Special Report
Reading & Literacy

How Should Reading Be Taught in a Digital Era?

By Liana Loewus — November 09, 2016 10 min read
Both printed texts and digital readers have their places in a 3rd grade classroom at Indian Run Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

With the many enhancements to mobile devices, multimedia websites, e-books, interactive graphics, and social media, there’s no question that the nature of reading has changed during the past decade.

But has the way reading is taught in elementary schools changed as well? And what should teachers be doing to get students ready for the realities of modern reading?

For now, there’s no consensus on exactly how digital skills should be incorporated into literacy instruction. Practitioners have few guidelines, and many are simply adapting their lessons as they see fit. But many literacy experts do agree on at least one thing: that all students should be learning with a mix of print and digital texts—even the very youngest.

“Just like we teach nonfiction and fiction at a very young age, I think we can talk to preschoolers and kindergartners about different kinds of texts—this is one where we turn the pages, and this is one where we click on the different pages,” said Kristen Hawley Turner, an associate professor of English education and contemporary literacies at Fordham University.

Exposing students to both print and digital reading early on in school is a way of reflecting what authentic reading looks like, many said.

“It is the way people read, write, communicate, and learn in the world, so kids should be learning it from the beginning,” said Bridget Dalton, an associate professor of literacy studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “You don’t wait till they’re proficient in one to do the other. It’s a simultaneous development.”

But unfortunately, experts said, the transition to that way of instruction has been slow going in many places. The word “reading” in elementary classrooms often still refers mainly to print.

According to survey data from the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only about 1 in 10 4th graders use computers to access reading-related websites on a daily basis or nearly every day at school. About 30 percent of students in 4th grade classrooms never, or hardly ever, use computers to access such reading material in school.

Where to Go for Digital Nonfiction Reading

Rather than having students freely surf the web, many teachers say they send students to handpicked education sites to read and do research on nonfiction topics. These popular sites all have free content, though some offer additional features for a fee.

Created by the National Center for Families Learning, this website has daily articles about interesting phenomena in science, social studies, math, and other subject areas, including answers for questions like, “Why are flamingos pink?”

This website takes the daily news and makes it student-friendly, adapting each article for five different reading levels.

This group of websites features short, animated videos on topics in science, social studies, English, math, the arts, health, and engineering.

The Kids Should See This
This library of more than 2,500 educational videos, curated from across the internet, has the tag line “not-made-for-kids, but perfect for them.” The videos cover a range of topics, though the site has an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.

Tween Tribune
Hosted by the Smithsonian, this free website, geared toward 8- to 15-year-olds, is updated daily with high-interest news articles at four different reading levels.

“Think about what happens in the real world, and school is not there, regrettably,” Turner said.

Brenda LeClerc, an elementary reading specialist in Lincoln, R.I., who attended a digital-literacy institute at the University of Rhode Island this past summer, said students in her classes have generally read “really only print-based materials.” She is working to expand her own digital skills because “everything outside of school is not print-based for the most part,” she said. “I feel like I need to be more comfortable with it.”

Print Skills Plus

Adding digital reading to the already-tough task of teaching elementary students foundational print skills can be daunting, though.

Even students born in a digital age need to learn a host of new skills, including how to operate the devices, navigate online tools, manage distractions, and maintain their own safety and privacy.

“It’s challenging. As teachers, we’re just realizing how much our own reading and writing lives have changed,” said Franki Sibberson, a 3rd grade teacher in Dublin, Ohio, and the vice president of the National Council of Teachers of English.

One of the best ways to teach technical skills is through modeling, many said. Teachers can show students how to use technology by using it themselves and talking out the process.

“This week, we might be reading a paper book [for a read aloud], and next week, I might read something off my Kindle,” said Kristin Ziemke, a 1st grade teacher at the Academy of St. Benedict the African in Chicago, who also consults with other urban schools as a learning-innovation specialist. “I want them to see what it looks like to turn the page, to go back.”

Students, especially the youngest ones, don’t each need their own device to do that, either. “One device and the projector changes everything for kids and for teachers,” she said.

The transition from looking at words and text in print to viewing it on screen isn’t hard at all for young students, said Karen Pelekis, a 1st grade teacher in Scarsdale, N.Y. “It’s just a natural extension of how they already see the world. It’s what they’re already exposed to.”

Teachers can also use modeling to show young children how to navigate an online space, such as a web-based article with hyperlinks and multimedia.

“We talk about text features in books—indentation, the big first letter at the beginning of a chapter, what a chapter means,” said William L. Bass II, the innovation coordinator for instructional technology, information, and library media for the Parkway district in Chesterfield, Mo. “But what about those text features that are inside of web pages? What is this underlined blue thing? Why did the author choose to make that a link?”

Nonlinear Texts

Perhaps the biggest difference between print and online reading is that the latter introduces decisionmaking.

“Print reading is very much there’s a dead end—it’s isolated reading,” said Katharine Hale, the instructional-technology coordinator at Gunston Middle School in Arlington, Va. “Digital reading is more like a ‘choose your own adventure.’ You can click on something else and continue on again.”

Teacher Franki Sibberson works with one of her 3rd grade students on a reading assignment this fall at Indian Run Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio.

In other words, reading goes from being a linear experience in print to being a nonlinear one online. Teachers need to be direct about that difference, experts said, showing students that sometimes it’s OK to stop and click on a link or watch a video in the middle of an article if it will help them understand the content better.

“We need to teach young children digital text is hyperlinked and networked, and you go from one place to another, and it’s not left to right,” said Turner. “I’ve had students successfully do that in early elementary by having them click on hyperlinks and talking about, where did that take me? The idea is being very explicit and not just assuming they have the knowledge.”

At the same time, students need to see that, while the format is different, the purpose of reading remains the same. “When you think about comprehension strategies, they work whether you’re reading a blog post or watching video or reading a print book,” said Sibberson, who co-wrote a book with Bass in 2015 called Digital Reading: What’s Essential in Grades 3-8.

Some studies have shown that students struggle more with comprehension on digital devices than print materials. A 2012 study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a research organization for children’s digital media, found that 3- to 6-year-olds who read interactive e-books with their parents “recalled significantly fewer narrative details than children who read the print version of the same story.”

But some educators chalked that up to students not getting explicit instruction on how to navigate online text and transfer those print comprehension skills. “I once had a kid say, ‘I didn’t know we were allowed to think when we read online,’ ” said Sibberson. “They need to see it’s the same thing—sometimes with online stuff, they think of play.”

Young students also need instruction on how to self-regulate and manage distractions in the online world—when to ignore links, close tabs, and stay on one text or app rather than jumping around to others, for example.

“If you don’t start thinking early about managing distractions, you’re going to be building bad habits,” Fordham’s Turner said.

Search for Texts Online

Just as young students learn to choose books from the library, many experts said they should also learn to search for texts online. But, of course, surfing the web is rife with safety and privacy issues, so elementary students will need to do that in a more limited environment.

Pelekis sets up wiki pages with links related to whatever her 1st graders are studying—for instance, students can go there to get more information on chicks during a unit on the egg-to-chicken life cycle.

She avoids search engines altogether. “I know some people do [use them] but ... I did once, and it’s a bad mistake I’m not making again,” she said. Even YouTube’s education channel can turn up inappropriate content, she said. (And don’t even think about having students Google the word “chicks,” she mentioned offhandedly.)

That said, some teachers want to maintain authenticity in how students search for information online, both because they will need those skills later and because giving students a choice can motivate them to read.

“So often we say, go to National Geographic Kids, open the article on giraffes, and read it,” said Ziemke, who co-wrote a 2015 book called Amplify! Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-6 Classroom. “I noticed I wasn’t giving students that same choice piece with digital reading [as with print].”

Ziemke now recommends introducing 3rd graders and up to a half-dozen or so vetted educational websites, such as Wonderopolis and Tween Tribune, and giving them free time to search within those for texts they’d like to read.

By 5th grade, though, Bass says students should have opportunities to really search the web on their own.

Authentic Reading vs. Games

There are countless online games and apps available to help students practice their foundational reading skills—phonics, sight words, vocabulary, among them—and teachers have been using them for years. But digital-literacy experts caution that there’s a difference between using games and having students do authentic online reading.

“People ask me what’s the best sight-word app for 2nd grade, and I say I don’t know, I don’t use tech like that,” said Ziemke. “I’m not against games by any means, but when I look at where we need to start, we can do so much with modeling daily work and authentic ways of using tech.”

Many games and apps aren’t much more than “souped-up worksheets,” according to Hale, the instructional-technology coordinator in Virginia.

More-authentic digital-literacy instruction would have students working with the technology that readers and writers use all the time—blogs, social media, movie-making apps, bookmarking tools, audio recorders, virtual bulletin boards, and annotating tools, educators said.

“There are isolated skills you can learn nicely on the computer, but overall for me, reading is all about thinking, and the more I can get them to think, explore, be curious and interested, and have a desire to read and learn, the technology helps you be able to capture that and extend what they can do in the classroom,” said 1st grade teacher Pelekis.

Classroom Barriers

Needless to say, incorporating digital skills into early reading is easier in some situations than others.

For starters, there’s the issue of access to digital devices. Many teachers said they simply don’t have the internet-connected tools they need to get going with online reading.

“We do have iPad carts and laptop carts, but teachers have to sign up to use them, so you have to work around everyone else’s schedule,” said Lisa Maucione, a reading specialist for the Dartmouth public schools in Massachusetts, who also attended the digital-literacy institute at URI. “And if there’s testing, testing is the priority.”

But Turner said devices are the least of teachers’ problems. “Almost everybody can get at least one device in the classroom whether through grants via DonorsChoose or from the district,” she said. And students can learn the basics they need when a teacher projects the device on a screen and models how to use it.

A bigger issue is that teachers feel hamstrung by policies that don’t necessarily promote digital reading, some said. Standardized tests do take place on computers now in most states, but they don’t measure authentic digital skills, such as navigating websites and using search engines. And in many cases, because authentic online reading tasks aren’t being assessed, teachers in tested grades may not prioritize teaching them.

In addition, many elementary teachers are uncomfortable with their own technology skills, which makes them hesitant to start digital reading with students.

“For the most part, we were not trained as educators to teach kids who are reading in digital spaces—that’s not part of most teacher-prep courses,” said Bass, the innovation coordinator in Chesterfield. “We fall back and rely on the way we were taught, and that’s a barrier.”

There are also some mindsets that hold teachers back from teaching digital reading. “I’ve been in classrooms where it’s not happening at all,” said Ziemke, the 1st grade teacher and consultant. “There are people that are waiting it out [until they leave teaching] or saying, ‘I’m going to go to a school that’s not as techy.’ ”

And some educators are—understandably—still attached to the idea of falling in love with print books.

“There’s still something very magical about holding a book and being able to flip the page in your hands,” said Hale. “But reading isn’t just reading print text anymore. Reading is reading the world.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 09, 2016 edition of Education Week as How Should Elementary Schools Teach Reading in an Age of Computers?


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
Challenging the Stigma: Emotions and STEM
STEM isn't just equations and logic. Join this webinar and discover how emotions fuel innovation, creativity, & problem-solving in STEM!
Content provided by Project Lead The Way

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Reading & Literacy How One District Moved to a 'Knowledge-Building' Curriculum: 3 Key Takeaways
Don't expect teachers to be experts in every subject, and make sure to address comprehension strategies, too, say district leaders.
4 min read
First grade students illustrate a story they wrote together in Megan Gose’s classroom at Moorsbridge Elementary School in Portage, Mich., on Nov. 29, 2023.
First grade students illustrate a story they wrote together in Megan Gose’s classroom at Moorsbridge Elementary School in Portage, Mich., on Nov. 29, 2023.
Emily Elconin for Education Week
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Quiz
Quiz Yourself: How Much Do You Know About Foundational Reading Skills?
Answer 9 questions about foundational reading skills.
Content provided by WordFlight
Reading & Literacy Opinion How to Help Students With Their Writing. 4 Educators Share Their Secrets
In many classrooms, students are handcuffed by restrictive templates for assignments instead of getting to practice how to create.
13 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Reading & Literacy Spotlight Spotlight on Early Childhood Literacy
This Spotlight will help you analyze early literacy gains from tutoring, learn how science of reading can boost achievement, and more.