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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Draft of Theoretical Perspective

Since so many of you helped me bounce around ideas as I was studying Vygotsky and the related literature I thought I would post a draft of my theoretical perspective for my dissertation proposal. Please feel free to comment or offer any feedback.

The study is framed using a cultural-historical lens towards and learning (Daniels, 2007; Vygotsky,1978) and meaning (Vygotsky, 1987; Wertsch, 2000) Lee and Smagorinsky, 2000) identified the following four principles in Vygotskian definitions of learning: 1:) learning is mediated between a learner, other people, and cultural artifacts and then appropriated by the learner; 2:)learning involves mentoring and scaffolding; 3) historically and culturally constructed tools such as language mediate learning; and 4:) the capacity for learning is connected to the context of learning.

These principles of learning are central to studies in online reading comprehension. First the advent of the Internet created access to unlimited people and cultural artifacts; while simultaneously it redefined opportunities for mentoring no longer limited by physical space (Leander & Knobel, 2003). Second the rise of the Internet has lead to an explosion in tools and contexts that mediate learning. Vygotsky noted that higher forms of thinking occur through a process of mediation as the participant actively modifies the stimulus response while responding to the stimulus (Cole & Scribner, 1978). As learners read online they can make almost limitless modifications to their text (Hartman, chapter) through a process of self directed text construction (Coiro & Dobler, 2007). These new tools that mediate learning have fundamentally shifted how we make meaning from texts.

Definitions of meaning from a Vygotsky perspective are less concrete (Mescheryakov, 2000). On one hand Wertsch, (2007) suggests that a strong rational legacy runs through Vygotsky ideas of meaning. Vygotsky, according to Wertsch (2000) defines meaning as occurring when socially and culturally developed signs identify objects. Concepts are then formed through meditational relationships with objects as signs can identify groups of objects. On the other hand Wertsch (2000) also notes that Vygotsky’s definitions of knowing, as consisting of two oppositional but related forces of meaning and sense, reflects a long standing tension in philosophy between enlightenment and rational ideas.

This tension between rational and expressive epistemologies is just as present in current literacy research. Socio-cultural (Smagorisnky, 2004) approaches draw on a more romantic view of meaning making while cognitive approaches (Kinstch & Kinstch, 2005) draw on a more rational lens. At the same time studies with digital literacies have seemed to accept the ontological differences in this long-standing philosophical debate. Tierney (2008) notes that meaning making with digital texts requires both agency and artistry. Leu et. al (2004) suggest that online reading comprehension requires not only skills and strategies but also specific dispositions. Finally Sprio and Deschyrver (in press) suggest “advanced Web explorations” and an “opening mindset.” are essential to learn online. In essence, with reading online being so complex researchers have drawn on multiple realities (Reinking & Labbo, 1997) to study literacy and technology.

Under the premise that meditational tools and social practices have shifted exponentially and conflicting philosophical viewpoints enrich research this study accepts the concept of multiple realities as a central theoretical viewpoint. A multiple realities perspective “confronts… a common and unfortunate tendency to treat technology in relation to literacy as a monolithic, unidimensional topic and a corresponding tendency to oversimplify its use… in literacy instruction” (Labbo & Reinking, 1997, p. 479). Accordingly this study, from a cultural-historical perspective embraces both the theory of new literacies of online reading comprehension (Leu, Zawilinski, Castek, Banerjee, Housand, Liu et al., 2007) and cognitive flexibility theory (Spiro, 2004).

The theory of new literacies of online reading comprehension is a specific line of study in the much broader field of New Literacies research (Leu, O’Byrne, Zawilinski, McVerry, & Everett-Cocapardo, 2009). This perspective defines online reading comprehension as a process, which includes:
“…the skills, strategies, and dispositions necessary to successfully use and adapt to the rapidly changing information and communication technologies and contexts that continuously emerge in our world and influence all areas of our personal and professional lives. These new literacies allow us to use the Internet and other ICT to identify important questions, locate information, critically evaluate the usefulness of that information, synthesize information to answer those questions, and then communicate the answers to others.” (Leu, Kinzer, et al., 2004, p.1570)

Cognitive Flexibility Theory (Spiro, Feltovich, Jacobson, & Coulson, 1991; Spiro, 2004) also informed this study. This theory suggests that the Internet, as an ill structured context, requires readers to flexibly apply prior knowledge to novel reading situations that constantly change. Spiro (2004) argues that traditional strategies taught to read offline texts may actually hamper the reading of online texts.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Fiction and the Internet: Connecting Curriculum

Educators and researches have easily adapted fiction to teach online reading comprehension to students at all grade levels. Classroom literacy instruction often focuses around works of fiction and this may allow narrative texts to be an easy road for both the teacher and student to travel when delivering lessons in online reading comprehension. Educators can use interactive read-alouds and multimedia stories, plot analysis and video games, and collaborative writing and wikis to teach narrative fiction content.

Online Fiction and the Multimedia Learning Center

Maria De Jong and Adriana Bus (2004) used electronic books in kindergarten to introduce students to the features of hypertext. They found that students spent similar times listening to oral stories in electronic books as they did listening to adult read alouds. De Jong and Bus also found that the animations did not distract students from comprehending the meaning in the text. The students also followed e-books in a linear fashion while using hypertext features. In fact students did not fully explore features until second readings. This may mean students used animated features to develop comprehension beyond the oral text or used animations to support deficiencies in comprehension from the first reading.

Furthermore, Castek, Bevals-Mangleson, and Goldstone (2006) suggested using fiction to develop the dispositions students need for online reading comprehension. They suggested five activities using narrative content classroom teachers are familiar with: online read-alouds, interactive read-alongs, online story boards, and online book clubs. Students engaged in these activities will build offline reading comprehension but they will also be afforded the opportunity to explore the changing nature of literacy.

Learning centers play an important role in establishing active learning in early elementary education (Hohmann & Weikart, 1995) and teachers can create a multimedia book center to teach students the basic navigation of hypertext through interactive read-alouds. Fountas and Pinell (2006) identified six components to successful interactive read-alouds: selection and preperation, opening, reading aloud, discussion and self-evalutation, record of reading, and a written or artistic response. Each of these still applies to multimedia books, but they must evolve with hypertext.

First, there are many free and great resources online for teachers to select and prepare. For example, Storyplace, located at The site has interactive multimedia stories leveled by student grade. The stories for preschool include text, sounds , and animations. Interactive sing-alongs are built into the story. The elementary stories give the audience more control of the tale by naming the characters and choosing the “hero” of the story. Starfall, located at, has a wealth of activities for any level of early reader. The instructor should assist students in choosing multimedia books at the child’s independent reading level.

Second, while the software will take on many of the instructor’s role during the opening and reading aloud of the text the teacher still needs to define the goals of the center. The opening of an interactive read aloud sets teachers expectations and defines the students’ role, and if teachers are going to use multimedia book learning center these roles should be defined by the students. Furthermore the instructor should reinforce these roles before and during the reading.

Third, the discussion and evaluation of the text during a multimedia interactive read aloud should still focus on traditional text evaluation such as plot and character analysis. Students should make connections to other text they read. Learners , however, should also evaluate the hypertext features if they are going to build the navigation skills. Teachers should ask students about the animations an author included, how easy it was to navigate, and about any sounds or videos included in the story.

Finally, the record of reading and the artistic expression should also incorporate elements of online reading comprehension into the multimedia book center. The teacher should post links on her classroom website to any online narrative read by the class and include a summary of the story by the students. This summary could be written in higher grades or an audio recording in lower grades. This will not only share progress with parents, but it will build online classroom libraries outside of school. There is nothing more rewarding then encouraging students to read outside of classroom walls! Also the artistic expressions can be shared online. After reading a story students could use a simple paint program to draw their favorite picture or teachers could scan pictures drawn by hand. These images could then be uploaded to a classroom website and shared with the world.

Digital Fiction and Online Reading Comprehension

The combination of narrative elements such as character backstories, plots and symbols combined with play features such as fantasy and escapism make videogames an intriguing literary text (Squire, 2008). Video games are quickly becoming the new narrative and as the technology evolves these interactive stories become more autonomous with increasingly altering plots. For example millions of people interact in online communities such as World or Warcraft in a world defined by the actions of a player. Furthermore in games such as Jedi Knights of the Old Republic the plot of the storyline changes based on the decisions of the main character. Educators can expand on the multimedia book center and use the new narrative of videogames in the classroom for plot and character analysis.

Many simulations such as Oregon Trail, where students must successfully migrate West and SimCity, where students must manage a city provide opportunities to extend learning beyond the new narratives of video games. Video games provide opportunities to make connections using ICT’s and afford students the opportunity to think and reflect critically on the decisions they make during the narrative.

For example students can use blogs or other ICT’s to record their travels through the West or their stint as Mayor of SimCity. First students could be put into small groups and guide their family through the perils of western migration or work together to build their city. Then at the end of the lesson students could complete a blog detailing what decisions they made. For example, in SimCity students could blog about the tax rate they set, and to make the lesson more challenging teachers could have students write from the voice of a mayor responding to citizen complaints. In the Oregon Trail students could blog about the places they visit during their journey and the condition of the family, and once again this activity can become more challenging by assigning students specific family members. Students would then have to write from that point of view.

Each of these blogging activities can be expanded to include lessons to build online reading comprehension. Teachers could ask students playing the narrative of Oregon Trail to search for information on the Internet about families who traveled the trail. Students could then compare their families simulated adventure with that of an historical account writing a compare and contrast essay or a blog posting. Students could also read about the trials Native Americans faced during Western expansion and compare those historic accounts with the depiction of Native Americans in the video game for a critical literacy lesson. In SimCity students could research natural disasters cities faced and compare their outcome with the simulation. Students could also search the Internet for information about historical challenges actual cities faced such as pollution, traffic, and housing cost and compare those challenges with the game. These lessons not only require students to reflect and compare their experience in the simulation with historical accounts, but they will also require students to search, locate, evaluate, and communicate online information.

Collaborative Fiction and Online Reading Comprehension

Theresa Dobson (2006) explored the use of e-literature with older students. She took the opening paragraphs to Munro’s Love of a Good Women and then had students create their own hypertext stories using wikis, which are websites, which that allow multiple authors to edit. She found that none of the students’ stories progressed in a linear fashion. Using the traditional content of fiction, Dobson suggested that hypertext writing allowed students to adapt their imaginations to a more creative stance, and forced students to focus on more complicated narrative elements other than plot. She posited that this prepared students to comprehend the more complicated and complex narratives that are in print today. In other words, having students engage in an “activity” that highlighted the nonlinear language of hypertext, students developed the ability to further comprehend offline text.

In the classroom teachers can use a similar approach to teach hypertext fiction and as a pre-reading activity for a novel read in class. First teachers should sign up for one of the many free educational wikis such as Next place students into groups and set up a page for each group. Then read a passage at the beginning of a novel read in class, and post this passage to each page of the wiki. Ask students to expand on the passage by writing a short story predicting what the tale will be about. Students should be encouraged to use hyperlinks to words or background knowledge they feel the audience will need. For example if students are reading Armstrong’s Sounder they might want to have a link that brings the reader to websites about coonhunting. Other students may even want to expand on the nonlinear version of hypertext fiction and have hyperlinks that allow the audience to control the plot.

Teachers can also use collaborative writing to prepare students to write hypertext. For example students could be broken into groups and could use an online word processor such as Google Docs and Spreadsheets to write a story. Students could use these features to understand authorship of hypertext. First have students brainstorm the story elements such as characters, plot, and setting. Next have students create an online document using Google Docs and Spreadsheets. Then the students can begin to write the story. The authors could get feedback and critique from each other using instant messaging or email. Teachers could track progess of students by looking at the documents history to see who is doing what editing.

Using fictional content such as multimedia books and narrative games combined with instructional routines such as learning centers and collaborative writing may build both offline and online reading comprehension.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Literacy Crossroads

Metaphors take the mind on a journey. They map out understandings by comparing the known to the unknown through an exploration of the senses. In many ways, the process of meaning making follows this format of introspection. As educators and researchers we often embark on this journey of meaning making by examining literacy and learning metaphorically. As the Internet becomes more integral to daily life literacy educators find themselves at a crossroad, and teachers must address the meeting of technology and literacy (Selfe, 1999) by metaphorically shining a light on the many paths to come.

Today, we still look to the metaphors of roads and journeys to luminate our lack of knowledge about literacy and learning. Nowhere is this truer than at the intersection of technology and literacy. Long before the Internet became known metaphorically as the information superhighway, Kozma (1994) and Clark (1994) debated the role of technology and learning with the metaphor of a truck traveling as a simple delivery system of knowledge. This metaphor, today, is invalid because the Internet, as a text, empowers the learner. The Internet’s complexities and challenges put our students at the crossroads of learning everyday. They not only take knowledge from the truck, but students drive the truck, and choose their path, while simultaneously having the option to rewrite the maps for other to use. All of this is done at lightning speed. For successful cartographers and navigators the Internet enables, what Jewish traditions long ago labeled, “Kefitzat ha-Derach,” or a jumping of the roads (Encycolpedia Mythica, 2007). Unfortunately for other students who do not have the skills, strategies, and dispositions to read the Internet they can be lost (Henry, 2007) at the crossroads.

The Internet, and other Internet Communication Technologies, have placed literacy at a crossroad not seen since Gutenberg invented the printing press (Leu, Kinzer, Corio & Cammack, 2004) and almost every aspect of life, learning, and literacy has felt the pervasive affects as the amount of information and images explodes. Educators, much like Trivia, and her Greek cousin goddess of the crossroads, Hekate (Encyclopedia Mythica, 2007) must oversee three roads of change constantly being paved by the Internet. Our roads as educators like our mythological predecessors still link the past, the present, and the future, but we must also understand how the Internet affects curricular, instructional, and assessment practices in the literacy classroom.
Literacy at the Crossroads

Literacy, has always stood at the crossroad, with a fixed gaze set on the past, the present, and the future. In fact reading and writing has always been about change, and today this shift occurs as words leap from the page to screen. Yes, humanity has come to this crossroad before…when text shifted from the scroll to the page. However, it took over a century to adopt the book, and the shift to the Internet has occurred in only a decade (Hartman, 2007). Our students echo this quick metamorphosis as they live in a world where the Internet has become the dominant text, and as learners they must adapt by developing new skills for reading and writing.
Internet as a Text

Recent reports (National Endowment of the Arts, 2007) sound alarm bells about the state of reading, but these reports ignore the reality that the Internet has become the dominant text. First of all, the Internet, with over 1.2 billion users currently online (Internet World Stats, 2007) has quickly become the most read text of today’s youth. Second students today spend an average of 48 minutes a week reading online compared to 43 minutes a week reading offline (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005). Furthermore 70% of students turn to the Internet as their primary source of information (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2001). All of these signs point to a road where students will need new literacy skills to comprehend complex and always changing texts of the Internet .
Adaptations to Reading and Writing

Many researchers have begun to add street signs at the crossroads of literacy and the Internet. These efforts are often framed by a new literacies perspective (New London Group, 1996), which recognizes that multitudes of emerging and constantly evolving texts require multiliteracies. The complexity of these changes has brought together a confluence of researchers from literacy, anthropology, sociology, and linguistics (Tierney, 2009) and therefore the concept of new literacies acts as an umbrella that encompasses many of these diverse perspectives. These explorations in new literacies mostly unite under four principles: (a) technologies require new skills, strategies, dispositions, and social practices; (b) citizenship in a global community require new literacies; (c) new literacies evolve with their defining technologies; and (d) researchers and educators must examine new literacies from multiple points of view (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear & Leu, in press).

Reading researches, under this umbrella, have examined the crossroad of the Internet and literacy by developing a new literacies of online reading comprehension perspective (Leu et al., 2004). This lens defines online reading comprehension as an inquiry process that requires: “skills, strategies, and dispositions necessary to … use the Internet and other ICT’s to identify important questions, locate information, analyze the usefulness of that information, synthesize information to answer those questions, and then communicate the answers to others” (Leu, 2006p. 1).
The model of online reading comprehension differs from traditional reading comprehension because students must approach reading differently as they and not the author construct the text (Eagleton & Dobler, 2007). First searching for information based on reading that begins with a questions is a fundamentally different reading task (Dreher & Guthrie, 1990; Taboado & Guthrie, 2006 ) and students must continuously ask questions as they construct the texts they read online. This, of course, is further compounded when students who can not effectively search for information become bottlenecked (Henry, 2006), and unable to comprehend online texts. Second the locating of information within a text requires new navigational skills (Lawless and Schraeder, in press;). Third reading online requires greater evaluation, and very few students (Coiro, 2003) engage in this activity. Fourth synthesizing information from a variety of online genres with varying validity becomes increasingly complicated with online texts (Hartman, 2007). Finally communicating online requires young authors to constantly shift on a continuum of consumer and producer (author, 2007) while writing increasingly collaborative texts (Zaliwinski, 2007).

New Paths for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

An examination of research and a close look at the narratives of our middle school students has revealed that literacy and the Internet have brought us to a crossroad. We are shifting from page to screen at such a rapid pace educators now stand at an intersection and must take different paths when they make curricular, instructional, and assessment decisions.


In order for our students to choose the right paths at the crossroad of the Internet and literacy, school systems need adapt their curriculum. Historically, the educational community viewed the Internet as technology issue from an information science perspective. Students interacted with the Internet in library classes where access, ethics, and evaluation were stressed and not the comprehension and communication of a new literacies perspective (Coiro & Castek, 2005). Furthermore students used technology as tool in computer classes. This model, currently found in most schools is not adequate for teaching online reading comprehension.

The Internet is not an issue of technology, but an issue for literacy classrooms. In order to teach online reading comprehension and communication students will need more than the crucial, but meager minutes allocated to screen time in library classrooms. In fact online reading comprehension needs to become a dominant factor in the language arts curriculum. The Internet, is afterall, the text our students read the most, and the first they turn to for information. Therefore it should be the primary text we teach.

Middle schools should take steps to integrate the Internet under the domain of the language arts frameworks and instruction of online reading comprehension should take place in all content classrooms. First this will require a shift in the type of texts schools purchase and provide to students. Student constructed Internet inquires must become the dominant informational text. Thus it will require a greater investment in one-on-one mobile laptops labs versus traditional textbooks. Second allocation of classroom minutes may have to be reallocated to include a minimum of ninety minutes of language arts instruction to ensure students are afforded the opportunity to build both offline and online reading comprehension and communication skills. Third curriculum writing and unit planning must encourage and hold teachers accountable for the inclusion of online reading comprehension. Finally middle schools may want to move to a model that moves the technology teacher from the lab and into a model of collaborative teaching with literacy teachers. All of these paths will require an examination of teacher development and support for teachers in the field. Educators must understand their own level of online reading comprehension and undertake the same journey students face at the crossroads of the Internet and literacy.


Teachers must also take new paths of instruction to navigate the crossroads of the Internet and technology. Boling, (2005) after completing a study of literacy and technology integration, found that teachers were apprehensive when they view technology as another component to an already crowded curriculum. Teachers can draw on the efforts of other educators and researchers to teach middle school students traditional curriculum and content by integrating technology. Such efforts do not add new components to the curriculum, but access traditional texts while also teaching students to develop multiliteracies through important inquiry learning (Harste, 2004). Two examples of instruction to teach new literacies include poetry and biography.
Poetry makes a perfect partner for instruction in multiliteracies and online reading comprehension. Kuroly (2004) discussed how using poetry and powerpoint can open new paths to learning for technophobe teachers. Tierney and Rogers (2004) detail how students can create videos of their own poetry recitings to understand literacy as a social practice.

I created a lesson to teach students about the transactional nature of literacy and technology by having students create multimedia poetry posters. Students will enjoy these and the many more ideas of educators while creating an online community of poets and also develop critical new literacies skills.
Biographies also lend themselves well for instruction in online reading comprehension.

The Hero Inquiry Project (Eagleton, Guinne & Langlais, 2003) is designed to empower students by having them choose a personal hero and then use the Internet to research the person, and then transform an Internet document to communicate to others about that hero. . According to the authors the, “hero inquiry project enables teachers to meet multiple instructional objectives and literacy standards while also integrating technology” (pg. 34). The Hero inquiry project affords students the opportunity to build online reading comprehension in a collaborative environment.

An instructional shift must also occur that moves responsibility of strategy and skill development to the learner. The New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut and the Internet Reading Reseach Group at Clemson University (TICA team) are developing a model of online reading comprehension instruction based on Palinscar and Brown’s (1984) reciprocal teaching (visit the project homepage at

The study tested a model developed through classroom integration over the last two years. Researches have noted that instruction in online reading comprehension takes a gradual release of responsibility through three phases of instruction: a) teacher led instruction; b) collaborative modeling of strategies; and c) inquiry learning. Instruction in online comprehension also differs from offline comprehension in the fact that students must take a greater responsibility of modeling strategies for more heterogeneous classrooms (Leu et al., in press). This fact, that students may become the most effective teacher in the class is the biggest crossroad educators face with instruction.


Mandated assessments guide much of the research and realities of classroom literacy instruction (Pearson, 2007) and right or wrong, online reading comprehension will never become a focus in the classroom until it is included on national and state assessments. Currently not one state test, mandated under No Child Left Behind, assesses online reading comprehension, and if the United States hopes to remain competitive this must change. After all for the first time the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) will include tasks to assess Information and Communication Technologies skills (OECD, 2007) in 2009. Sixty-two countries have recognized the importance of developing ICT skills and if America wants to transition to a global information economy we must also recognize the importance of online reading comprehension.

Efforts must also continue to develop classroom assessment of online reading comprehension. A common method to develop and assess Internet inquiry skills is the development of checklists (Fitzgerald, 1999). Researchers investigating Internet Reciprocal Teaching created checklists to act as exit measurement tools for the aforementioned three phases of IRT (download checklists at Other tools are also being constructed that assess individual performance on outcome measures. Middle school teachers must help formulate and use formative and summative assessments to measure online reading comprehension if they are to understand the challenges students face as they approach the crossroads of the Internet and literacy.


The Internet has caused such a fork in the road that as we approach the crossroad almost every aspect of human life changes. This change is not new to humanity, and educators can look at the intersection of the Internet and literacy as a crossroad: a journey taken by many before into the unknown. This road can be seen historically as a path to knowledge. At the intersection of the Internet and literacy the students and teachers are on a super highway together, and the students are often on the lead car. Travel has accelerated to such a pace that we have to prepare middle school students for online reading comprehension. Middle school teachers need to choose new paths for our curriculum, instruction, and assessment. If the literacy community does not soon address these changes students will not be “jumping the road” on the information superhighway. Instead, youth will be left stranded and singing the words of Robert Johnson, “Yeoo, standin' at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride….Ooo eeee, I tried to flag a ride….Didn't nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by.”