Consulting, Culture, Cognition, Assessment, Research, and Media Production

Reading-to-Learn: From Print to New Digital Media and New Literacies


Reading-to-Learn:  From Print to New Digital Media and New Literacies

Prepared for National Central Regional Educational Laboratory

Learning Point Associates

Submitted February 2003

Evidence for the use of digital media

for traditional academic competencies

David O’Brien

Brock Dubbels

Reading-to-Learn:  From Print to New Digital Media and New Literacies

Prepared for National Central Regional Educational Laboratory

Learning Point Associates

Submitted February 2003

Evidence for the use of digital media

for traditional academic competencies

David O’Brien

Brock Dubbels

Full text in pdf

With the current emphasis on accountability and high stakes testing at the elementary level, districts all over the US have an increased awareness of the immediate need to raise reading achievement at all levels. The No Child Left Behind law of 2001 has formally defined the expectations for students and teachers of students in grades K-3 in raising achievement and provided financial assistance in carrying out the provisions of the law (e.g. Reading First provision; see the law at  (    However, secondary teachers work daily with adolescents who have already “been left behind”–students who are unmotivated, disengaged, and lack the skills and strategies needed in dealing with increasingly difficult content area texts.  Secondary teachers, unlike their elementary counterparts, have few resources for dealing with these students, even though this need has been well documented (Alvermann, 2001; Moore, Bean, Birdyshaw, & Rycik, 1999).

To complicate matters, as the field of content area reading has given way to the broader, more dynamic fields of content area literacy, and adolescent literacy (Bean, 2001) much of the university supported work in long-term staff development focusing on reading has tapered off or is in transformation (Stewart & O’Brien, 2002, 2003).  Before the increased national focus on reading, secondary teachers were under some pressure to teach reading in support of students’ learning content, and learning content area reading assessment and instruction, including strategies, was one way to improve their teaching of content.

With the new focus on school-wide and district-wide reading performance secondary teachers, in whose classes students spend most of their time, are now under increasing pressure to improve students reading performance, sometimes irrespective of content.  Our ongoing work with urban and suburban districts in the Twin Cities area confirms this.  In essence, the content reading focus of the past three decades has partially shifted from teaching reading to help students learn content to teaching content to help raise reading achievement.

We, and others in the field of content reading have documented the problems associated with putting the responsibility of teaching reading on the shoulders of content area teachers who feel ill-equipped in their professional educations and lacking in time and other resources to take on what they believe is another burden (O’Brien, Moje, & Stewart, 2001).  Content teachers are justified in this concern.

To this point, we have outlined what we believe is a considerable problem for secondary teachers and administrators.  But this is only the part of the problem tied to national policy that has shifted to states and districts.  The other problem is reflected in the increasing disconnect between this policy and adolescents’ changing literacy practices and needs.  Primary among these is adolescents’ shifting preference from print text to digital media texts.  In the remainder of the paper, we will outline what the shift entails and make the case that teachers can actually capitalize on the shift to improve their students facility with print literacy and digital literacy while learning content in the emerging field of New Literacies (Lankshear & Noble, 2003).

From Print to Digital Media

At present, print text still predominates in school classrooms and single textbooks are still the most popular form of organizing and presenting curricula.  But reading in school is more unlike the reading students are doing outside of school than at any point in recent academic history of secondary schools.   And high stakes, print-based assessments are tapping skills and strategies that are increasing unlike those that adolescents (and their younger peers, for that matter) use from day to day.  For example, students are turning more and more toward the internet as their primary “textbook” (Lenhart, Simon, & Graziano, 2001, available at In the Lenhart et al. study, funded by the Pew Internet and American Life Project , 71% of students claimed that the Internet is their primary source of information for completing school assignments.  This study reported that the majority of adolescents, 78% between the ages of 12 and 17, regularly go online.  The number is likely increasing daily.

The Kaiser Family Foundation sponsored study, Kids & Media @ The New Millennium, sampled more than 3,000 children and adolescents ranging from 2-18 years old, including more than 600 participants who completed detailed media use diaries. Among other compelling findings, the researchers found that American youth spend more time with media than with any single activity other than sleeping (Roberts, Foehr, Rideout, & Brodie, 1999, available at:

This research should not be interpreted to mean that children and adolescents are becoming alliterate.  That is, contrary to reports in the popular press, they are not reading less even though they have the ability to read.  Rather, they are actually reading more, including reading more related to school work.  However, they are reading differently. They are reading digital texts, digital media, and using the internet to access information (O’Brien, 2003c).   There are positive reasons for capitalizing on students’ shift to digital literacies–ways that address the print domination of public policy that privileges print-based reading as well as addressing what appears to be the decreasing motivation and engagement of students confronted with school-based texts.

The Advantages of Using Digital Media

Over the last 7 or 8 years, our school-based colleagues have posed numerous questions about this apparent shift to digital literacies.  We have synthesized the questions for purposes of this discussion:  (a) What are legitimate digital media texts, constructed or imported into school? (b)  How do these texts help learners construct meaning and understand concepts better than print text alone? (c) Do the motivational and engaging qualities of work with digital media texts improve adolescents’ performance with print literacy?

To begin the discussion of these issues we will refer to a six-year project that David was involved in with “at-risk” high school students.  Those who want to read about this project in more depth can refer to print sources (O’Brien, 1998; O’Brien, Springs, & Stith, 2001) and online sources (O’Brien, 2001 available at: ; 2003, available at:

Digital Literacies in Action:  The Jeff High School Literacy Lab Project

Over the period of six years, David worked with colleagues Rebecca Springs and Dave Stith, both reading teachers at Jefferson High School in Lafayette, Indiana, to plan and implement an innovative literacy program using digital media. The primary goal of the three educators was to engage the most unmotivated, disengaged students in the high school while significantly improving their reading achievement.

The students they worked with were students who struggled the most with reading in the school of 2300 students—students representing about the lowest 10% of performance on the state-mandated standardized reading subtests.  After studying research and reading testimonials about innovative programs nationwide for “at-risk” or struggllng learners over the summer before they started with their first group of students, the team summarized the existing research and constructed some tenets on which to base the innovative instruction they were interested in.

From reviewing the research and reading about successful programs they concluded the following:  (a) effective programs include less skills instruction, which actually detracts from the time students spend reading and improving their ability and more opportunities to read; (b) traditional print materials specifically designed for reading classes such as “high interest, low vocabulary” paperbacks, skill series,  and other leveled collections are actually unmotivating because these have been tagged early by students as uninteresting and irrelevant; and (c) the most significantly neglected aspect of working with struggling adolescent readers is reinstating their feelings of confidence and self-efficacy, not just working on skills and strategies.

Based on the review of research and successful programs, the Jeff high team formulated some specific goals for the students.  They wanted a program that would maximize the amount of reading and writing the students did while motivating them and sustaining their interest.  They also wanted the students to have a wide range of activities to choose from and to ground their reading and writing in their lives outside of school and in their popular culture.

David, Dave, and Rebecca turned to digital media tools and a curriculum that was organized around inquiry projects in which student selected topics within broad guidelines.  The students were required to engage in inquiry using both print and other media.  They had to plan a way to represent their inquiry projects using print and other media, for example in multimedia presentations or web sites.  Most importantly, they had to formulate personally relevant goals in which they accomplished something they deemed important other than merely showing their facility in using the inquiry process and learning the technology tools.   To demonstrate how this worked we will discuss briefly one inquiry project discussed in more detail in the sources cites above.

The Violence Project

In this inquiry project, students chose a topic to explore how violence in the media impacts adolescents.  The violence project arose out of a national concern in the early to mid 90s that media producers and companies were not responsibly policing themselves and that violence in the media portrayed and condoned activities and attitudes that were detrimental to children and adolescents.  At the time the project was constructed, there were a number of core pieces in the media about the need for the popular entertainment industry to better monitor the potentially detrimental effects of its productions.

The violence project showed the clear advantages of bridging traditional print literacies and digital media (O’Brien, Springs, & Stith, 2001).  The students were required to use media to show how media defined, portrayed, and amplified violence that impacted adolescents.  In essence, it was a critical media literacy project (Alvermann, Moon, & Hagood, 1999; Alvermann & Hagood, 2002) in which media in its multiple content and distribution forms, was used by the students to critique itself.  The media texts the students drew from in the projects were among the most immediate and relevant in their lives.  Hence, the students were engagement because of choice of topics and relevance—the violence in the media was something that the students lived daily and the media they critiqued were familiar.

For example, one group of students was interested in film.  They went to the library and on the internet to do research and found a USA Today article entitled, “Taking Aim at TV Violence–Lawmakers tell Industry:  Clean up act” (October, 1993).  In the piece, Janet Reno, commented on the Touchstone film, The Program, that included a scene in which intoxicated teens in the film lay down in the middle of a highway and traffic passed harmlessly over him.  When teens in Pennsylvania mimicked the film and tried a similar tactic, one was killed and the other injured. Touchstone edited that scene out of the film.  In the article, Reno also noted an episode of Beavis and Butt-head in which they start a fire and the scene is subsequently blamed in an incident in which a five-year-old copied the episode and started a fire that killed his sister.

The group of Literacy Lab students read the newspaper piece for critical information about the broad media project; they had a discussion about the piece and split off into pairs who decided on different foci.  One pair focused on the The Program segment; two other pairs focused on Beavis and Butt-Head–one on the fire episode, another constructed a classification rubric from another piece they reviewed a variety of episodes and classified different types of violence displayed in the series.

The group that chose to work on the film idea decided that they wanted to depend more on visual “text” than print.  They storyboarded an idea in which they scanned juxtaposed images of Michael Shingledecker, the high school student from Pennsylvania who was killed.  First, they scanned an image from the newpaper article of his high school yearbook photo.  They discussed what they wanted to show–a young student with his future ahead of him, smiling with optimism.  Then they scanned an image of some of grieving friends–the stark, cold, contrast of this hopeful life taken away.  The simple, descriptive text they wrote attributed the powerful feelings conjured from the pictures to the film that Michael watched, mimicked, and allegedly as a result, died.  Their goal was to show a young life wasted by capitalizing on visual media.

One of the pairs who chose violence types in Beavis and Butt-Head set up a screening station and viewed repeatedly segments of videotape that they and their peers brought into the Literacy Lab.  They discussed what they were seeing and jotted down descriptions of the segments.  They tabulated different types of violence in a table and digitized the video segments that represented those categories.  They wrote descriptions to accompany the video clips.  The other Beavis and Butt-Head group found more information about the fire that was allegedly connected to kids watching an episode of series.

What we Learned From the Literacy Lab?

In the six years of continuing to modify the program as we worked with struggling learners, we found that adolescents who have been disengaged for years were coming to class, working enthusiastically, and improving in reading.  The students who engaged the most in inquiry projects—that is, students who attended the lab and met the goals they set for themselves in their individual contracts, improved the most on both standardized subtests (the ISTEP state mandated tests and the Stanford Diagnostic Reading Tests) as well as in informal inventories and other authentic assessments we constructed.  They also had more positive perceptions about themselves as readers and learned about a range of topics.

Although there is little systematic data collected in depth nationally to support the value of using digital media to improve print literacy, we are confident in responding the questions posed earlier based on the study with reference to the Jeff Literacy Lab project.

(a) What are legitimate digital media texts, constructed or imported into school? We learned that in order to engage today’s adolescents, most of whom are inundated with sophisticated approaches to get and hold their attention (King and O’Brien, 2002; Lankshear & Knobel, 2002, 2003), they need opportunities to engage with media that they enjoy and topics that are important to them.  As teachers, we need to develop a new tolerance for the media that kids enjoy; we also need to participate more in the media experiences our students enjoy in order to learn about what they find interesting and to share some common interests with them in the same media texts.  This includes music, videos, and video games.  Right now, as we work with high school students and  teachers who work with them, we listen to the music adolescents enjoy, watch films they recommend, and we play the video games that appeal to them.  We strongly encourage their teachers to do the same.

(b)  How do these texts help learners construct meaning and understand concepts better than print text alone.  The texts that often engage adolescents the most are digital media texts in which print may be one component—at times, a minor component.  A phenomenon we observed and confirmed with systematic data collection in the literacy lab is that visual media are often serve as the hook that gets students engaged in topics of study in the first place.  Once engaged, it is easier to get them to read and write as part of a larger media project.   For example, one student, Dan, who appears in most of what we have written about the Jeff Literacy Lab, scanned in album covers and watched video clips of Ozzie Osbourne, the Heavy Metal artist now popular in his co-starring role on an MTV “reality” show about his family.  Through systematically looking at the scanned album covers, arranged in chronological order, and watching video clips of Ozzie’s music and interviews, Dan came up with topic for a documentary in which he wrote a narrative that he read into an audio file that accompanied still digital photos and video clips.  Without the visual media, it would have been much more challenging to ever engage Dan in reading and writing involving print text.

(c) Do the motivational and engaging qualities of work with digital media texts improve adolescents’ performance with print literacy? First, we learned that working with computers and related technologies is a given with today’s adolescents; they do it regularly, proficiently, and automatically and it is not a novel experience.  Working with computers and related technologies is not, in and of itself, particularly engaging or motivating.  More than ten years ago, that may have been the case, but not now.  We discovered that what was motivating about work with digital media was the fact that it was a conduit to the students’ lives in the mediasphere (O’Brien 2001, Rushkoff, 1996)—life in the familiar and comfortable world of popular media outside of school in which so much of kids’ identity is constructed.  A second draw was that it allowed them to attain proficiency using media production tools that even their academic placement peers did not have or could use no better than they.  The Literacy Lab students gained confidence and competence in an academic setting for the first time in years.  Finally, because they formulated relevant goals related to inquiry projects, they engaged daily in something in which they realized progress, saw creations unfold, and looked forward to continuing the work.  This engagement, accompanied by relevant goals, self-efficacy, and attribution of their efforts to tangible outcomes, led to more confidence and perseverance and more reading and writing over time, which, we believe, led to proficiency in print literacy.  Quite simply, engaging in digital media projects–topics chosen by the students who were excited about using new tools and seeing projects unfold, spurred the purposes and motivation and engagement that caused them to read and write more; and, as result of this new commitment and practice over time, they improved.   In addition to our more local evidence, there are research syntheses and emerging research paradigms that point to the advantages of using digital media in content area instruction?  Some of these show direct improvements in student achievement and motivation.   

For example, Hobbs and Frost (2003) investigated whether teaching with and about multimedia would improve student reading and writing (available at: They conducted a study of  an 11th grade English/Media class wherein the curriculum emphasized the analysis of media messages within broader social and cultural contexts and issues about the role of the media in society and the lives of individuals.

The researchers studied whether students’ reading and writing performance improved after taking part in the year-long program.  They designed the curriculum with accompanying assessments that tapped not only improvements in reading and writing skills but looked at whether the student’s abilities to critically analyze media messages improved as compared to a carefully selected matched control group.  The researchers found that students who took part in the media literacy curriculum, when assessed on ability to identify main ideas in written, audio, and visual media, showed statistically significant improvement in comparison to the control group in writing quality and quantity, and an improvement in text analysis skills like identification of purpose, point of view, construction techniques, and the ability to identify omitted information.

Similarly, The Center for Applied Research in Educational Technology, (CARET) (available at: posted a response to this question:  How can technology be used to improve basicreading skills?  In responding with a synthesis from work by Xin & Rieth, (2001), they concluded that multimedia and video technologies can improve reading comprehension and vocabulary for diverse learners in a variety of settings.

The reviews at CARET also support the notion that using multimedia  and internet communication technology in the classroom with appropriate pedagogy and teacher preparation in authentic inquiry improves motivation, attitude, and interest when students used applications to produce, demonstrate, and share their work with peers, teachers, and parents (See Bracewell et al. at; Means et al., 1997, available at ).

The exciting implication of our work in the Literacy Lab and related work is that it should be generalizable across the content areas.  And, it has the potential to improve digital literacies, print literacies, and content learning at the same time.  As we reflect on this work, three issues come to mind in comparing it with the older pedagogy in teaching and teacher education in the print-only era of content area reading.

First, digital media texts not only provide broader representations of ideas that have been limited by the linear structure of print, they represent limitless, creative ways of connecting the forms of representation  (e.g., print with video, audio narration with pictures or video, print with accompanying audio narration and 360 degree virtual photos) (Calvert, 2001).  As the Literacy Lab project clearly showed, many, if not most of the texts with the most appeal to adolescent learners are digital media texts rooted in popular culture, and the adolescents who read these texts are seldom duped by them and the marketing behind them.  Rather, they are critical, intelligent consumers who also help to shape the media culture and the media that are directed at them (Alvermann, Moon, & Hagood, 1999; Alvermann & Hagood, 2002).

Second, in the era of print-only content area reading, textbooks and other printed media were the focus of attention.  The new focus on adolescent literacy , as part of literacy in “New Times” (Luke & Elkins, 1998) makes a stronger case for focusing more on learners,  It means paying attention to who adolescents are, (Moje, 2002) and to what engages them (O’Brien, 2003a).  Content teachers must now attend to how their students learn in both real and virtual spaces as they go from textbooks to the internet and back (O’Brien, 2003b).

Third, the field of content area reading was constructed largely around cognitive processing perspectives on comprehension of print text and models of information processing and characteristics of texts (e.g., Pearson & Barr, 1984; Singer & Ruddell, 1976, 1985).  Instructional frameworks and accompanying strategies based on these theoretical perspectives and models remain popular but are inadequate in addressing adolescents’ digital literacies (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003).

What are Some Instructional Implications for Content Area Teachers?

The terms media, multimedia or hypermedia usually refer to using various ways to extend how we have typically conveyed meaning with print.  The use of these media forms such as images, video and audio clips and web pages, allows for more dynamic representation of, and navigation through, information than possible with print text only. Since children and adolescents are learning and practicing digital literacy tools on their own, or within family contexts (Sefton-Green & Buckingham, 1998) it is incumbent upon educators to get up to speed and facilitate students’ experiences with digital media in school.

The literacy practices necessary to read and write digital media present new challenges and almost endless opportunities.  However, as of yet, these practices are little understood and they are constantly emerging and changing (Leu, 2000, 2002; Livingstone, 2002).  It is not practical to wait to start an instructional agenda using digital media texts until they reach some stable, measurable form and solid research base because they will continue change.  Clearly we are in a transitional period, and we need to capitalize on emerging practices and see how instruction emerges and evolves with these practices.

We hope that new technologies will transform learning—indeed, we write frequently about a multitude of teaching and learning innovations based on emerging technologies.  However, as educators, we fear that the same technologies will undermine our authority and control over content.  In the case of schools, the fear and moral panic that Livingstone (2002) discusses often win out over innovation.  Educators often fear their students’ attraction to popular media texts, texts that are central to adolescents’ identity construction, because these texts exploit generational differences to promote values that often contradict those of teachers and schools.

For example, a colleague and I facilitated a middle school staff development program on reading and writing in the content areas in which we used the Violence Project discussed earlier as an example of how to engage struggling adolescents in reading and writing.  The particular example we used was the project in which the students catalogued and described different types of violence in Beavis and Butt-Head.  In spite of our enthusiasm about how the inquiry project had dramatically improved the kids’ literacy engagement and achievement, one of the staff members attending the session said, “Well that’s, great, but if kids brought that Beavis and Butthead stuff into my class, I would puke!”

The generational and professional disdain for the two TV characters, who are rude and defy authority, including the authority of teachers, illustrates what we don’t like about the popular media that kids like.  We fail to exploit the engaging power of popular media in school because of our dislike for what the media embody, in spite of how the media can engage kids in reading and writing across the disciplines.

Two aspects of digital media are instructionally compelling.  First, digital media give you the flexibility to use multiple forms for representing complex concepts and to juxtapose them in multiple ways.  The sophisticated tools that enable multimedia production make it an increasingly easier task. You may choose written directions with an accompanying graphic; you might choose a graphic with an audio explanation of its parts; you might choose a video clip demonstrating something with print text to label components or to explain what the audience is seeing.  The combinations of these are endless.

Second, with very high quality video and audio, in addition to print, the notion of text, until recently, synonymous with print, can now be easily expanded to include a range of media texts.   Print is only one form of text—the “older” conception predominant before the New Literacies and media texts are more powerful and versatile than print alone (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003).

The high school students David worked with on the Beavis and Butt-Head project knew every episode of the series, frame by frame; they could recite each character’s lines, they spent hours discussing episodes that they liked but didn’t include in the project.  These struggling readers were engaged.  Think of how much adolescents know about and interact with peers about popular media texts like film, video games, television shows and ads and music artists; talk to them about what they watch on TV and DvDs, or which X-Box© or PlayStation© games they like. Compare their interest and engagement with these visual media with their engagement in school texts (Gee, 2003).

In this transitional period, print remains an important component of the emerging intertextual learning community.  The transition means moving from print-only pedagogy to pedagogy involving print plus other media with many of the instructional advantages and tenets and print-dependent pedagogy intact or adapted and refashioned (Myers & Beach, 2001; Leu 2000).

Understanding New Readers and Digital Media Texts in the Content Areas

If we acknowledge that the Internet is the new textbook, we need to dramatically rethink the role of text as defined in traditional content reading instruction.  Within the realm of print literacy, content reading specialists have worked with teachers in various content areas to define the characteristics that made each subject area text genre unique and challenging.  The key question was, What is particularly crucial to helping kids read their social studies book, their literature anthologies, and their math texts?  That question has been typically answered by helping teachers understand text structures, facilitating how they connected students’ background knowledge to the topic under study, and teaching vocabulary important to understanding the text. Content area reading instruction has also involved teaching students how to use embedded text aids and features (table of contents, glossary, marginal gloss, in-text vocabulary keys).  In short, content area reading has required instruction from responsive teachers who could help kids cope with their content area textbooks.

Since the New Text is neither a single text nor a print text, much of the time-tested print literacy frameworks prominent in the fields of content area reading and content literacy no longer apply.  The new text is not “found” in one place like a textbook.  Rather it is constructed by the New Readers as they search for information and link information.  In short, the New Readers of the New Text are all creating different texts as they do assignments because no two readers, among the masses of learners free to roam the sometimes millions of web pages on a topic, construct the same text in the end.

To give another example, in an inquiry project, middle school students under the direction of a social studies teacher and a literacy teacher who collaboratively constructed a curriculum, did research on an urban neighborhood.  The students did research on the web, they visited the neighborhood, taking digital photos, mapping blocks, and interviewing residents and business people who work in the neighborhood.  The students, within their community of inquiry (Beach & Myers, Beach & Bruce, 2002; Bruce & Bishop, 2002) jointly constructed the inquiry text which is represented on web sites, in PowerPoint presentations, and in a special fair held at the school gym in poster sessions in which all of these media were used to showcase the work to the rest of the school and the community (O’Brien & Beach, 2003).  The New Readers in the digital world are honing skills with print.  Contrary to some fears expressed by people in the campaign against “alliteracy” kids are reading more, not less, when it comes to schoolwork—as we noted above, they are just reading differently (O’Brien, 2003c).

Digital Literacy in the Content Areas:  Current and Possible Practices

In this section, we present some literacy practices with implications for content learning that students are already engaged in, with or without instructional support.  We also present some ideas that have already captured the interest of teachers across the disciplines.   Finally, we suggest some existing technologies that are, as of yet, little used I schools but have great potential.

1. Searching the web for information: Depending on the level of sophistication at using search engines, kids enter terms that they believe will net information.  In the thousands of pages that come up, they may decide how to read them critically to see if they contain information they need, or if they are authored by credible sources; in this skimming for quality, they may go back to refine the search terms.  The converse of this critical process, usually in response to assignments where they have limited interest or few personally relevant goals, is that students quickly download whatever they get and paste it into their homework assignments.

Without clear purposes, strategies for critical evaluation, or guidance and structure in assignments, adolescent learners may get lost in virtual text space by following links from the pages that are listed in the search until they forget which pages came up originally.  For an interesting, current look at successfully using search engines, including those specifically designed for kids, see the May 27 2003 issue of PC magazine (available at:,4149,1046311,00.asp

2. Participating in a collaborative project online.  Via instant messaging (IM), users have instant, live, text-based discussions with multiple peers. A group of students can work together to synthesize information for a report.  While each is reading the same homework text, working on the same assignment, students “talk” to each other about what they have found, evaluate the importance of the information, share interpretations about what it means and, ultimately, decide what to put in the final synthesis.  For example, AOL’s Instant Messenger (AIM), an IM platform popular with adolescents, provides a live onscreen chat window showing participating members.  Each user can enable single or multiple sessions and the IM operates in the background while students work on a project.  Many students already use IM while doing homework (McCampbell, 2001).

The use of IM contributes to cooperative learning communities outside of school.  The relatively new literacy practice, a sort of hopping or toggling from window to window, allows New Readers to rapidly read multiple texts, in different genres, change to conversation about what they are reading, transforming oral text into IM code to abbreviate their messages. As teaches, we often discourage IM because we view it as a distraction.  Instead, we need to use it, see how it works, understand how kids use it, and figure out ways to incorporate it into assignments.

  1. Engaging in inquiry projects using multimedia authoring tools and producing multimedia texts.  The classic “report” format of a printed project is being quickly replaced by multimedia forms of the types discussed already in which students choose topics and select ways to best represent the topics.  This emerging writing competency not only redefines writing space but engages students in writing with a more complex sense of who the audience is (e.g., see the discussion of Blogs later), how they react to various media, and what they might choose in a hypertext environment with links to optional routes of inquiry.  A good source for exploring the inquiry process, constructing inquiry units, looking at examples of existing inquiry projects, and engaging in conversations about inquiry can be found at the Inquiry Page web site hosted by the Inquiry Group at the University of Illinois  ( .  A compelling argument for using hyperlinks and hypermedia authoring to extend response to print texts, is Jamie Myers’s web page showing the value of using hyperlinks and hypermedia in presenting a critical argument, or providing an interpretation, providing a visual or audio file, or linking to other texts and websites where related ideas can be connected. Myers’s page is at
  2. Digital video production.  Many students are already proficient with tools like iMovie©.  The creation of imovies can be a powerful method to bring together ideas of inquiry, analysis, and production so that students begin to gain insights into the ways that the “reality” of the screen can be generated and ways in which digital media texts can augment or surpass print texts in representing ideas. Some good links include an introduction to the mechanics of production at Making iMovies Awsome:,, and the Cyber Film School site: .
  3. WebQuests. A WebQuest, according to the developers, Bernie Dodge and Tom March, ( is an inquiry-oriented activity in which most or all of the information used by learners is drawn from the Web.  WebQuests are an excellent way to bring together, reading, writing, critical thinking, technology, and presentation skills.  A web site that provides an historical overview of how the approach started in 1995 and some links to excellent resources on organizing and faciltting webquests, including a webquest on webquests at various grade levels, can be found at . WebQuests are designed to use learners’ time well, to focus on using information rather than looking for it, and to support learners’ thinking at the levels of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Some examples are in the area of language arts are posted at , An extensive list of webquests at various developmental level across content disciplines and be found at the Curry School of Education at  the University of Virgina at
  4. Web Logs or “Blogs” are online journals that can be used for posting ideas and getting feedback from the world, or even just a select few from a classroom group. Blogs can turn anyone into a published author who explores a wide range of topics with a range of readers and critics.  As in the case of our own and colleagues’ work with media authoring, we can attest that students writing via Blogs or other digital forms is often more engaging reading for their peers than commercially produced textbooks or other texts.   Resources for what Blogs are and how to get started Blogging can be found at,,  and
  1. MOOS: Originally an online home for the Dungeons and Dragons game, developed for multi-users on the Internet, MOOs are now popular in education.  There are hundreds of these virtual spaces, and they extend beyond simple Chat, which many students are familiar with. Many MOOs are adaptable to the needs of a specific group (e.g., a class) to allow for such virtual reality features as blackboards, slide projectors, and discussions.  In moving beyond simple text-based Internet Relay Chat (IRT) they provide much more flexible, rich environments in which students can write, play, and experiment.  One of the educational advantages is that they allow the creation of online communities of students from across geographical areas in real time.  Hence, MOOS are particularly important to engagement in literacy practices like reading and writing since they are text-based.  And they are compelling in their capacity to engage students who may be reluctant to engage in local texts in classrooms but enjoy being part of broader virtual community of peers.  In a typical example of a MOO, a student enters and is presented with a scenario with which they need to respond. The scenario is generally a text description where the player navigates through possible worlds. For more information on MOOs see and .  We also encourage you to view a wonderful virtual environment based on the novel Brave New World: . A popular MOOs resource for teachers who want to create virtual classrooms is Tapped In, at .
  1. Video games.   As most teachers of adolescents know, video games are engaging to a range of learners. Many game producers offer free demonstrations of their games, many of which are available for free download off of the web.  Although the downloads are not complete versions of the games, they provide versions of the game that enable one to examine each game’s design structure, goals and graphics.  One resource for free game demonstration downloads is

Video games have quickly become the most popular form of media in the world, and as we noted, games have features that capture the attention of the most easily distracted adolescents for long periods of time. As we stated earlier, teachers who want to capitalizing on the design features of video games that may be used in classrooms should play them.  One way to approach the task is to critically evaluate them as one would a movie, profession, cultural issue, or practice. There are many that have been created based on novels: Alice, from Alice in Wonderland; Harry Potter, from the popular series from J.K. Rowling; the Lord of the Rings has also inspired a video game. One might ask how the book is represented as a virtual environment, and what assumptions were made when the designers created these interactive virtual environments.

Further, there are many other games that target issues like the social dynamics of how societies are created: the Civilization series is a good example, and worth playing. There are also games that look at science like the forensic science game based on the popular televison series, CSI;  the Sims series has a wide range of creative applications across disciplines. A nice resource for investigating the possibilities of using games in education can be found at the Education Arcade,

  1. [BRD1] Digital audio tools for supporting reading of struggling or disengaged learners.  For years, we have recommended to teachers who must use difficult print texts that are inaccessible by struggling students that they incorporate audio-taped recordings of the texts struggling students are required to read.  For those who haven’t tried it, it is still very practical and effective to have more competent readers make audio-taped recordings that can be used by less competent peers who are reading those texts. One step toward digitization of the audio is to use the digital recording option on most computers, some of which even have built in microphones.  The digital audio texts can be organized and stored in accessible folders by book, chapters within books, or topics of study. 

The next step is to use the most current digital technologies involving highly compressed audio files.  For example, we use digital recorders that produce a format called .dss that is very clear and is 12 times smaller than comparable .mp3 files, the standard format for listening to digital music.   This means that large amounts of audio data, supporting the print text versions studied by students in various disciplines, can be stored, managed by database mangers, and called up by students who require or like another medium to help them read difficult text.  A physical tape library that used to take up a large section of shelf space, and used tapes that had to be rewound, and painstakenly forwarded or repeatedly rewound to find certain sections of audio, is replaced by a much more powerful digital system stored on drives or other media.  With a .dss library, the player software can be added to any computer free (for example see .dss player lite produced by Olympus at ). Additionally using these audio tools, students can create a digital audio file that they can use to add into other projects, for example, a PowerPoint presentation that allows for the telling of a story or voice-over narration.  What we like about the compressed audio formats is that they play on Mp3 players, or Mp3-like devices or PDAs that kids consider be cool tools—this means less stigma attached to using audio text support.  And listening to the oral reading of a competent reader helps less competent readers follow a the text in a way that may bolster understanding (Garner and Bochna, 2001).  Another exciting development is that more and more commercially produced print texts are available in audio form such as standard cassette, audio CDs and even mp3.  One of the most sophisticated technologies is a format produced by ( ) which includes an ever- growing library of popular fiction, nonfiction, newspapers, even other periodicals and NPR programs in a highly compressed audio format that plays on some mp3 players, PDAs, Apple iPods.  The market for these audio files is the growing number of people with hectic schedules who “read” while commuting and exercising.  But, for teachers who want to explore digital media for the popular text trade as an alternative to, or in support of print text, this is a promising technology.

Digital Literacy Practices Sponsored by Professional Organizations in Content Areas

These are some exemplars among thousands I use to show how professional organizations are evolving to make better use of digital literacies. I recommend that you explore the links in the professional organizations Web sites and search for classroom sites that exemplify some practices that might hold merit in your own classrooms.

Social studies. The National Council for the Social Studies

Sponsors described as a “humanistic learning community” website with an online schoolbook called Guide to the Past. Once users log on they can comment on the texts with a discussion forum that can be opened for each section and the forum encourages critique.  Such online communities, organized around a primary text, introduce the option for extending the text through a myriad of voices from the community. The new text is the discourse community—not a single printed text but a dynamic text structured by the members who engage in constant reconstruction of the text over time.  This model, which serves a professional development tool for teachers, is a good one to use with students who have the opportunity in these learning communities to read and write critically, practices they don’t typically engage in with single textbooks in class.

Sciences.    The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) Teacher Resources section offers one example of the new online “textbook” which they describe as Videodiscovery, a “comprehensive multimedia database that includes material supporting geology and earth science.  One section called Understanding Earth, the organization notes, “offers thousands of images, nearly an hour of full-motion video, and lesson plans covering all the subjects addressed in a yearlong course.”  You can log on and use it if you are a current member of NSTA.  This is good example of a text in this transitional period—instead of print on paper, it is digital, visually oriented, and online—and, ironically, at this time when kids are navigating to synthesize their own online texts, the Videodiscovery database, which includes pictures, computer animations, and videos, is for teachers rather than students. It is transitional because it relies on digital media to enrich representation concepts but it still content within the control of teacher.

Math.  The National Council of Teacher of Mathematics (NCTM)’s Illuminations site

includes “i-Math Investigations” which are online, interactive, multimedia math investigations.  These investigations explain concepts and show “hands-on” examples that are virtual manipulatives.  As transitional texts, these online investigations combine print exposition with dynamic visuals that enable learning by trying out possible solutions.


The evidence of Internet use and habits indicates that New Readers view the New Text, the Internet and the multimedia texts they construct, as more engaging and interesting than their school texts, but their interest and engagement in digital media is mediated by their interest and choice in constructing texts that are interesting to them.

It is imperative in exploring new digital literacy frameworks for content learning that we capitalize on aspects of the New Textbook that kids already find engaging when we structure assignments for them.  A negative example would be to assign reading online instead of using the class textbook.  The implied purpose is that students read primarily to be accountable and the content might be on the test.  These purposes for reading textbook pages transposed to online reading will not produce more engagement.

Another negative instructional frame is to define an inquiry topic in a restricted way and tell students to find out more about it by using the Internet.  In this case, students will simply use the Internet as a more efficient way of getting information, downloading it, and turning it in (Roger Stewart, personal communication, May 6, 2003).  Before the Internet, if students were not invested in an inquiry topic, they copied text from print reference tools like encyclopedias to get done.  Now they have a tool to more quickly dispose of uninteresting assignments.  It is more crucial than every that assignments be personally relevant and engaging.

New instructional frameworks for digital literacy in the content areas must rely more on students’ curiosity, choice in topics and tasks, and critical exploration of sources.  For example, an inquiry project in which kids narrow topics from a broadly defined area, selection of print and media sources using some critical analysis of the quality of the sources, and the final selection of multiple ways to represent what one has learned (media reports, web pages, electronic presentations) will result in much more engagement.  The key question that, as of yet, remains unanswered in this relatively new area of inquiry is what sorts of skill and strategies are required for the new Readers to be successful?  We are all learning as we venture forth, but it is imperative that we do venture forth to think about the digital literacy practices that kids are already engaged in so that we may bridge the digital disconnect between their practices and the work we assign them in school.


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