Despite requiring some technology use, the Common Core State Standards for English/language arts don’t do enough to ensure that students become effective digital readers, some literacy experts say.
“At the top level, they’re saying, yes, we recognize literacy means being digitally literate,” said Bridget Dalton, an associate professor of literacy studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “But when you go to specific standards in reading, there’s not a lot there to guide you.”
Because of the ambiguity in the reading standards, which often give teachers the option to use “print or digital” texts, some say language arts educators are likely to stick with more traditional print-based methods.
And there’s concern that language arts teachers will remain print-focused for another reason as well: Because the common-core-aligned tests, while administered on a computer, set up an environment that’s more akin to print reading than it is to an authentic online experience.
Permission But Not a Requirement
Mentions of digital texts and tools appear throughout the common-core standards, but the document is certainly more prescriptive in some places than others.
First published in 2009, the common core, which nearly 40 states now use, is made up of anchor and grade-specific standards. The anchor standards describe the broad skills students need by the end of their education to be ready for college or careers, while the grade-specific standards lay out what students should know by the end of a certain grade.
In the reading section, one anchor standard in particular makes reference to digital literacy—but its interpretation, as experts point out, is in the eye of the beholder. Standard 7 says students should be able to “integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.”
According to Don Leu, an education professor at the University of Connecticut with expertise in technology and literacy, because the word “media” is vague, teachers could fulfill that standard without actually using technology at all. “Teachers will use diverse media they’re familiar with and have used in the past, so they’ll pull out magazines and newspapers,” he said.
Five of the 32 common-core “anchor standards,” the overarching goals that students are expected to accomplish by the time they exit high school, refer to technology and the use of digital materials. They’re listed below, along with an example grade-specific standard for each one.
Anchor Standard #7
Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
Grade 2 Standard: Use information gained from the illustrations and words in a print or digital text to demonstrate understanding of its characters, setting, or plot.
Anchor Standard #6
Use technology, including the internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others
Grade 5 Standard: With some guidance and support from adults, use technology, including the internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of two pages in a single sitting.
Anchor Standard #8
Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
Grade 4 Standard: Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; take notes and categorize information; and provide a list of sources.
Speaking and Listening
Anchor Standard #2
Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally. Grade 6 Standard: Interpret information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how it contributes to a topic, text, or issue under study.
Anchor Standard #5
Make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.
Grades 9-10 Standard: Make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) to enhance understanding of findings and to add interest.
The standard gives teachers permission to teach digital reading but doesn’t do much more than that, said Kristen Hawley Turner, an associate professor of English education and contemporary literacies at Fordham University. “When I look at that and I want to teach digital reading, I can use that to defend myself,” she said. “It allows for it, but nowhere does it call for reading hyperlinked, multimodal texts.”
But Susan Pimentel, one of the lead writers of the standards, said the common core does support digital-literacy skills. And while the standards are more explicit about it in the writing, speaking, and listening sections, there are enough references in the reading standards that teachers should not feel they can fulfill them using only print texts.
“The intent of Anchor Standard 7, and perhaps there were other ways to word it, was really to look at the presentation of information in different formats, including digital formats,” she said.
Looking at the grade-specific reading standards, though, the elementary benchmarks are thin on references to digital literacy.
One 2nd grade standard says students should “use information gained from the illustrations and words in a print or digital text to demonstrate understanding of [the] characters, setting, or plot.” Other than that, the elementary standards refer to “texts” more generally.
“I think people could say in elementary school in the reading standards, where it does mention digital texts but there’s an ‘or,’ it could just be visual—illustrations or photos,” Pimentel said. “We waited until middle school to say it needs to come in yet another format.”
It’s true that the reading standards for middle and high school are a bit more explicit about technology use. A 7th grade informational-reading standard says students should “compare and contrast a text to an audio, video, or multimedia version of the text.” And an 8th grade standard says students should “analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums [sic] (e.g., a person’s life story in both print and multimedia).” Again, there’s some room for interpretation, especially in the 8th grade standard, but technology is undoubtedly flagged.
For Leu, though, the key failure of the reading standards is that they don’t ever specifically require students to read online. As Leu explains, there are two kinds of digital reading: offline and online. Offline reading can happen on a computer or e-reader but is really not much different from print reading. The text is read from top to bottom without much interactivity. Online reading involves novel skills such as using search engines, clicking on hyperlinks, and evaluating different websites’ credibility.
“In the reading portion, [the common core] did not use online or internet or some reference that would specifically point to the online context,” he said. “When you use a term like ‘digital,’ it can be an e-book. Most people interpret text in relation to their prior knowledge, and most educators’ and classroom teachers’ prior knowledge is strongly influenced by offline text.”
Certainly, plenty of tech-savvy teachers and schools are incorporating online reading while tackling the standards. But as William L. Bass II, the innovation coordinator for instructional technology, information, and library media for the Parkway school district in Missouri, points out, plenty are not. “Some [school and district] administrations went very literal and very direct, and in those cases, digital tools are seen as an add-on—it’s nice to get to if every student in your class is on grade level,” he said. “Ultimately, we missed an opportunity because we didn’t discretely put those things in [the common core].”
But Pimentel argues that the standards give students the foundational skills they need to be good digital readers, even without being too prescriptive about incorporating online reading. “If we teach students to read closely, pay attention to what people are saying, ask questions about it, think about who the author is—that would be the most critical part of what we want to make sure students are doing as they become more competent in digital literacy,” she said.
For example, an area of digital literacy that the standards don’t directly address at all, Pimentel points out, is social media.
“We did have discussion about it. ... It’s challenging when you’re dealing with technology and not having the standards be outdated as soon as you print them,” she said. “The formats keep changing.”
But the standards do get at the skills needed to navigate social media, Pimentel said. “We definitely deal with the credibility and accuracy of sources, and that becomes really important when students read social media and blog posts,” she said.
Writing Meets the Mark
The common-core standards for writing, on the other hand, are more blunt in their requirements and do contain explicit mentions of the online space.
Writing “does a pretty good job,” said Leu, who is also the director of the New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut. “At least they used the term ‘internet,’ and to me, that’s the critical issue.”
Anchor Standard 6 in writing says students should “use technology, including the internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.” And Anchor Standard 8 says students should “gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.”
In writing, even the youngest students are asked to “explore a variety of digital tools.” The grade-level standards tend to say “print and digital” sources for writing, rather than giving educators an out by saying “print or digital” as they do in reading.
The speaking and listening standards also refer to digital tools more explicitly. Anchor Standard 5 says students should “make strategic use of digital media and visual displays of data to express information and enhance understanding of presentations.” Third graders are asked to “create engaging audio recordings of stories or poems,” and high school students are asked to “make strategic use of digital media (e.g., textual, graphical, audio, visual, and interactive elements) in presentations.”
The standards themselves aside, a major concern among digital-literacy experts about the transition to the common core is that the tests aligned to the standards don’t require real online reading. And as the adage goes, what gets tested gets taught.
“There’s still a huge gap between assessment and the kinds of digital literacies and online literacies we know are important and that we need to be teaching children,” said Dalton of the University of Colorado.
For the most part, the tests, while administered on computers, don’t ask students to click on hyperlinks or use search engines to find information.
Jeffrey Nellhaus, the chief of assessment for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a federally funded common-core testing consortium, said in an email that’s because “it’s difficult to limit internet access to just a few websites or search engines,” and because unrestricted access to the internet can make it easier to cheat. Issues could also arise with safety, privacy, Wi-Fi bandwidth, and local internet filters that make using an authentic online environment very tough.
“We do not measure the ability for students to go out to the internet without any constraints and seek out appropriate information,” said Tony Alpert, the executive director of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, the other federally funded group that created common-core tests. “But what we do is we measure foundational skills that help students engage in that activity.”
Still, some educators and digital-literacy experts say that because the testing platform looks so different from the web, teachers may spend class time having students practice for the test rather than using the internet authentically.
The platform “doesn’t look like an online web page and it doesn’t look like a book,” said Leu. “It’s novel.”
Many teachers are using print texts during instruction, and then having students practice answering questions that look like those on the test—missing out on authentic digital reading altogether, according to Bass, the innovation coordinator in Missouri.
“It’s not an authentic learning experience. As teachers go through their day-to-day work, they’re still very much using a traditional format to teach and practice, until they’re doing test prep,” he said. “The [digital] skills of test prep don’t translate into the [digital] skills of everyday life.”
Alpert says Smarter Balanced has incorporated online skills into some of its formative-testing tools, which teachers use throughout the year in the classroom to gauge their students’ progress.
And the common-core-aligned state tests may change down the road. Nellhaus of PARCC said the group is planning to devise tasks that simulate the use of hyperlinks and search engines.
“I think we’re going to get better and better on that,” said Pimentel. “I think we’re going to get more authentic as we move along. And I challenge the digital-literacy folks to step up and [offer solutions for] how we can do this well and safely.”
Coverage of the implementation of college- and career-ready standards and the use of personalized learning is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at www.gatesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as A Small Nod for Digital Skills