Literacy Crossroads

Metaphors take the mind on a journey. They map out understandings by comparing the known to the unknown through an exploration of the senses. In many ways, the process of meaning making follows this format of introspection. As educators and researchers we often embark on this journey of meaning making by examining literacy and learning metaphorically. As the Internet becomes more integral to daily life literacy educators find themselves at a crossroad, and teachers must address the meeting of technology and literacy (Selfe, 1999) by metaphorically shining a light on the many paths to come.

Today, we still look to the metaphors of roads and journeys to luminate our lack of knowledge about literacy and learning. Nowhere is this truer than at the intersection of technology and literacy. Long before the Internet became known metaphorically as the information superhighway, Kozma (1994) and Clark (1994) debated the role of technology and learning with the metaphor of a truck traveling as a simple delivery system of knowledge. This metaphor, today, is invalid because the Internet, as a text, empowers the learner. The Internet’s complexities and challenges put our students at the crossroads of learning everyday. They not only take knowledge from the truck, but students drive the truck, and choose their path, while simultaneously having the option to rewrite the maps for other to use. All of this is done at lightning speed. For successful cartographers and navigators the Internet enables, what Jewish traditions long ago labeled, “Kefitzat ha-Derach,” or a jumping of the roads (Encycolpedia Mythica, 2007). Unfortunately for other students who do not have the skills, strategies, and dispositions to read the Internet they can be lost (Henry, 2007) at the crossroads.

The Internet, and other Internet Communication Technologies, have placed literacy at a crossroad not seen since Gutenberg invented the printing press (Leu, Kinzer, Corio & Cammack, 2004) and almost every aspect of life, learning, and literacy has felt the pervasive affects as the amount of information and images explodes. Educators, much like Trivia, and her Greek cousin goddess of the crossroads, Hekate (Encyclopedia Mythica, 2007) must oversee three roads of change constantly being paved by the Internet. Our roads as educators like our mythological predecessors still link the past, the present, and the future, but we must also understand how the Internet affects curricular, instructional, and assessment practices in the literacy classroom.
Literacy at the Crossroads

Literacy, has always stood at the crossroad, with a fixed gaze set on the past, the present, and the future. In fact reading and writing has always been about change, and today this shift occurs as words leap from the page to screen. Yes, humanity has come to this crossroad before…when text shifted from the scroll to the page. However, it took over a century to adopt the book, and the shift to the Internet has occurred in only a decade (Hartman, 2007). Our students echo this quick metamorphosis as they live in a world where the Internet has become the dominant text, and as learners they must adapt by developing new skills for reading and writing.
Internet as a Text

Recent reports (National Endowment of the Arts, 2007) sound alarm bells about the state of reading, but these reports ignore the reality that the Internet has become the dominant text. First of all, the Internet, with over 1.2 billion users currently online (Internet World Stats, 2007) has quickly become the most read text of today’s youth. Second students today spend an average of 48 minutes a week reading online compared to 43 minutes a week reading offline (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005). Furthermore 70% of students turn to the Internet as their primary source of information (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2001). All of these signs point to a road where students will need new literacy skills to comprehend complex and always changing texts of the Internet .
Adaptations to Reading and Writing

Many researchers have begun to add street signs at the crossroads of literacy and the Internet. These efforts are often framed by a new literacies perspective (New London Group, 1996), which recognizes that multitudes of emerging and constantly evolving texts require multiliteracies. The complexity of these changes has brought together a confluence of researchers from literacy, anthropology, sociology, and linguistics (Tierney, 2009) and therefore the concept of new literacies acts as an umbrella that encompasses many of these diverse perspectives. These explorations in new literacies mostly unite under four principles: (a) technologies require new skills, strategies, dispositions, and social practices; (b) citizenship in a global community require new literacies; (c) new literacies evolve with their defining technologies; and (d) researchers and educators must examine new literacies from multiple points of view (Coiro, Knobel, Lankshear & Leu, in press).

Reading researches, under this umbrella, have examined the crossroad of the Internet and literacy by developing a new literacies of online reading comprehension perspective (Leu et al., 2004). This lens defines online reading comprehension as an inquiry process that requires: “skills, strategies, and dispositions necessary to … use the Internet and other ICT’s to identify important questions, locate information, analyze the usefulness of that information, synthesize information to answer those questions, and then communicate the answers to others” (Leu, 2006p. 1).
The model of online reading comprehension differs from traditional reading comprehension because students must approach reading differently as they and not the author construct the text (Eagleton & Dobler, 2007). First searching for information based on reading that begins with a questions is a fundamentally different reading task (Dreher & Guthrie, 1990; Taboado & Guthrie, 2006 ) and students must continuously ask questions as they construct the texts they read online. This, of course, is further compounded when students who can not effectively search for information become bottlenecked (Henry, 2006), and unable to comprehend online texts. Second the locating of information within a text requires new navigational skills (Lawless and Schraeder, in press;). Third reading online requires greater evaluation, and very few students (Coiro, 2003) engage in this activity. Fourth synthesizing information from a variety of online genres with varying validity becomes increasingly complicated with online texts (Hartman, 2007). Finally communicating online requires young authors to constantly shift on a continuum of consumer and producer (author, 2007) while writing increasingly collaborative texts (Zaliwinski, 2007).

New Paths for Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

An examination of research and a close look at the narratives of our middle school students has revealed that literacy and the Internet have brought us to a crossroad. We are shifting from page to screen at such a rapid pace educators now stand at an intersection and must take different paths when they make curricular, instructional, and assessment decisions.


In order for our students to choose the right paths at the crossroad of the Internet and literacy, school systems need adapt their curriculum. Historically, the educational community viewed the Internet as technology issue from an information science perspective. Students interacted with the Internet in library classes where access, ethics, and evaluation were stressed and not the comprehension and communication of a new literacies perspective (Coiro & Castek, 2005). Furthermore students used technology as tool in computer classes. This model, currently found in most schools is not adequate for teaching online reading comprehension.

The Internet is not an issue of technology, but an issue for literacy classrooms. In order to teach online reading comprehension and communication students will need more than the crucial, but meager minutes allocated to screen time in library classrooms. In fact online reading comprehension needs to become a dominant factor in the language arts curriculum. The Internet, is afterall, the text our students read the most, and the first they turn to for information. Therefore it should be the primary text we teach.

Middle schools should take steps to integrate the Internet under the domain of the language arts frameworks and instruction of online reading comprehension should take place in all content classrooms. First this will require a shift in the type of texts schools purchase and provide to students. Student constructed Internet inquires must become the dominant informational text. Thus it will require a greater investment in one-on-one mobile laptops labs versus traditional textbooks. Second allocation of classroom minutes may have to be reallocated to include a minimum of ninety minutes of language arts instruction to ensure students are afforded the opportunity to build both offline and online reading comprehension and communication skills. Third curriculum writing and unit planning must encourage and hold teachers accountable for the inclusion of online reading comprehension. Finally middle schools may want to move to a model that moves the technology teacher from the lab and into a model of collaborative teaching with literacy teachers. All of these paths will require an examination of teacher development and support for teachers in the field. Educators must understand their own level of online reading comprehension and undertake the same journey students face at the crossroads of the Internet and literacy.


Teachers must also take new paths of instruction to navigate the crossroads of the Internet and technology. Boling, (2005) after completing a study of literacy and technology integration, found that teachers were apprehensive when they view technology as another component to an already crowded curriculum. Teachers can draw on the efforts of other educators and researchers to teach middle school students traditional curriculum and content by integrating technology. Such efforts do not add new components to the curriculum, but access traditional texts while also teaching students to develop multiliteracies through important inquiry learning (Harste, 2004). Two examples of instruction to teach new literacies include poetry and biography.
Poetry makes a perfect partner for instruction in multiliteracies and online reading comprehension. Kuroly (2004) discussed how using poetry and powerpoint can open new paths to learning for technophobe teachers. Tierney and Rogers (2004) detail how students can create videos of their own poetry recitings to understand literacy as a social practice.

I created a lesson to teach students about the transactional nature of literacy and technology by having students create multimedia poetry posters. Students will enjoy these and the many more ideas of educators while creating an online community of poets and also develop critical new literacies skills.
Biographies also lend themselves well for instruction in online reading comprehension.

The Hero Inquiry Project (Eagleton, Guinne & Langlais, 2003) is designed to empower students by having them choose a personal hero and then use the Internet to research the person, and then transform an Internet document to communicate to others about that hero. . According to the authors the, “hero inquiry project enables teachers to meet multiple instructional objectives and literacy standards while also integrating technology” (pg. 34). The Hero inquiry project affords students the opportunity to build online reading comprehension in a collaborative environment.

An instructional shift must also occur that moves responsibility of strategy and skill development to the learner. The New Literacies Research Lab at the University of Connecticut and the Internet Reading Reseach Group at Clemson University (TICA team) are developing a model of online reading comprehension instruction based on Palinscar and Brown’s (1984) reciprocal teaching (visit the project homepage at

The study tested a model developed through classroom integration over the last two years. Researches have noted that instruction in online reading comprehension takes a gradual release of responsibility through three phases of instruction: a) teacher led instruction; b) collaborative modeling of strategies; and c) inquiry learning. Instruction in online comprehension also differs from offline comprehension in the fact that students must take a greater responsibility of modeling strategies for more heterogeneous classrooms (Leu et al., in press). This fact, that students may become the most effective teacher in the class is the biggest crossroad educators face with instruction.


Mandated assessments guide much of the research and realities of classroom literacy instruction (Pearson, 2007) and right or wrong, online reading comprehension will never become a focus in the classroom until it is included on national and state assessments. Currently not one state test, mandated under No Child Left Behind, assesses online reading comprehension, and if the United States hopes to remain competitive this must change. After all for the first time the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) will include tasks to assess Information and Communication Technologies skills (OECD, 2007) in 2009. Sixty-two countries have recognized the importance of developing ICT skills and if America wants to transition to a global information economy we must also recognize the importance of online reading comprehension.

Efforts must also continue to develop classroom assessment of online reading comprehension. A common method to develop and assess Internet inquiry skills is the development of checklists (Fitzgerald, 1999). Researchers investigating Internet Reciprocal Teaching created checklists to act as exit measurement tools for the aforementioned three phases of IRT (download checklists at Other tools are also being constructed that assess individual performance on outcome measures. Middle school teachers must help formulate and use formative and summative assessments to measure online reading comprehension if they are to understand the challenges students face as they approach the crossroads of the Internet and literacy.


The Internet has caused such a fork in the road that as we approach the crossroad almost every aspect of human life changes. This change is not new to humanity, and educators can look at the intersection of the Internet and literacy as a crossroad: a journey taken by many before into the unknown. This road can be seen historically as a path to knowledge. At the intersection of the Internet and literacy the students and teachers are on a super highway together, and the students are often on the lead car. Travel has accelerated to such a pace that we have to prepare middle school students for online reading comprehension. Middle school teachers need to choose new paths for our curriculum, instruction, and assessment. If the literacy community does not soon address these changes students will not be “jumping the road” on the information superhighway. Instead, youth will be left stranded and singing the words of Robert Johnson, “Yeoo, standin’ at the crossroad, tried to flag a ride….Ooo eeee, I tried to flag a ride….Didn’t nobody seem to know me, babe, everybody pass me by.”

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