Friday, October 24, 2008

Reading (and writing) in the 21st Century

At the Pennsylvania Reading Association conference this week (KSRA) I listened with interest to Dr. Donald Leu, a professor of Education at the University of Connecticut, speak on Technology and Literacy. "The Internet is this generation's defining technology for reading," he told his audience of reading specialists, literary coaches, and language arts teachers. "We place our students at risk if they're not prepared."

To be honest, I hadn't thought about the skills that students need to decode websites. Dr. Leu was quick to fill in my knowledge gap. "First a student must be able to look at a website and see who wrote the material and discover the author's bias," he told us. He demonstrated this by showing what search results for Martin Luther King turned up. The first Google hits were websites for bookstores which would not give students the information they sought.

Once a seemingly suitable website was located, Dr. Leu pointed out that student researchers must find out who hosts the site so that they can discover the author's bias in presenting the material. This would prompt critical evaluation and discussion in the classroom. He emphasized the two reading skills which are exercised at this point: locating information and then evaluating it. New literacies of online reading comprehension include identifying important information, reading to synthesize the information, and reading to connect answers to other material. Visual aids such as photos and videos can aid comprehension, particularly for slow learners.

Obviously there are issues with online reading. Students must go beyond Wikipedia searches (although as a novice wiki user there is a definite place for wikis in the classroom- my wiki at shows what I presented at KSRA). But wikis can be edited and thus they are less reliable as a source of information. Teachers must make sure that students are reading in depth and not simply scanning a site, and of course when it comes to writing, there are plagiarism issues with a "cut and paste" mentality.

By the way, did you know that you can have your students filter their work through a website such as which checks a document for originality? I heard of this site the day before KSRA, when my friend's teenagers told me they had to submit their papers through this website before turning them into their teachers.

Check out New Literacies Reading Lab at the University of Connecticut. Dr. Leu is the director of a team who researches the new reading comprehension and learning skills that 21st century students will need as technology changes the nature of our classrooms.

Online reading leads to online writing (e-mail, blogs, wikis, Facebook, etc) and as a writing aficionado, how can I argue with that? After all, this is the 21st century.

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