Deciphering Digital Text

Part of my job involves developing teacher professional development (Tech Camp, as we call it). I offer weekly mini-camps over a wide variety of topics, and when teachers sign up I ask them to identify specific needs they might have within each offering. This week we’re looking at search strategies. Several teachers commented that they need to learn how to help their students find information online.

This got me thinking, so I went to our librarian, Jody, who has a deep knowledge of how to search for information. She and I got talking and it struck me. It’s not that our kids don’t know how to find resources. It’s more that they don’t know how to read the resources when they DO find them.

Digital text is different from paper text in a number of ways and I think it makes a difference in how we comprehend information. Paper text has a finite beginning and end and runs sequentially. Magazines and newspapers may have the distraction of adverstising but it doesn’t blink or pop up in front of our eyes.  We may automatically assume  that because someone has taken the trouble and expense to bind a paper book, it probably has valid information, especially if it sits on the shelves of a library. In essence, it’s been “vetted” and we don’t have to determined validity. Because this is the media we use to teach kids to read initially, and the media they have for much of their early schooling, they take it on faith that much of this holds true across the paper-based reading material.

Digital text is different on several fronts.

For starters,  anybody with an internet connection can publish to the web, making no guarantee of the validity of the information we see. Digital text is often non-sequential because of the nature of hyperlinking. Each article has a beginning but like an unruly weed it can go off into many different directions. It’s based on relationships within the information rather than on a linear sequence. Understanding the relationship of the new information to the task you are trying to accomplish is important. It takes a little discipline to stay on a specific path and we need to struggle to control  curiosity. (Is that even a good thing?- another post, I think). Digital media mixes text, images, audio and video with ease.

I wonder about how the physiology of how the brain reacts to  the different media. We teach students to read  from paper texts where the senses of touch and sometimes smell as well as vision come into play. We hold a book at an angle to our eyes that is different than that of a laptop or a computer screen- or a mobile device. Our eyes track mostly left to right, top to bottom.

Our digital text requires vision  and often hearing. The angle of our eyes to the text changes, as does the type of light we use to illuminate the text. There is more to see in our plane of vision, and thus more for our brain to process. Designers still use the left/right design on pages, but there is often as much or more to process at the top of a page than there is at the bottom.

I don’t know if this affects the way we process visual information, but I have to think it must make a difference. My point in this rambling is that we can’t assume that kids will be able to process digital text the same way they do print media.  We have to specifically teach kids how to read digital text if we want them to be able to make use of the plethora of information available to them.

We do it with paper texts- every teacher worth their salt teaches their students how a textbook is put together, how to use the headings and fonts to identify the information hierarchy, and how to use the images that are included. I’m not sure that lesson automatically transfers in our students to digital text.

NYTimes reading graphic

The New Readers: NYTimes July 27, 2008

I’ll use the page that this graphic came from as an example. Within the top 3″ of my screen, there were links to six different ways I could view the entire NY Times. There were links to each of the 15 sections. Within the Arts and Design section where the article I wanted to read was, there were links to nine subsections. Beyond that were two ads for Cspan2 and IBM as well as an opportunity to subscribe to the NYTimes by email. Then came the headline and a large graphic related to the article. Around the article were links to reader comments, related articles, related videos, and a link to the graphic above about strategies  digital readers need to use digital information- and, which brings us back to the point- what we need to teach kids about reading online.

Kevin Hodgson of the Instructify blog gives some good pointers which I have paraphrased here and added a bit of my own ideas to. I would highly recommend looking at his blog entry as it goes into more detail about HOW to do this in your classroom.

Skills for digital readers:

  • identify what information they are looking for (setting a purpose)
  • choose the best search tool and search words. Google has some great tools to help them do this. In addition, encourage your students to move beyond Google to sources your school may already have. We have access to a terrific information database called MARVEL which is chronically underused.
  • scan the search results (identify validity by using the segments of a web address to find where the information is coming from)
  • understand and use the relevancy of search words to search results. Google has a Search Essentials Checklist that’s worth looking at.
  • scan the text (looking for key words or phrases for the information they are seeking). Teach them to use the “Find” function (Command F on a mac) to help find search words in an article.
  • understand that the answer will not pop out at them. They must be able to take information from several sources and synthesize it using organizationsl tools that we teach them how to use.
  • access and use online dictionaries and thesauruses to understand new vocabulary
  • Manage new questions that come up as a result of their research. There’s a delicate balance between getting distracted and finding a new burning question.

I am nowhere near a reading specialist but I am curious about how to help my students get more out of what they read online. Here are some resources I have found helpful. PLEASE add more as you see fit.

Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?

Strategies for Online Reading Comprehension

Vocabulogic: Processing Digital Text


One response to “Deciphering Digital Text

  1. This is a really thoughtful post with ideas that will surely benefit your students and teachers. I want to bring attention to one EXTREMELY IMPORTANT hot-button topic for me that you mention, “Anybody with an internet connection can publish to the web, making no guarantee of the validity of the information we see.” While the first half of your statement is true, it’s the second-half is my hot-button issue which is that, just because someone has the ability to publish on paper, that does not mean that we shouldn’t apply the same validation criteria to the text. Digitization brought Democratization in publishing. Everyone who has something to share, now has a the ability to do so.

    In the days before digital media, being published was usually relegated to the privileged and often lacked a diverse perspective. Do you know who the worst culprit of publishing biased, business-driven, right wing conservative, religious-driven mambo jambo? The textbook industry. I see you list Edutopia as a recommended publication. You can read more about this in an article published there

    Don’t be fooled by the perceived validity of paper. Everyone who publishes has an agenda. We are purposely led to believe that print publication can be trusted while digital must be validated. In essence, the voice of the people can’t be trusted in the same way as the voice of the privileged who usually stand to make money off printed materials so there’s usually a financial agenda and often a political one.

    We must teach students (and ourselves) to be at least equally critical of the textbooks many of which are produced with great influence of conservative Christian activists with political agendas who want to shape how your students view the world. Personally, as a teacher, I’d throw textbooks out the window, and help students learn from authentic and diverse resources…from the people not the publishers.

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