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.

MNOP

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: http://www.clker.com/profile-160226.html) 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: http://www.clker.com/profile-160226.html) 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: http://www.clker.com/profile-160226.html) 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: https://literacybeat.com/2012/08/28/text-complexity-digital-reading/

P (source http://www.clker.com/profile-160226.html)Probing 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

Reference

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 http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf

Images source

abaverman. (2012). Letters M, N, O, and P. Retrieved from http://www.clker.com [creative commons CC0 public domain dedication]

My Pop Studio: Develop critical thinking and media skills with this free online game from Renee Hobbs and the Media Education Lab

post by Bridget Dalton, 9//13/12

Usually I blog about digital tools and instructional strategies, but today I want to introduce you to someone whose work I’ve followed for a number of years – Renee Hobbs. Renee is Professor and Founding Director of the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island. Renee is quite unusual in that she combines ‘making stuff’ in the Media Education Lab, with conducting research on media literacy and consulting on copyright and fair use policy. You can get a sense of the breadth and depth of her work by accessing slide shows of her many presentations available at http://www.slideshare.net/reneehobbs.

If you would like to hear directly from Renee about her leadership role in media literacy, view this video of an interview with her at the 10th Anniversary of the National Association for Media Literacy Education:

photo of Renee Hobbs

My Pop Studio

Today, I want to feature My Pop Studio, a free online ‘creative play experience’ developed by Renee and colleagues at the Media Education Lab. The goal of My Pop Studio is to engage young adolescents and teens in creating, manipulating, critiquing, and reflecting on mass media that is directed at girls. It includes a Magazine Studio, a TV studio, a Music Studio, and a Digital Studio. My Pop Studio is designed for use at home and at school (teachers can download a curriculum guide at http://mypopstudio.com/for_parents.php

screen shot of My Pop Studio

If your students and/or children try out My Pop Studio, please consider posting a comment about your experience.

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.

References

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

Text Complexity in the Digital Age: An F for Online Reading?

By Thomas DeVere Wolsey

If you are reading this, chances are good that you are a teacher or education professional. As a result, the subtitle probably caught your attention right away; but this blog post is not about the ill effects of digital reading. Instead, we are going to explore what reading online might mean at a time when we will all be searching for ways to increase the amount and quality of text students read and the complexity of those texts. Shortly, you will see why an F in digital reading can be a useful tool.

Why Do Digital Texts Get an F?

To understand how text complexity can be promoted in the online environment, it helps to know and understand how readers approach reading many webpages. As you probably know, readers’ eyes move across text sweeping from left to right (a saccade) and stopping on some words to take in the content and perhaps focus on more challenging terms or phrases (fixations). However, when readers go online to a search engine, their reading tends to skip wide swaths of text as they search for the content they need. Eye movements can be tracked, and during perusal of a search result, the places where the reader’s gaze tends to be most concentrated resembles an ‘F’ shape. It would not be productive to read every word of a search result. Rather, the reader takes in key terms most often on the left side of the screen and sweeps across in some places forming the arms of the ‘F.’ Would you like to see what eye movement tracking of a search result might look like? Check this out:

An image from Clickrmedia: Eye Movements on a Search Page

More important, once readers do select a web source to read, they tend to follow the same pattern during initial reading of the webpage. Because reading on the screen is somewhat different than reading on paper, web designers actually take advantage of this F-shaped pattern and write text using headings and key words that fall within the F-zone in an effort to gain the reader’s attention. This results in important concepts from the site being conveyed to the F-zone reader, and perhaps entices the reader to go beyond the F-zone and read more closely. This is a good thing for the same reasons we cannot and should not read every word on a search page. The challenge for teachers and the readers in their classes is deciding when to use this strategy and when to go beyond this approach and read a bit more thoroughly and perhaps slowly. In this photo, you can see what the F-shape looks like when eye movements are tracked. The redder the color, the more time the reader spends looking at the content on that part of the page.

An image from the Nielsen Norman Group: Eye Movements on Three Webpages (Notice the general shape of the ‘F’)

F-shaped Pattern

See eyetracking in action (real-time): http://www.vimeo.com/40021154 (source: The Nielsen Norman Group)

…and eyetracking in action (slowed-motion version):  http://vimeo.com/40021215 (source: The Nielsen Norman Group)

Is F-Shaped Reading a Problem?

Some voices in education believe this F-shape reading pattern is part of a larger problem that demonstrates how online reading in some way detracts from a reader’s ability to comprehend complex and longer texts. While we certainly need more research in the area of digital reading and how it affects young readers (and older ones, too), we can use what we know about the F-shaped pattern to our advantage in the classroom. Slow and careful reading need not be impossible in digital environments.

Effective reading online involves complex skills that can build what Newkirk (2012) calls a growth mind-set. This mind-set “…is the capacity to view difficulty as an opportunity to stop, reassess and employ strategies for making sense of problems” (p. 122). When readers encounter uncertainty, they may quickly navigate away from the webpage causing doubt; however, teachers can assist readers to make clear and conscious choices to seek out uncertainty, confront doubt, and consult many sources. Moreover, maintaining a healthy skepticism that promotes further inquiry even as some uncertainty is reduced, new doubts will surface. A  reason the Common Core State Standards Initiative (2010) includes qualitative elements represents recognition that young readers and their teachers have a role in deciding how they may challenge themselves to greater growth as proficient readers.

A really neat thing about the human brain is that it is very capable of changing its own behavior. Metacognition theories tell us that thinkers (in this case, thinking through reading) can be aware of their learning behaviors and consciously choose to adapt them to suit varying purposes and contexts. Because the Internet is full of worthwhile and complex texts, the online environment presents a challenge for young readers. Fortunately, the challenge is one educators are well-equipped to take on. Reading online has many facets, and four of them appear in the list below. In this post, we have zoomed in on reading habits in online environments. Others will be explored in subsequent posts.

  1. Finding the most appropriate reading material
  2. Determining the best approach for reading that material
    1. Monitoring reading habits
    2. Reading text in a non-linear manner (cf. Reinking, 1997)
  3. Synthesizing multiple sources
  4. Integrating multimodal resources

A Challenge to Readers of Literacy Beat

As you read the remainder of this post, here are some reader challenges for you. Did you use the F-shaped pattern in selecting this blog post from a search engine? Did you use the F-shaped pattern as you read the post at first (remember, this is a good thing)? Did you read “below the fold” or the point at which you had to scroll to get at more content? At what point did you decide to abandon the F-shaped pattern and choose a different approach (you did, didn’t you?). Why did you change your approach? Finally, if you are a teacher, how have you helped your young readers to understand and effectively read online sources?

Tools and thinking habits for evaluating the reliability of online sources are well-known (e.g., Schrock, 2002). Therefore, we won’t spend more time with these tools here. A good point to add, though, is that online readers often do not apply principles successfully for evaluating sources even if they know they should do so (e.g., Leu, Zawalinski, Castek, Banerjee, Housand, Liu, & O’Neil, 2007). Effective instruction in choosing reading material online that suits the purpose for the search and challenges the reader to think deeply about the topic of the search is critically important. To that, I should emphasize that students need to be taught how to select online reading that is appropriately challenging to them rather than defaulting to the easiest material available.

While the F-shaped pattern seems to be the default reading pattern for reading on the web, there are appropriate times when readers should slow down and read closely. In Module 1 on the TextProject site, we defined close reading in rather concise terms:

“Close reading is characterized by the use of evidence from the text to support analysis, conclusions, or views of texts. For example, responses to the definition of text complexity would begin with a reference to the place in the text where the term is defined” (Wolsey, Grisham, & Heibert, 2012, p. 2).

The F-shaped pattern and close reading of complex texts need not be exclusive of each other. There are times when scanning content is appropriate and other times when slowing down and reading closely is the better choice—even for web content.

Please use the comment feature of this blog to explore this topic with us.

  • How do you help your students choose increasingly complex texts that challenge them as readers to work with uncertainty?
  • In what ways do you help students monitor their reading behaviors such that they move from the F-shaped pattern of most web reading tasks to the slower close reading tasks associated with complex text?

References

Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS). (2010). Appendix A: Research supporting key elements of the standards; Glossary of key terms. In Common Core State Standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf

Leu, D. J., Zawilinski, L., Castek, J., Benerjee, M., Housand, B., Liu, Y. & O’Neil, M. (2007). What is new about the new literacies of online reading comprehension? Retrieved from http://www.newliteracies.uconn.edu/pub_files/What_is_new_about_new_literacies_of_online_reading.pdf

Moje, E., Overby, M., Tysvaer, N., & Morris, K. (2008). The complex world of adolescent literacy: Myths, motivations, and mysteries. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 107-154.

Newkirk, T. (2012). The art of slow reading. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH.

Reinking, D. (1997). Me and my hypertext:) A multiple digression analysis of technology and literacy (sic). Retrieved from ReadingOnline: http://readingonline.org/articles/art_index.asp?HREF=/articles/hypertext/index.html

Schrock, K. (2002). On a good website you can tell… Retrieved from http://kathyschrock.net/abceval/primary/index.htm

Wolsey, T. D., Grisham, D. L., & Hiebert, E. H. (2012). What is text complexity? Teacher Development Series. Retrieved from http://textproject.org/tds

Transforming Writing Instruction in the Digital Age

a post from Bridget Dalton, Aug. 7, 2012
book cover of"Transforming Writing Instruction in the Digital Age"

Dana Grisham and Thomas DeVere Wolsey’s new book, “Transforming Writing Instruction in the Digital Age: Techniques for Grades 5-12”. is a wonderful resource for all of us who are striving to integrate technology and writing instruction in ways that make a meaningful difference for our students. I was honored to write the foreword for this outstanding volume and have provided it below for your information. I’ve been re-reading the book in preparation for the fall semester and was struck by its timeliness and relevance to the Common Core State Standards. This adds even more to its value!

The book is available at http://www.guilford.com/p/wolsey

From Transforming Writing Instruction in the Digital Age: Techniques for Grades 5-12 by Thomas DeVere Wolsey and Dana L. Grisham. Copyright 2012 by The Guilford Press. All rights reserved.

Foreword
My friend calls out, “The water’s amazing! Jump in!” I hesitate. “Hmmmnn, shall I? It looks cold. Are those clouds on the horizon? I like to swim, but snorkeling is relatively new to me.” I stand at the edge of the dock, watching my friend enjoy herself. I know she is an experienced snorkeler and this is one of her favorite spots. I grab hold of my gear and step off the edge. “Okay, here goes, I’m JUMPING! Wow, this feels great!” And away we go, my friend and I, swimming over the coral reef, ready for an adventure together.

Thomas DeVere Wolsey and Dana L. Grisham have written a book about technology and writing that invites us to “Jump in!” and join them in the adventure of integrating technology into the teaching and learning of the millennial generation. They invite us to jump (or step, if you are feeling a bit more cautious) into the exciting and sometimes turbulent waters of teaching writing in today’s schools. They guide us to focus on what’s important about writing, learning, and the role that technology and media can play in improving the quality of our students’ compositions, their use of writing to transform learning, and their engagement with academic literacy.

Leaders in the scholarship and practice of digital literacies, DeVere and Dana are expert guides who share the wealth of their knowledge and experience in this book, which is designed to help teachers take the next step forward in using technology to engage students in writing that is worth doing. The book artfully combines theory and practice, presenting numerous examples and vignettes to offer a vision of what is possible, along with the concrete suggestions and practical tips that are essential to success. I had barely started reading the manuscript and taking notes to prepare me for writing this foreword when I found myself opening a second document file to take note of teaching ideas, digital tools, and resources that I knew would be useful to me in my own work. The book had a larger effect on me, how- ever, stimulating my thinking about our underlying models of composition in a digital world and the urgent need to improve both theory and practice. It also reinvigorated me. The status quo is not working for too many of our students. It’s not working for many of us who are teachers. Using technology to help students create, communicate, connect, and learn is one way to change things. I believe that teachers, literacy coaches, teacher educators, and curriculum specialists will find this book to be a valuable resource, one that provides multiple entry points and pathways to follow in accordance with their individual goals, subject areas, and levels of technology expertise. In the following section, I highlight some of the key features of the book that I think make it a particularly valuable resource.

Student learning and writing pedagogy drive technology integration, not the other way around.
I love “cool tools.” In fact, my colleague Debbie Rowe and I lead a multimodal composition research group for doctoral students that begins each session with one of the members sharing a digital tool that has interesting implications for research and practice. DeVere and Dana offer a rich array of digital tools and resources throughout their book. However, it is abundantly clear from the Introduction through to the last page that their book is about writing, is about learning, and is about engagement. Technology and media are essential to making that happen. We need the nuts and bolts to build something, but we also need to have a vision for what we’re building, to understand why it’s important, and to know how we go about constructing it. Before we begin, we want some evidence that what we’re doing is supported by previous experience and success.

Dana and DeVere set their vision in the Introduction and then extend and apply it in each chapter. They draw on Bereiter and Scardamalia’s (1987) models of writing as either “knowledge telling” or “knowledge transformation.” While they acknowledge the role of “writing to tell,” their passion is in helping students use writing for knowledge transformation. I appreciate the way they structure each chapter to open with sections on “What is it?” and “Why is it important?” before moving on to how technology can help. Theory and research are embedded throughout (and where the research is limited, they suggest practices that are promising). The continuing message is that technology is both medium and message, and that it is their particular use by knowledgeable teachers and their students that will move us forward.

Writing is not just for English; writing is discipline specific.
Often there is a divide between folks who love to teach writing for literary purposes and those who love to teach their content and view writing as a vehicle to communicate learning. DeVere and Dana offer a more integrative perspective. They make a strong case for why writing is part of academic literacy. Writing is not just a matter of genre and text structure; rather it’s a way of thinking and using language and symbol systems to communicate within our community. A real strength of this book is the range and depth of examples from English, social studies, and science classrooms that illustrate how technology and media can transform the learning process and offer new opportunities for students’ creative expression, social interaction, and learning. Students compose to grapple with challenging content and accomplish purposes specific to the subject matter. While composing tools might be considered somewhat generic, Dana and DeVere illustrate how it is what you do with them in relation to particular academic content and skills that can make all the difference between a “just okay” and an “amazing” student- learning experience and outcome.

We’re all in this together, or teachers and students are making it happen.
In public speeches about educational reform and in professional devel- opment efforts, we often hear that teachers are leaders and that our notion of “what works” should expand to include practitioners’ expertise and expe- rience. The democratization of publishing on the Internet has offered many teachers the opportunity to communicate directly with an audience that is interested in learning from and with them as they go about the daily work of teaching in schools. Blogs, websites, and wikis are just a few of their online venues. However, teachers’ voices are less well represented in published text- books. One of my favorite features in this book is the inclusion of in-depth classroom examples in each chapter. Some examples are written by teachers, whereas others are written by DeVere and Dana at a level of detail that shows their intimate knowledge of the teacher, his or her classroom, and students. It is the combination of Dana and DeVere’s expertise with the expertise of some amazing classroom teachers that give this book depth and credibility.

Affect matters—for students and for us.
Have you ever taken a course or a workshop because of the way the instructor teaches, as much as the content of the course? The importance of affect and the social basis of learning is just as true for adults as it is for children—perhaps even more so, since we bring firmly entrenched beliefs and dispositions along with vast stores of knowledge and skills to each learning encounter. Clearly, DeVere and Dana are highly expert and experienced in the field of writing and technology and there is much to be learned from the information in this book. They are somewhat unusual, I think, in the way that they have shared some of who they are through their writing of this book. Their writing style and tone are conversational as they think out loud, conjecture, joke, and share strong feelings and convictions. They respect teachers and children. They understand and have experienced the realities of real teaching, real kids, and the unpredictability and promise of teaching with technology. They are resilient and hopeful about the future of students in our schools and the role of technology and writing in making change happen. By the end of the book, I was very glad to have had Dana and DeVere’s guidance and to know that they are continuing their adventures in writing and technology. Jump in and try an adventure of your own—I know I will.

Bridget Dalton, Ed.D.
Vanderbilt University

Order Transforming Writing Instruction in the Digital Age: Teaching Practices That Work on Amazon.

Differentiation Meets Digital Technology

A Planning Process for Differentiated Instruction with Digital Tools

By Thomas DeVere Wolsey

Differentiating instruction is a time-tested way of thinking about meeting students’ needs as they make progress toward achievement or learning targets.  Differentiation is an elegant mindset that suggests to teachers a framework that permits them to engage students while focusing on learning results, and digital technologies offer many opportunities to differentiate instruction in meaningful ways.  However, differentiating instruction takes a concerted planning effort on our parts as teachers and teacher educators. This is especially so as we develop a mindset that differentiation can be effective. In this post, I propose a three-phase approach to planning differentiated instruction:

  1. Where do we start planning for differentiated instruction with technology?
  2. What are considerations for who we teach, what we teach, and how we plan?
  3. How do I put it all together?

Throughout this post, you will notice a pattern of threes based on where, what and who, and finally how. Because examples often help, this post will close with one which I hope will inspire you to even better differentiation with technology.

Where Do We Start the Planning Process?

  • Curriculum: What standards and lesson objectives are appropriate?
  • Results: What are the key attributes of the target concept to be learned? What is acceptable evidence that students are learning?
  • Resources: What human, digital, and traditional resources are available?

Let’s start with a premise: Planning differentiated instruction enhanced by technology is a perfect fit for the principles of understanding by design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) in which teachers plan instruction based on the results they intend for their students.  This means that before any digital tools are chosen, before a single activity is determined, before assessment instruments are designed, the intended results must be decided. Results are informed by standards and further refined by lesson objectives. They are carefully honed predictions for student learning that require the teacher to determine the key attributes of target concepts and consideration for what acceptable evidence of learning might be. Once we know we have this down, the rest falls into place.

Right now, you might be wondering, “Hey, where’s the technology?” At this point in our three-phase approach, we can ask ourselves what human, digital, and more traditional resources are available to support these learning events.  It will be tempting to think something like, “I really love Prezi and Glogster” so I’ll design my activity around those two tools.” An analogy might be helpful here as a kind of caution about choosing the technology before moving forward with other aspects of instruction.

In my backyard, I have decided to build a shed to store potting soil, extra pots, shovels, and so on. I know I have a claw hammer and a sledge hammer. I like my hammers, so I decide that those are the tools I will use.  Already, you can see this will not work out well. I may need other tools, and I may even have to borrow one from a neighbor or go to the hardware store and buy a tool for this task.  To be successful, I will need a pretty good inventory of the tools that are required for the job, the tools I own, and the tools I will borrow or buy. Planning to use technology to improve differentiated instruction is like that, too.  The technology should match the demands of the tasks.

What Do I Differentiate + Who and How?

  • Differentiate curriculum by process, product, or content
  • Based on readiness for learning relative to the standards and objectives, student interests relative to the standards and objectives, and the way they learn in general
  • While considering overall lesson design and time requirements

Once we have a firm grasp on what results we expect based on standards and objectives, we can begin to think about the best ways to challenge our students. Embedded in what we differentiate are considerations for who our students are and what we know about them along with what aspects of the curriculum might result (there is that word again) in effective student learning.  Curricular elements we can differentiate commonly include the processes of learning, the products of learning, and the content on which learning is based (Tomlinson, 2001).  Juxtaposed with those elements are the needs of the students including their readiness for learning relative to the standards and objectives, their interests relative to the standards and objectives, and the way they learn as a general rule. Learning needs and curricular elements or demands can be thought of as a matrix, as represented in figure 1. What cell on the matrix might produce the best learning results for the specific students sitting in the classroom? Finally, we need to decide what part of the lesson will be differentiated, how much time is available, and how this lesson fits in broader learning goals.

Differentiation Matrix

Figure 1: Differentiation Matrix

How Do I put it All Together?

  • Develop options and choices for learning
  • Based on identified learner needs relative to the standards and objectives
  • While keeping in mind key attributes of the target concept and intended learning results

Options: High-quality differentiation typically means different students doing different things that lead to achievement of a common learning goal.  Developing options is an effective way to put differentiation into effect. Sometimes the options are choices students can make based on the information they have about their own learning needs. At other times, the options are decisions that teachers make for students or are choices students make with guidance and nudging from their teachers. Options for learning in high-quality differentiation are always made with the key attributes of the target concept and effective learning results in mind.

Teachers develop options that meet identified learner needs while keeping key attributes of the target concepts and results in mind.

Checking for Differentiation: To check the effectiveness level of differentiated instructional tasks, fill in this sentence with details from your own lessons. Choose the element from the list in brackets or fill in your learning objectives or standards:

Based on what I know about the curriculum and my students, their [interests, readiness, or learning profiles] are [identify those interests, readiness levels, or learning profiles] relative to the objective of [insert the objective]. The [process, product, or content] will help students [achieve the objective] because…

So, Why Technology?

Early in this post, I asserted that technology offers the potential for powerful differentiation that results in high-quality learning. How digital technologies are embedded in the learning tasks is vitally important. They can be simple tinkering (or micro-differentiation, as Tomlinson, 2001, asserts) or those digital tools can vastly improve how students learn and how they interact in our digital world.  In choosing tools to be part of the options or choices available to students, three (remember our rule of threes for each phase?) questions can guide our thinking about what tools are appropriate and useful.

  • What tools do my students know or might they learn to use?
  • What digital technologies are available to the students in the classroom, at school, at home? And a corollary: What digital technologies can students bring with them to school to assist in their learning?
  • Will the digital technologies that are part of the options for students really improve their learning relative to standards, objectives, and intended learning results?

Another example of high-quality differentiation using technology is available in this video:

An Example from a High School English Classroom

Imagine a high school English course in which students are expected to understand and analyze characters in novels they selected as part of a coming of age unit.  The standard, drawn from the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS, 2010) informs these differentiated tasks.

RL.9-10.3. Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

The lesson objective relates directly to the CCSS standard; that is, students will be able to form inferences about characters from dialog and from their actions. Making inferences about characters from dialog and actions are key attributes that the teacher will use in guiding students as they work on differentiated tasks, and that will inform feedback she provides to students as they work.  In the following example tasks, notice how the tools enhance the learning rather than restrict it; at the same time students are encouraged to use new literacy skills in learning as they complete the tasks. In these examples, presented as directions to students, tasks are based on student choices, provide flexible grouping arrangements, and encourage a limited range of technologies that align with the intended learning result.

Differentiation of Product by Student Interests (based on the novels they selected to read):

1.  Sometimes what characters in novels we read say speaks volumes about them. Work with someone who read a book that is different than your own. Using Voicethread or a podcast, each partner should choose a character from their respective books. Create a dialog between those two characters that is clearly based on inferences you made about your respective characters. If you choose to work with Voicethread, choose appropriate images to correspond with the dialog you create. Ask yourselves, what would these two characters from different novels say to each other about their coming of age experiences? Challenge: Can you include, in your dialog, references to  characters’ actions that lead you to believe characters would respond in a certain way?

2.  Sometimes what characters in novels we read do tells us volumes about them. Work on your own to create a tree diagram, which includes several levels. If you would like to see an example of a tree diagram, click here. Use one of the interactive graphic organizer tools you find on the class webpage (for readers of this post, some possibilities are listed among the many tools here). At level one, identify the character and include the title of the novel. At level two, identify three or four characteristics of your chosen character that are based solely on their actions. At level three, find three or four actions in your novel that support your choice of attributes. Hint: You may want to choose the actions and categorize them, then identify the characteristics based on those attributes. Challenge 1: Share your graphic organizer with another member of your group and ask that person to add to your graphic organizer by either expanding the list of characteristics or adding to the possible actions that support the characteristics you chose. Challenge 2: Can you add a fourth level with an example from what characters say that supports the characteristics you chose?

3.  Sometimes what characters in novels we read do and say tells us volumes about them. Using the Twurdy search engine, find three reviews of your novel that include analysis of the characters in the novel you read.  Post your findings along with a paragraph indicating why you agree or disagree with the reviews you found. Be sure to include evidence in the form of inferences you have drawn from dialog or actions. Three to five examples will serve as evidence.  Work with a member of the class who read a different book than you did to determine if there are common attributes for the characters in the two different novels. Use Google Docs to create a matrix similar to the one you see here. Share your link on the class wiki. Challenge: Can you identify a character from your novel that is like any of the characters in our reading of a Shakespeare play (or other touchstone text) earlier this year?

In each example task, the students act on the interest in the novel they have read, and they create a product that is true to the standards and objectives.  Each can be assessed based on the intended results that are embedded in the standards, and each includes technology components that might increase student learning through collaborate to further enhance learning. Using the sentence frame suggested above, the teacher checks for differentiation:

Based on what I know about the curriculum and my students, their [interests ] are [grounded on the novels they selected to read for literature circles] relative to the objective of [character analysis]. The [product] will help students [analyze characters] because they must attend to the critical attributes of a character’s actions or interactions in dialog.

In your classroom, what successful tasks have you designed with the end in mind that were built on solid principles of differentiation and use of digital technologies? Use the comment button to add your thoughts to the conversation.

References

Common Core State Standards Initiative. (2010). Standard RL.9-10.3. Common Core State Standards for English language arts & literacy in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects. Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/the-standards/english-language-arts-standards/reading-literature-6-12/grade-9-10/

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Tomlinson, C. (1999). Differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners: Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (Expanded 2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

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