5 ways to integrate digital content into literacy instruction today

As Discovery Education’s senior vice president of teaching and learning, I am constantly in communication with superintendents, principals, teachers and other educators about how to improve student literacy. This conversation often emanates from a discussion on the most effective way to “go digital” while simultaneously improving the reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills of all students. During these conversations, I’ve found that while there is unanimous agreement that instruction has evolved significantly (and positively) over the last few years, technology’s influence on literacy instruction has not changed significantly.

However, it’s a fact that today’s world is a digital world and we need to ensure that we are teaching students not only the traditional comprehension and composition skills associated with paper and pencil, but also the new skills of reading and writing digital texts. After all, there are definite differences between reading a book and reading a website or writing a blog and writing a literary essay.

The effective and intentional use of digital content in literacy instruction will not only engage students, but it may also strengthen and increase their literacy development. Take, for example, Ted Hasselbring’s research on using technology to increase the achievement of struggling readers. He reminds us that we know what good reading instruction looks like; we need to find technology to support that.

At Discovery Education we have a wide variety of digital curriculum resources, including our digital textbook series, or Techbooks, that include important and useful features like changing Lexiles or reading text aloud to support students as they transact with content area text. But, those digital curriculum resources, as Hasselbring states, must be used in conjunction with good reading instruction, and for that matter, all literacy instruction.

Here are five ways that you can integrate digital content into your reading and writing instruction to foster, build and ultimately, increase the literacy skills of all of your students:

  • Use video to build the background knowledge of your students as a scaffold into complex texts or complex content. Think about some of the great novels that you read with students in your classrooms. As I reflect back on my experiences as a teacher, I’ll never forget reading aloud Esperanza Rising with my fifth graders or walking into a high school classroom where the teacher was reading the picture book Unspoken: A Story From the Underground Railroad to her students. These books have amazing stories with amazing words. Students learn a lot of history from these types of stories. However, using video clips to build their knowledge and understanding of the time periods when these stories occurred will make the literary experience richer and increase their ability to apply comprehension strategies like visualization and inferencing. Resources like Discovery Education Streaming provides teachers with thousands of video clips to pair with texts; consider using these types of curricular resources prior to reading texts or before introducing complex content to scaffold your students’ understanding. Think of it as giving your students a picture in their head on which to hang the words they are reading or hearing.
  • Develop domain-specific vocabulary through a multimodal approach. Everyone loves a good glossary! It’s one of the early skills that we teach young readers as they read informational texts. Look at the bold-faced word. What do we do with that word? I’m sure this sounds familiar. I’m also pretty sure that the experience of going to the glossary, finding the word, reading the definition and still not understanding it, is also familiar. What if, however, along with the definition, there was an image, and a video clip and an animation, or other types of media to help you understand? Vocabulary is critical to reading and writing success. As you introduce new vocabulary to your students, particularly domain-specific words like photosynthesis or peninsula, integrate different types of digital content into your instruction or consider having your students build their own digital glossaries.
  • Incorporate digital content into explicit reading instruction. In planning your next small group reading lesson, model for students how to read a digital text. How does the right navigation of a digital text help your comprehension? When do you click the hyperlink? Do you read the text first and then watch the video? These are different types of skills that teachers need to model for students and then, engage them in guided practice. However, reading a digital text is only one example of using digital content during explicit instruction. Think about teaching your students how to read a digital image or how to “read” an animation. While the skills and strategies for reading printed and digital content might be the same, how and when they are used looks different.
  • Cultivate different types of writing with digital content. Turn off the sound of a short video clip and have students write the narration. Show an animation of the water cycle and have students write the process in step-by-step format. Watch a video on how to take care of a cat and another one on how to take care of a dog, then have students write a compare and contrast piece. Literacy standards across various states require students to write narrative, informative and argumentative pieces. Digital content not only fosters these types of writing, it provides the opportunity to write in a variety of formats while differentiating the domains of focus, content, organization and style.
  • Turn students into content creators by mashing digital content with reading, writing, speaking and listening. Good readers write; good writers read. In the real world, reading, writing, speaking and listening are integrated. How do we help students learn this? Engage them in creating projects that use published digital content that is integrated with pieces they write, pictures they draw, audio or video recordings they make, etc. Troy Hicks, author of Digital Writing, Digital Teaching, calls this a “Mash-up.” These types of student content creations use all kinds of traditional literacies, but also a variety of new literacies like visual literacy, digital literacy, and information literacy.

No matter how much our technology changes our world, teaching our students to read and write will always be paramount to their future success. Processes will change; tools will change; and yes, even books will change. However, students will always need to read, write, speak, and listen. So, I encourage educators everywhere to begin to use digital content to prepare students for “new” literacies. Our students are depending on you to do so!

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