Blog Series

Teaching Literacy in the Digital Age

by Bill Bass on Jan 23, 2019

  • Literacy
  • Reading Intervention
Bill Bass

Part One of Two


Walking into my first classroom 20-some-odd years ago, I was very aware of the fact that, while I knew part of being an English teacher for seventh grade students was connecting my kids with books they would love, I didn’t really have a sense of how to meet the needs of all of my students. I had strategies and lesson plans, but knew I had to figure out how to know my students as readers.

Fast forward to the present day. It’s clear much has changed when it comes to reading instruction. Technology advances have brought an influx of supporting tools that give teachers data point after data point and provide intervention after intervention. While technology tools can give teachers great insight into how students learn and where they struggle during the reading process, this is only part of the picture. The true understanding of teaching reading to students still lies with the teacher. We must not forget that and we must stay grounded in what we know about literacy and the teaching of children.

  • Know your students—As far as I’m concerned, the most crucial thing teachers can do for readers of all ages is to know their students as readers. This requires conferring and talking about what they are reading and making connections between and through their realities. It means students must see themselves as readers and recognize their strengths and opportunities, set their own reading goals, and recognize there is not one single path to moving forward. For the teacher, that also means it’s counterproductive to try to “force” a single path on students. I’m not going to pretend it’s easy; it’s not. However, in the digital age where there is more content available than ever before, it’s imperative that we recognize the individuality of our students and the personal connections we must make with kids to move them along “their” path even if that sometimes means letting go of “our” path for them.

  • Go beyond reading level—I have a love/hate relationship with the various reading-level scales. While I recognize the importance of being able to connect a student with a book that is accessible to them, I also cringe when I see students who become stifled by that number or letter. In some cases, we rely on that reading level to such a degree that it’s as if our students “become” that level and that’s where they also see themselves. In today’s world, I encourage you to think about the massive amount of content kids are exposed to. Whether you use online textbooks, articles, ebooks, or even some of the curation services that are available, there is more opportunity and access to information and reading for our students than we’ve ever had. That’s on top of the physical books and programs we provide. Most of the reading our students do in their daily lives does not easily fit into a “reading level” but that doesn’t mean they don’t read it. Those texts are as valid as any other and at times provide a disconnect for our kids because they see the reading they do in school as different from their other, everyday reading. Whatever strategies you use to help your students find those “just-right books,” help them translate those strategies into the other texts they read and rely less on the number or letter. Use reading levels for what they are intended: to be a guide and support rather than a limitation.

  • Be intentional—As teachers, we have great influence over the children who come into our classrooms. We partner with parents, the community, and our colleagues in the hopes of helping to shape and support the lives of our students. This is especially true when it comes to reading. Every decision you make as a teacher has great potential to impact your students in different ways. This is especially true when it comes to reading and the content we give kids. In the digital age, this means we also have to be intentional with the program in which that content is delivered and ensure the content within a technology product includes various text types and engaging, peer-relevant features. The reality is that students need to have experiences with both physical AND digital materials in equal measures and it’s up to us, as educators, to be intentional about the decisions we make about the content we provide. LANGUAGE!® Live, Voyager Sopris Learning’s literacy intervention program for middle and high school students, gives teachers and students both print and digital reading experiences, using a variety of text types and includes avatars and peer tutors to speak to students at their level. All of this combines to help build foundational and advanced literacy skills that will help today’s students succeed in college and career. We can’t just assume that if they are able to read effectively from a physical book those skills will transfer to a digital resource. Intentionality is of utmost importance.

While being literate in the digital age may seem like a far cry from the classroom I entered all those years ago, there are still some fundamental elements required from literacy instruction that could be updated to meet the needs of the modern student.

Read Part Two of Bill Bass’s blog, “Honoring Authentic Reading”, here on Thursday, February 7.

Bill Bass, innovation coordinator for instructional technology, information, and library media for the Parkway School District in St. Louis, MO, currently serves as the president of the board of directors for ISTE

During his more than 20-year career in education, he also has held positions as a middle and high school English teacher, technology integration specialist, instructional coach, and educational consultant. As a speaker, writer, and professional developer, he focuses on systemic and sustainable integration of technology into classrooms at all grade levels and seeks to empower students and teachers with authentic learning experiences.

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