The Changing Face of Early Literacy – Digital is Different

 I’ve spent a lot of time lately reflecting on the way I teach literacy in my classroom and about the ways that the digital text I often use to teach now is inherently different from the text I used to teach reading ten years ago. In an earlier post, I talked about some of the ways that I think using digital text in shared reading, such as when reading projected blog comments or tweets, is actually superior to the traditional text we have long used.

Even if you are not convinced that digital text can work better than traditional text, it is difficult to argue that digital text is not here to stay or that it is not becoming increasingly important. It is and will be a significant part of our students’ lives both now and in the future. If this will be true, it only makes sense to begin to teach children strategies for reading this new form of text.

How Is Digital Different?

There are a multitude of ways that digital text is different than traditional text, but the following are what I see as the most important differences for beginning readers.

1. Digital text is hyperlinked. This is the obvious one. Digital text is often linked to other digital text that can help to explain or enrich what is being read. We can demonstrate this for young students using sites such as Wonderopolis that does this well in their wonder of the day entries.

2. Digital text can contain recordings including a voice reading the text. Many apps and more and more websites are adding this feature. It is a tremendous asset for emergent readers who need a bit of extra support. For example, Unite for Literacy is a website I like with 100 plus free books for early readers. Every page has the option of the text being read by the student or read to the student.

3. Digital text changes over time. A book that was published in 2003 looks the same today as it did the day I purchased it, but if I look back at the history of a website for early years literacy that has been around for awhile, I can see that the webpage has had several different versions in that time.  Young children are fascinated to see the changes in a webpage over time. To show them this, just put a url into the search box in the Wayback Machine and share the way a website has evolved.

4. Digital pages are usually more complex. This is possibly the most important factor of all when an early years teacher chooses to use digital text. When students look at traditional text, they see words and an image such as this example from the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Bill Martin Jr.  All of the text is meant to be (16)

Beginning non-fiction text is similar in that all of the text on the page is meant to be read. (This example is from The Tree by Jenny Feely.)

photo (17)

When I ask my students to read an unpublished comment or a tweet aloud together, I am asking them to read something much more complicated.

The actual comments that I want the students to read are underlined below, but  as you can see, these messages are surrounded by email addresses (blanked out), names, times and dates of comments, links to the original post and lots of other information that competes for their attention.

If we move the mouse over the comment, other links appear that give us options, including approving, deleting and responding to the comment. The same is true of our tweets. This increases the complexity of the text even more. Clearly there is a lot of filtering that needs to be done by the students to get to the important text.

What Does This Mean For My Teaching?

If digital text is different than traditional text, and clearly it is, then I need to also teach it differently. I need to teach students how to use digital text to its full advantage.  To use links, recordings and video to provide a richer reading experience. To understand that digital text is not static, but that it changes over time. And to find the significant text on a page of competing images and text.

Digital text is here to stay. We need to start thinking about how to teach it right, even when students are beginning readers. To assume that traditional reading strategies will suffice for digital writing ignores the complexity and possibilities of this new form of text. Does this mean new reading strategies? Yes. Does it mean changing the way we teach? Yes. But beyond that, I’m still searching. I don’t have all the answers. Just a lot of questions as I muddle through this with my students.

What about you. How do you teach digital text?

3 thoughts on “The Changing Face of Early Literacy – Digital is Different

  1. I really enjoyed this article. It does make me look at my first grade class with different eyes. I believe this is a fantastic way to introduce literature to children. Your link to Wonderopolis is a great website. I loved how they read one sentence at a time and highlighted key vocabulary. Great ideas and I will use them in my classroom. Thank you.

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