An oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico. Pollution is going to be a problem.

Student 2: Oil will pollute the beaches. What a disaster!

Student 3: You can’t swim in polluted water.

Student 4: The seagulls and pelicans will be hurt by the oil. It gets on their feathers.

Twitter-like stream (examining the news event from the perspective of different stakeholders)

Shrimper: Major disaster. Oil rig blew and oil gushing in Gulf of Mexico. Pollution might wipe us out.

Oysterman: What about oyster beds? I have to fish. Polluted oyster beds mean no oysters. What a disaster for me and my customers.

Beach lover: Gulf Shores beach has black oil washing up. Seagulls coated. Can’t swim in polluted water.

Clean up crew: Dish detergent is the best thing to clean oil pollution from birds. Who knew?!

Oil company: The faster we cap the oil rig, the faster the pollution stops. 

Have Fun with New Slang: The dynamic and inventive nature of language is dramatically evident in the torrent of new words we manage to create each year. While we all may feel the need to chillax (calm down and relax) in the face of students’ often unconventional vocabulary use, seize the opportunity to build word curiosity and playfulness. Two excellent Internet resources for learning about words and language are the Visual Thesaurus and the Oxford Dictionary of English. The latter posts a list each year of new words added to the dictionary. Another excellent resource is the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary.  Also, at Wordspy, Paul McFedries tracks published neologisms (new word creations, many of which are slang and/or linguistic blends).

Technology and media can play an important role in developing students’ vocabulary through generative, multimodal expression. Giving students experience with the digital technologies required in the 21st century will be motivational as well as academically beneficial. 


Castek, J., Dalton, B., & Grisham, D. (in process). Using multimedia to support students’ generative vocabulary learning. In J. Baumann and E. Kame’enui (Eds.) Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

%d bloggers like this: