Digital or Print: Putting Readers in the Driver’s Seat

By Molly Berger

Getting students to engage with their reading, to read deeply as we say, has always been a multifaceted challenge. Now we add one more complication: the impact of digital texts on comprehension. The issue is driving much research and is frequently debated. However, the question should not be whether print or digital is better, because our students will be reading both. It should be, “How do we read well in any format?”

Goal setting and the metacognitive and reflective questions in the ERWC Assignment Template lend themselves to delving into this issue with students because they put the student in the driver’s seat. It is up to the individual to determine what works best for them. Additionally, to help students in determining this, we must ask the students two questions:

How do you read best?

            and then,

How do you know this?

While students may be able to voice their preferences, few have truly explored their options or can articulate how or why it works for them. Most simply read when the teacher says to. Others pretend to read and wait for the class discussion to get the gist of the assignment. So how do we develop student motivation and skill to be self-directed readers? How do we become the warm demanders that both expect and support this?

I shouldn’t be but always am surprised by the students’ ability to solve their own learning challenges. My role is to present them with options and guide them in finding what works best for them. Modeling strategies and allowing students time to share with each other what works gives them the opportunity to understand themselves as learners, which results in self-knowledge and a lasting impact.

Consider these strategies and let the students tell you what works from there.

Manipulating Text

One of the strongest assets of digital texts is the ability to manipulate the way we see it. From font size and background color to layout and design, students can choose what helps them focus and comprehend. Modeling this process is key as some students may choose what they think looks good compared to what actually helps them read. For example, they may love creative fonts such as Edwardian Script or Curlz MT, but these will most likely be difficult to read in longer texts. Have them set criteria for how they will know their design choice works best and then experiment. Have them consider

  • Background color: decrease the contrast of print and background.
  • Font size: find the just right size
  • White space: manage by line spacing

Ebook devices or apps have reader choices for this. Web browsers allow for increasing of font size but note the reader view features explained below for further options.

Managing Distractions

Our students are so used to advertising and links in their reading that they may not even see them as distractions. Modeling how to eliminate advertising and when to open a link or skip it, can focus their attention on this.

  • Block pop-ups: Check the security section of whichever browser you are using. (Search for block popups in Chrome or whichever browser you use.)
  • Open the reader view:  This feature will take out the advertising, pictures, buttons, etc. (This is in the title bar of Firefox and Explorer and is an extension in Chrome.) Reader view also changes the font and background. Click here for an example of reader view.
  • Determine when to click or not click a link: Have the students consider if following a link will help their comprehension or interrupt it. Model this with examples of how some links may clarify meaning as with definitions and how others can lead us completely off track. Have the students develop their own guide for whether to click while they read, after they read, or not at all.
  • Practice highlighting and notetaking: Whether it is one of many apps or browser extensions available (Evernote, OneNote, Google Keep, etc.), a note taker in an ebook or whether students simple copy and paste the text into a Word or Google doc, getting adept at highlighting and notetaking will boost student comprehension and retention of what they read.

Ultimately, the success of comprehending digital or print texts derives not only from skill but from students accepting their role in their learning. If we want our students to be able to dip their “oar into the water” (They Say, I Say,  Graff and Birkenstein) in rhetorical reading, discussion and writing, then they need to see themselves as connected readers (Connected Reading, Turner and Hicks) who make decisions on how they read well based on their own experience.

Molly Berger is a secondary English teacher currently working as an English Language Arts specialist and program coordinator at the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction in Olympia, Washington. As a Washington lead for the ERWC i3 Grant, she has served on the ERWC Steering Committee, supported Washington teachers as a coach and workshop presenter, and written modules.

Works Cited

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. 4th edition. W.W. Norton, 2018.

Turner, Kristin Hawley and Troy Hicks. Connected Reading: Teaching Adolescent Readers in a Digital World. National Council of Teachers of English, 2015.

Scaffolding Student Writing Using Mentor Texts

By Robby Ching

We all need scaffolds when we face an unfamiliar writing task. As a brand new ESL coordinator, I was asked by my boss to write a memo to a university administrator. I’d been a graduate student working in dusty library stacks and a college ESL teacher. I’d never seen a memo, let alone written one. So I wrote what I thought was a memo but failed to copy him on it. When he asked to see what I’d written, he yelled at me so fiercely for not copying him that I left his office shaking. What I now know I needed was a mentor text–a model of what a memo is and what it looks like. Then I would have seen the cc: line–problem solved.

A perennial question for teachers working with students who are developing academic literacy is how to provide scaffolding for academic writing while preparing them to become independent writers by the time they leave our classes. How much is too much? And how can I teach my students to find their own scaffolds? Mentor texts are an inquiry-based way to help students learn how to create their own scaffolds. 

When students analyze a professional text or a well-written student text, you can guide them as they discover what makes that text successful. For example, in the Juvenile Justice 12th grade module, which I wrote, students write an open letter about juvenile sentencing as their culminating writing task. I received feedback from teachers who piloted the module that students were unsure how to write their own open letters, so I built in an activity that engages them in looking at an open letter of the teacher’s choosing As an example,I suggested one about Colin Kaepenick’s decision to take the knee before a game but proposed that they find one with currency when they teach the module). Students work in a group to analyze the key rhetorical features of the letter (Who is it written to? Where was it published? What caused the writer write it? How is it structured? What rhetorical appeals does it make to its readers?).

Students identify success criteria for an open letter–several characteristics that they think all effective open letters should have. The teacher then guides the whole class in compiling a set of criteria that can guide their writing. This last step gives her a chance to shape the criteria that she will use to grade their work while ensuring that students have ownership of what those criteria are.

While it’s tempting to tell students directly what form their letter should take and what each part of their letter should do, and how it should do it, students can end up like me–utterly perplexed when confronted with a new genre and what the expectations are for it. If somebody had taught me how to figure out for myself the answers to those questions, I could have avoided a painful experience. And now when mentor texts for every conceivable genre are only a few key strokes away, how empowering it is to teach our students how to make use of them instead of relying on us.   

Robby Ching is a professor emerita at Sacramento State in English and a member of the ERWC team since 2002. She has written many ERWC modules, most recently those with an ELD focus.

Getting Ahead of Falling Behind

By Carol Jago

Carol Jago

In a recent poll by Common Sense Media, 59% of teenagers said that online learning is “worse” than in-school learning. Although it is always difficult to know what students mean by “worse” and “much worse,” it seems they prefer learning in-person to learning on a screen. Along with missing the social aspects of school, 61% of respondents report that they are worried about falling behind academically.

I wondered how these students calculated what it meant to “fall behind” and how many of them were doing anything on their own to prevent academic stagnation.

I don’t want to pretend that many students possess the creative genius of Pratchett or Westover’s tenacity, but I do believe students’ capacity for independent learning can be and needs to be nurtured.  Too many teenagers equate learning with seat time, believing that as long as they take the quizzes, turn in the papers, and earn credit for a course, they are acquiring an education. Unfortunately, we teachers are substantially responsible for this false assumption. When all we demand is compliance, students fail to develop the intellectual muscles they need to learn on their own.

An autodidact is a person who is largely self-taught. Such individuals typically possess an enormous thirst for learning and often find school tedious, confident as they are in their ability to learn on their own. Terry Pratchett, whose fantasy novels have sold over eighty-five million copies never attended university and said he felt sorry for anyone who had. Ray Bradbury insisted that his education took place in the library reading, reading, reading. The late great playwright August Wilson dropped out of school in ninth grade but continued to learn by spending long hours reading in the Pittsburgh public library. And then there is Tara Westover’s story from Educated.

What if the educational chaos of the current school year could be turned to education’s long-term advantage? What if we embraced the goal of building students’ independent learning muscles? What if students began to realize that they actually enjoyed reading about what interested them? What if they felt the desire to write about what they were reading? You probably think I am in cloud cuckoo-land, but we find ourselves in circumstances ideally suited to independent study.

I have always found that when students want or need to know something their inner autodidact springs to life. Consider the technological skills today’s teenagers possess, the complicated video games they play, the song lyrics they know by heart, none of which they learned in class. Students are able. They are just not practiced at initiating the process of learning when it comes to schoolwork. Let’s turn the tables on young people worried about falling behind by challenging them to accept responsibility for their own education.

Resources for organizing an inquiry-based classroom abound, but maybe the simplest and best approach is to ask:

  • What do you want to learn?
  • How can I help?

At a time when traditional classroom protocols seem to be in constant flux, let’s work toward nurturing the autodidact within ourselves and in our students. Learning shouldn’t stop when the bell rings or the Zoom meeting ends.

Carol Jago is a long-time high school English teacher and past president of the National Council of Teachers of English. She is the author of The Book in Question: Why and How Reading Is in Crisis. You can contact her at cjago@caroljago.com.