Reading Instruction in a Time of Accountability: Multimodality and Physical Exercise Matter

IMG_6436Over the last few months, we’ve come to establish something of a round robin routine at dinner. I ask, “What were the highlights and lowlights from your day?” and then we go around the table, everyone sharing their ups and downs. Last week, our older daughter reported a lowlight that got me thinking, again, about the ideas that are emphasized in schools as part of reading instruction.

“I had to stay in from recess because I haven’t met my AR goal for the month,” she said.

AR is Accelerated Reader, a software program that my daughter’s school uses to measure students’ reading comprehension skills. When students read AR-endorsed books, they take an online test which, ostensibly, shows how much they understood about the book’s content. Students progressively set and work toward higher reading goals each month — reading more challenging texts and scoring higher scores — and the software provides an easy-to-interpret graph of how well students performed on the tests. These data are then used to make inferences about students’ reading skill levels.

“Hmmm,” I said. “Doesn’t your teacher know that you’re already a pretty confident reader?” I asked. “At our parent-teacher conference he expressed no concerns about your reading.”

“Ya, Mom,” she replied. “But the State of Michigan requires us to do these AR tests, so I have to do it.”

“Hmmm,” I said again, knowing full well that the State doesn’t mandate the use of any particular program, but also aware of the ways that each school is held accountable and must document improvement. “Don’t you think it’s more important for you to have a little outside time so you can get some exercise? Exercise makes your brain work better, you know. If you had recess, your reading would be even better.”

By this time, our younger daughter had already interrupted with news of her day which featured a field trip to sing Christmas carols at a local retirement center.

Later that evening, catching up on my FaceBook news feed, a colleague and friend who, last week, led the study group on graphic novels at the Literacy Research Association conference posted:

“In the car after picking up the big one, “so mom, I have to redo my ‘pages read’ report. My teacher said graphic novels and audio books don’t count.” My head almost exploded.”

Again, I said, “Hmmm.”

On the same day, in Massachusetts, where her son attends school, a teacher said that pages read need to be counted, and that graphic, multimodal pages don’t count. In Michigan, where my daughter attends school, a teacher said that reading to take a computer test was a more important priority than getting fifteen minutes of fresh air and exercise.

At that moment, I felt a bit disheartened that the research that could inform teachers’ instructional choices around reading seems to have been trumped by something else. That something else, seems to be the need to account for very particular skills in very particular ways. To me, the accounting in both of these cases seems to have been driven by simple views of reading that could, in fact, undermine students’ growth and development as readers.

Here’s why I think this.

First, my colleague’s research (Jiménez, 2014) has shown that the expert construction of meaning from graphic novels is a very complex cognitive process, requiring sophisticated, flexible integration of print-based and visual literacies strategies. Telling students that “graphic novels don’t count” privileges print-based literacies that, although obviously important, are not the only literacies that children need to develop. In a world where texts have become increasingly multimodal, especially online, does it not stand to reason that children should practice the construction of meaning from visual, auditory, and print-based texts?

Second, my own work has investigated the contributions of executive functions to reading comprehension — they’re sizable, as has been shown by more than 30 years of research by scholars all over the world (e.g., Daneman & Carpenter, 1980; Keiffer, Vukovic & Berry, 2013). Individual differences in inhibitory control, set-shifting and working memory correlate positively with individual differences in reading comprehension. Adele Diamond’s work tells us that physical activity supports children’s development of inhibitory control, the ability to switch between sets of information, and use working memory (e.g., Diamond & Lee, 2011). Together, these lines of research show that children who have better executive functioning tend to be better readers and that children who exercise have better executive functioning. A study by Reynolds, Nicholson & Hambly (2003), for instance, brings these ideas together. Their research showed that children diagnosed with dyslexia, made statistically significant gains on reading comprehension measures when they exercised their bodies. Children who used a balance board, practiced throwing and catching bean bags and engaged in various stretching and coordination exercises over a period of six months showed greater reading gains than a control group who did not exercise systematically. Although this research focused on children with particular reading pathologies, the fact that exercise enabled growth on reading comprehension measures for the children who struggle most to construct meaning from printed texts suggests an important mind-body link that, I would argue, teachers should consider.

I think it is important to note that I know these two teachers in MA and MI are operating in a time of incredible constraint, and that their directions to students are surely motivated by a desire to support reading growth. Teachers do this work because they care about students in every way — I would never question this. And yet, the push for teachers to show the impact of their work in ways that can be measured may influence their choices about which kinds of texts get privileged, or how students are asked to use their time.14713741441_320d2c653e_o

Given the research that I’ve summarized above, I think it’s time, actually, for teachers to push back and use expanded notions of the kinds of activities that will support reading gains. I think it’s time for teachers to push back against views of reading in school that privilege the printed word. Multimodal text pages should definitely count. In fact, as my colleague’s research has shown (Jiménez, 2014) graphic novel readers may be engaging even MORE cognitive processes as they construct meaning. I also think it’s time for teachers to embrace the complexities of reading as an embodied process that improves as children’s whole bodies are nurtured. Recess may actually be the most important 15 minutes of the reading curriculum each day.


Daneman, M. & Carpenter, P.A. (1980). Individual differences in working memory and reading. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 19, 450-466.

Diamond, A. & Lee, K. (2011, August). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 333, 959-964.

Jiménez, L. M. (2014). Out of the box: Expert readers allocating time and attention in graphic novels. [Dissertation]. Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertation Abstracts International, 74:8. Dissertation ID: DA3560470.

Keiffer, M.J., Vukovic, R.K., & Berry, D. (2013). Roles of attention shifting and inhibitory control in fourth-grade reading comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 48(4), 333-348. doi: 10.1002/rrq.54

Reynolds, D., Nicholson, R.I.,  & Hambly, H. (2013).  Evaluation of an exercise-based treatment for children with reading difficulties. Dyslexia, 9, 48-71. doi: 10.1002/dys.235

You can read more about Dr. Laura Jiménez’s work at her blog.

Graphing the nature of strategy application

Today, I’m excited about this graph. It shows the relative duration — or the relative proportion of time — spent on ten strategic activities over five online reading sessions by a dyad of boys who, at pretest, showed the least preparation to construct an integrated understanding across multiple, multimodal Internet texts. That’s a mouthful. The gist: although the structure of time dedicated to certain activities remained relatively stable across all five sessions, the relative proportion of time spent on some activities increased from pretest to posttest and for some, the proportion of time decreased. To me, this suggests that the LINKS intervention for this dyad of students, who appeared to be very early in their learning trajectory for this complex activity, had something of a disruptive impact. At posttest, they used their time a little differently. At posttest, these boys’ integrativeness scores were higher too. Dissertation with full analyses coming to the ProQuest Database near you in December 2013 🙂


Seventeen years later, evidence for “a pedagogy of multiliteracies” remains elusive

Sheep Asleep: by Z. Hagerman, Age 7.
Created on her iPad

Yesterday, I had two professional exchanges that highlighted, for me, the pressing importance of expanding students’ understanding of what an informational source can be while reading on the Internet or using digital tools in school. I blogged about this idea a while back…but my conversations yesterday have prompted me to revisit it.

Back in 1996, the New London Group crafted something of a treatise on multimodal pedagogies. From the abstract:

The authors argue that the multiplicity of communications channels and increasing cultural and linguistic diversity in the world today call for a much broader view of literacy than portrayed by traditional language-based approaches. Multiliteracies, according to the authors, overcomes the limitations of traditional approaches by emphasizing how negotiating the multiple linguistic and cultural differences in our society is central to the pragmatics of working, civic, and private lives of students. (p. 60)

The New London Group went on to say that “literacy pedagogy now must account for the burgeoning variety of text forms associated with information and multimedia technologies” (p. 61).  Seventeen years ago, they recognized that students would need to become adept at negotiating and constructing meaning from the multiple and convergent semiotic systems afforded, in particular, by the Internet (which turned 21 a couple of weeks ago). Certainly, reading printed text would be part of the digital literacy landscape but so too would be images, video and new genres of texts unique to the Internet. Multiple semiotic systems, they argued, would require the flexible application of multiple literacies — and of course, teachers would need to adopt pedagogical practices that support the acquisition and application of multiple ways of constructing meaning from multiple systems of meaning.

Seventeen years on from this seminal work, I fear that the vision for “a pedagogy of multiliteracies” articulated by the New London Group remains just that — a vision. Two pieces of evidence from conversations yesterday have lead me to conclude (for now) that teachers and students have not yet embraced this vision fully.

1) Research: Students usually read and take notes from typed text

Kara Sevensma, a phenomenal New Literacies researcher, who recently defended her dissertation entitled, Negotiating New Literacies in Science: An Examination of At-Risk and Average-Achieving Ninth-Grade Readers’ Online Reading Comprehension Strategies, shared some of the results from her study with me. My dissertation is also focused on ninth-graders’ online reading of science topics and our observations of students’ use of images, video, infographics, graphs etc. were very similar. Although four students in her study did construct meaning from images at least once during the three days of her data collection period (p. 124), this strategy was certainly more the exception than the rule. Usually, as I have also observed, students read only typed text — a single, and very traditional, way of making meaning. Moreover, the weakest reader in her study worked tirelessly to take meticulous verbatim notes from the websites she read. I too, have seen students do this. We agreed that this approach looks a lot like taking notes from a textbook. Students read the print, copy the words down onto a piece of paper, and then use the “next” button to go the next page of copy. More sophisticated readers may skim through the text, using headings or an awareness of purpose to guide their strategic reading choices. It is rare, however, to see students actively seek out multi-modal sources of information (e.g., video) to inform their reading purpose or understanding of a topic. It’s even rarer to see them record their ideas using web-based tools (e.g. Evernote, Diigo or even a plain old Google Doc). All of the students in her study chose to write their ideas down on paper, although they were given the option to use digital tools.

2) Teachers don’t teach digital reading and writing — even in 1-to-1 programs

What’s more, it seems that it’s a difficult leap for teachers — especially new ones — to conceive of and then teach multimodal reading and writing processes. My second conversation was with a pre-service teacher who had just completed a one-month internship in a one-to-one iPad classroom. During his time in this classroom, he had taught a social studies unit than allowed students to research a topic of personal interest connected, broadly, to the theme of civil rights. Brilliant, right? Authentic, inquiry-based and very well conceived over all. And yet, the products his students created could easily have been made in 1980, long before this digital native teacher had even been born. Using bristol board, glue, markers and cut-out images printed from the Internet or, in some cases, drawn by the students using markers, pens and crayons, he shared a display of posters that, I can only assume, will be sent to the recycle bin next week. To be sure, his students had done fantastic work — but when I asked him why his students hadn’t created these posters using their iPads, his eyes widened. He told me that for this project, he needed to have posters to display but also that it would have taken a long time to create the posters on the iPads. I came away wondering. Had his mentor teacher not suggested the products be digital? Collaborative? Linked or uploaded to a webspace? Why would it have taken longer to create the posters digitally?

I’m starting to understand how powerful the influence of printed text has been and continues to be in schools. Don’t get me wrong — as I type this blog post, I recognize print as rather useful 🙂 I just wonder how a singular and enduring adherence to this modality is preparing students (and pre-service teachers) for the realities of their digital worlds. I also see that to realize the New London Group’s vision for “pedagogies of multiliteracies” will require more and more emphatic advocates working to expand teachers’ and students’ conceptualizations of “text” in schools.


The New London Group. (1996) A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66:1, 60-92.

Sevensma, K. (2013). Negotiating New Literacies in Science: An Examination of At-Risk and Average-Achieving Ninth-Grade Readers’ Online Reading Comprehension Strategies. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation. Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.

Michigan Reading Association Conference

I am looking forward to presenting with my esteemed colleagues, Amber White, Anne Sherrieb and Cindy Lewis from Ruth Fox Elementary School at the Michigan Reading Association Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this coming Saturday. The focus of our talk will be on instructional implications of the [(PST)2 + iC3] framework that I developed to support online inquiry and multiple internet text integration. My colleagues at Ruth Fox piloted the framework last summer with at-risk 5th and 6th grade readers during an intensive four-week summer institute. Our talk will give a little context for the strategic framework, but then mostly focus on what the kids did and how the framework supported their online inquiry processes as they researched and then wrote their own “Wonders” inspired by the popular website.

I have created a website for [(PST)2 + iC3] with pages dedicated to the framework, MRA presentation, and to research that has supported the development of my work.

And, in case you would like to quickly preview Saturday’s presentation, here are the slides.

[slideshare id=16981535&doc=pst2ic3-mra-130306114211-phpapp02]

Dinner with Laura Ingalls Wilder

Screen Shot 2013-02-07 at 10.07.11 PM
Photo courtesy of Mrs. Ryan

Yesterday, I blogged about the celebration that my daughter’s teacher organized for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s 146th birthday and the biscuits I baked (in truth, that post was mostly an excuse to take pictures of the biscuits!)

As an aspiring literacy scholar, however, I just couldn’t pass up the chance to think about how these kinds of authentic, embodied learning experiences support children’s emergent understanding of literature, and of themselves as readers, thinkers and bricoleurs of understanding in a world that inspires so many questions.

I could wax on theoretically — but I think the necessary points can be made by simply sharing our dinner conversation.

Laura Ingalls Wilder joined us. She sat to my right — in precisely the spot where my 7-year old normally eats. She wore a printed dress and a bonnet. She had a shawl tied around her shoulders. She was surprised to have a fork, spoon and knife with which to eat her supper. Laura Ingalls told us that she didn’t usually have cutlery but instead had to eat with her hands. She also told us that she had only one plate, and that in her house on the Prairie, she had to eat outside, on the ground, because she didn’t have a table.

Laura told us about the great feast at school. Most importantly, she ate three kinds of pie — custard, blueberry and vinegar. The vinegar pie, which nobody else at our dinner table had ever eaten, apparently tasted like, well, vinegar. Other kids thought so too. The blueberry was her favorite. She also ate mashed potatoes, biscuits with maple syrup, and a muffin. She passed on the pickled asparagus but was surprised to find that she liked hulled corn, which is also called hominy. During the feast, there was no electric lighting which made sense, since there was no electric lighting in Laura’s house.

As we discussed what life must have been like for Laura and her family, we heard the story of her dog, Jack, and how he found his family after he had been separated from them — probably because dogs have such a good sense of smell. Laura also told us that Pioneers are girls who move a lot and have to build a new house far away from their grandparents…which makes everyone sad.

Laura Ingalls Wilder came to dinner at our house because a teacher loved a book, and after months of reading that book with her students, created a space in which they could all smell, taste and live, for an afternoon, in the skin of the protagonists. I can’t imagine any better way to make reading, learning, and literature meaningful.

Incidentally, when I asked my daughter whether she might like to read more Laura Ingalls Wilder books at home, she said no. She wants to re-read Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie. “I want to live those stories again, Mom.”

A formula for strategic online synthesis

The anchor standards for reading and writing in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects (2010)  place significant emphasis on the construction of meaning from multiple texts in print and digital formats. To date, however, the evidence for instructional methods that support “synthesis” skills development in K-12 is sparse. This is particularly true for the online context. To my mind, teachers and students would benefit considerably if there were a method that had been tested empirically…and that could be implemented with some confidence that it would support the development of online synthesis skills.

Last summer, I had a serendipitous opportunity to pilot a framework for online synthesis with colleagues and a group of students at an elementary school here in Michigan. The students, all 5th and 6th graders, were invited to participate in a summer institute designed to support their math and literacy skills through innovative and authentic inquiry projects that integrated technologies. Based on overall academic performance and reading comprehension scores, the students who were invited to participate were generally those most at-risk for academic underachievement or failure.

During the summer institute, the kids created “Wonders”, inspired by the popular website on topics that were related to sports (the summer Olympics were then taking place in London!) To create their Wonders, students had to do a lot of online reading. The teachers were looking for a systematic way to introduce the iterative cycle of online reading and synthesis…and since I was developing something for my dissertation research study, I asked them if they would consider giving this framework a try. They did — and much to our delight, it seemed to work!

Mostly, the teachers reported that the formula — which they introduced by modelling the process via think alouds, and then having the students use the strategies over a few weeks — provided a starting point for richer conversations about online reading and synthesis. With a common vocabulary, everyone was able to understand the expectations, but also to talk about what they were doing at each step in their process.

This piloting experience gave me the confidence to refine my method a bit further for my dissertation study — which I’ve been running with students since November, 2012.

Anecdotally, students in my dissertation study have told me similar things. One student said that the list of strategies reminded her of what she needed to do and helped her stay focused. Another student said that the strategies were especially helpful because it made the whole process of inquiry a little less overwhelming.

There is much still to analyze, and think about…but here’s the list of strategies. I’ve written them as a mathematical “formula” to metaphorically represent the additive and exponential growth in understanding that comes through synthesis of multiple perspectives 🙂

(PST)2 + iC3

P = Purpose

What do I have to do?

P = Prior Knowledge

What do I already know about this topic?

S = Search Terms

What search words and phrases will I use to find good information?

S = Source Selection
Which sources seem promising?

T = Type

What kind of web resource is this and what should the structure tell me about what I will probably find there?

T = Trustworthy

How trustworthy is this information? What criteria have I used to judge it?
i = Identify Important Ideas

What information is important here? Why is this information important?

C = Compare

How does this information compare with what you already knew?

C = Connect

Does this back up something you have already read? Does differ in some way from what you have read elsewhere? Is it unique information that takes your understanding in a new direction?

C = Continually Update

What does your overall understanding of the problem look like now?

Feel free to view the PST2 + iC3 formula here as well:

Old-school tech, new school reading: On repurposing transparency film to support multiple text integration online

I’m nearing the end of data collection in a study that (I hope) will provide teachers with much-needed information on methods that support (or don’t support?) 9th grade students’ reading of multiple, multi-modal Internet texts on science-focused topics of inquiry. As I was developing my teaching intervention, I was especially concerned with methods that would help students to construct an integrated model of what they understand (Kintsch, 1998). In the introduction to his book, Kintsch (1998) explains his Construction-Integration theory of comprehension (pp. 4-5):

Roughly, the story goes like this. We start with a comprehender who has specific goals, a given background of knowledge and experience, and a given perceptual situation. The perceptual situation may, for instance, be the printed words on a page of text. […] Given these idea units in the form of propositions as well as the reader’s goals, associated elements from the reader’s long-term memory (knowledge, experience) are retrieved to form an interrelated network together with the already existing perceptual elements. Because this retrieval is entirely a bottom-up process, unguided by the larger discourse context, the nascent network will contain both relevant and irrelevant items. Spreading activation around this network until the pattern of activation stabilizes works as a constraint-satisfaction process, selectively activating those elements that fit together or are somehow related and deactivating the rest. Hence, the name of the theory, the construction-integration (CI) theory: A context-insensitive construction processes is followed by a constraint-satisfaction, or integration, process that yeilds if all goes well, an orderly mental structure out of initial chaos.

Upon first reading this paragraph, the last sentence really struck a chord with me. Online, the magnitude of “chaos” presented by “the perceptual situation” can overwhelm readers – especially novices. I recognized that any teaching intervention that would help students make “an orderly mental structure” would have to help them stay focused on their purpose, and on what they already knew so that the process of ‘selective activation’ might actually occur.

I also decided that to build a network, it might be helpful for students to actually see its foundations as it grew. We know that background knowledge is a huge determinant of reading comprehension (Anderson & Pearson, 1984; Langer, 1984) but I hypothesized that if students could record what they already knew on their topic of inquiry (e.g., the pros and cons of nuclear power or whether a person with cancer should accept the risks of radiation therapy) AND be able to refer to it and build from it as they read across multiple texts, it might help them to solidify their understanding more effectively. I saw limitations, however, to regular paper.

If students took notes on a regular piece of paper, I worried that the background knowledge that they started with would be forgotten at the top of the page, or quickly muddled with what they had read. Plus, from a research perspective, I wanted to be able to see what students learned. The background knowledge had to remain, visually, as the foundation of the model students were building — and for that to happen, I needed students to be able to build up from it — to deliberately construct a layered model of understanding. As my advisor, Doug Hartman said, I needed to be able to separate students’ background knowledge from what they read just as maps allow geographers to see layers of topography.

So, what did I do? Well, I repurposed an old-school technology 🙂

Before doing any reading on the Internet, students in the treatment condition were asked to brainstorm, with their reading partner, everything they knew on the topic. Using a single color (which they chose from a rainbow assortment of permanent Sharpies) they jotted down their knowledge and related experiences on a single transparency sheet.

Yup. A good old sheet of 3M Transparency film. A few kids had never seen or touched the stuff. Most of them remembered it from “like, 2nd grade, before the digital projectors were installed”.

Then, when they began to read, students layered a second transparency sheet on top of the first. Students were told to build from their background knowledge, and to jot down important ideas from what they read using any method. The intervention also explicitly taught students to compare and connect new information to background knowledge. The transparencies allowed students to see their background knowledge — but it was also made old and new information physically separate entities that could be teased apart and then re-aligned.

In an informal interview, one student,who has completed the study, told me that having his background knowledge on the first transparency film allowed him to stay focused on the task purpose because seeing what he already knew reminded him of what he needed to find out.

I’ll be analyzing more data to determine the impact of the intervention overall, but based on my observations of students’ use of the transparency film, I think this method offers great promise to students as they construct “an orderly mental structure out of initial chaos” (Kintsch, 1998, p. 5). It’s simple, inexpensive, and it makes the process of building a mental model much more concrete for students and teachers alike. At any point in the reading inquiry process, everyone has access to where students started, and what they’ve since read and identified as important. Plus, it’s something that teachers across all subject areas can do — from K-12 — as they help students to integrate what they learn from multiple sources.


Anderson, R.C. & Pearson, P.D. (1984). A schema-theoretic view of basic processes in reading comprehension. In P.D. Pearson, R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, & P. Mosenthal (Eds.), Handbook of reading research (pp. 255-292). New York: Longman.

Kintsch, W., (1998). Comprehension: A paradigm for cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Langer, J. A. (1984). Examining background knowledge and text comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 468-481.

Do students really use multimodal options when reading to synthesize?

Yesterday, I piloted part of my dissertation study with my very Fabulous Research Assistant (FRA) at Albion College. I tested my protocols for think aloud training (putting together a space puzzle) and for the pre-test activity.

The pre-test prompt that FRA piloted asks students to read about the impact of common household chemicals, and specifically those found in soaps, on child development. Students are encouraged to use any type of Internet text — words, pictures, video, graphs, figures etc. — to learn about the topic. Then, students are asked to write an argument for parents of young children, that might inform their choice to use or not use widely available synthetic soaps.

FRA did an incredible job. The skills and strategies she demonstrated yesterday allowed her to construct a rich and synthesized understanding of the topic. However, despite her rather expert negotiation of the task, I noticed that she did not use any multi-modal sources. No pictures. No video. No graphics of any sort.

As we debriefed the session, I asked her why.

What I learned is, I think, rather important to our broader understanding of synthesis processes with multi-modal Internet texts as a field. She told me that her choice to depend exclusively on text-based information was grounded in several strategic choices. First, she said that because the task was ultimately to construct a written argument, she only used written sources for information. The parallelism between the source genre and the genre she would need to create was important to her. Second, she said that she skims text but that she can’t skim video. Even though she might have been able to find a video with good information within, she chose not to search for video sources because she knew she would be able to glean more information, more quickly, from text.

Though not a perfectly accurate quote, FRA said something like this, “You might watch a video for a minute and then want to skip ahead because it’s not giving you what you need…but then you might skip useful information if you fast-forward through a video…so you have to watch it all.”

In a timed situation (i.e., like in a 45 minute class period at school) it made no sense to FRA to use video. She did note that she would have used info graphics or charts with statistics to help her construct meaning for this task, but it hadn’t actually occurred to her to do so — even though the instructions gave her those options. This finding actually helped me to refine the wording of the prompt — but still, the odds that students might try to use information from images, video or other visuo-graphic representations to construct meaning on a science topic might be pretty slim, particularly given the parameters of the task (which I’m sure are valid, ecologically speaking) and their predispositions or preexisting schemas for this type of task.

What does this mean?

Well, FRA’s thoughts have given me a lot to think about. Eighth grade students who participated in my practicum research told me they didn’t use video because, as FRA also noted, it takes too much time. Several of those students also told me that they didn’t think to use video or even images because they’re not supposed to download media at school — and even though I hadn’t specified that they couldn’t use video or images in the study, the context of the research (school) suggested that such sources would be prohibited or blocked by the network filters.

So, I’m left with the observation that for this type of task, for many logistical reasons, the primacy of print prevails. And yet, I wonder if this isn’t also because children don’t learn to construct meaning from multiple semiotic systems as automatically as they learn it for words? In FRA’s case, there was a very deliberate adherence to text genre — she felt it essential for information source genre and information output genre to align. She went on to say that if the task were to create a powerpoint or a poster or something, she would have looked for images or videos, but not for a written argument. Why would these ideas about text source and text output have anchored her approach to this task so firmly?

What kinds of instruction have children received that would encourage them to seek out meaning from multiple media? Or conversely, what kinds of instruction have dismissed the potential of multi-modal texts for this type of task?

Also, I’m left to wonder whether, for research purposes, videos shouldn’t always come with a transcript and time markers that can be quickly skimmed by would-be viewers? If there were some way to strategically target the information in a video for the task purpose, I think more students might be inclined to use them as an information source.

Have others made similar observations about the use of multi-modal text sources for this type of synthesis task online?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and expertise on the matter.

The Simple View of Online Reading — It’s Time to Push Back

Screencast Gallery - CEP 891Reading comprehension researchers will know that the simple view of reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) presents reading (and reading comprehension) as a function of two factors: (a) decoding ability (D) and (b) language comprehension (LC), a composite skill that is not well articulated by the model,  but that is generally understood to include vocabulary knowledge and auditory processing skills that permit comprehension of oral language too. As Paris & Hamilton (2009) discuss, the simple view falls short for several reasons. First, the equation R = D x LC suggests that D and LC should be weighted equally. Developmental research, however, suggests that as children grow, decoding and language comprehension skills will grow at different rates (e.g., Paris, 2005). The contributions of decoding and/or language comprehension to the index of reading comprehension should therefore vary according to developmental stage. Plus as Nell Duke outlined during a presentation she made to our Reading Comprehension doctoral seminar last semester (CEP 912) the simple view doesn’t take into consideration the many variables outside of language comprehension that have been shown to influence comprehension. Motivation to read, interest in the topic, genre, background knowledge about the topic, executive function, knowledge of reading comprehension strategies and the reader’s ability to apply them, cognitive flexibility, text structure, culture, reading context, the reader’s epistemic stance…all of these variables and many many others have support in the literature as correlates of reading comprehension. In brief, the simple view of reading fails to capture the true complexity of reading comprehension processes.

This week, in CEP 891, a Master’s in Educational Technology (MAET) course that I’ve been invited to co-teach with Paul Morsink and Rand Spiro, we are investigating definitions of online reading. Students have been asked to respond to the following discussion prompt grounded in quotes from Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

Given the empirical, theoretical and observational evidence that you’ve read and explored so far, how do you now respond to these two claims from Nicholas Carr’s book?

(1) “the digital environment tends to encourage people to explore many topics extensively, but at a more superficial level” (p. 138) and (2) “skimming is becoming our dominant mode of reading […] scanning is becoming an end in itself — our preferred mode of gathering and making sense of information of all sorts.” (p. 138)

Do you agree with these claims? Are these descriptions of online reading sufficient? deficient? or something else entirely? Please share your thoughts!

So far, several students have expressed agreement with Carr’s definitions of online reading. They agree that we are skimmers and scanners; they agree that online, we read more, but less deeply. A few dissenters, however, see that this may be too simple a view. Admittedly (though perhaps I shouldn’t be showing my cards just yet) I agree with them. I don’t disagree that skimming and scanning are hallmark online reading strategies. To me, however, reading online — a term that tends to be used in the singular — is much more dynamic and complex. Like its print-based analogue, ways of making meaning online cannot be simply defined by a such a narrow view. It’s time to push for broader, plural definitions of online reading that take into account the reader, her purpose, her context, culture, background knowledge, motivation, interest, executive function and cognitive flexibility, her understanding of internet text genres, structures and symbols.

Our students will also be posting video clips of two different types of online reading as a way to see how dynamic our online reading comprehension processes are. With their permission, I’ll see if I can post links to their screencasts next week.


Carr, N. (2010). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York: W.W. Norton.

Gough, P.B. & Tunmer, W.E. (1986). Decoding, reading, and reading disability. Remedial and Special Education, 7(1), 6-10.

Paris, S.G. (2005). Re-interpreting the development of reading skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 40(2), 184-202.

Paris, S.G., & Hamilton, E.E (2009). The development of children’s reading comprehension. In S.E. Israel & G.G. Duffy (Eds.), Handbook of research on reading comprehension (pp. 32-53). New York: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.

It seems I’m not the only one worried about leveled reading…

In their article, Dear Governor: Lobby to Save a Love of Reading, Anne Stone and Jeff Nichols question leveled reading. They seem to have the same sorts of concerns that I have expressed here, in my blog. Like their sons who trade insults about reading levels, I, too, have heard my daughter say to one of her imaginary friends, “You’re only reading at a level C…you need to keep trying,” and worse,”I’m at a level J, but you’re only at a level D…” Gotta love a curriculum that provides fodder for put-downs during pretend play and a real chance to gloat. Lovely. Really, really lovely.

Thanks to Angie DeCola for sharing this article with me in the first place. And, thanks to these New York Times authors for bringing to light the injustice of a curriculum that is applied in ways that undermine real reading development.