When you read the recent reports about texts being read in the classroom you would conclude our students spend time lost in texts well below grade level.

Yet do we really suffer from a lack of complexity in what students read? The CCSS Appendix A cites a slew of research indicating a sliding scale of complexity. The Fordham Institute report, “Common Core In Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments,” written by Timothy Shanahan and Ann Duffett add fuel to the fire by suggesting students should not turn to popular young adult fantasy novels. The authors suggest these texts are well below the grade bands suggested in Appendix A.

However,these curricular guidelines and critiques miss a very important text. The internet. In fact the Fordham report, which analyzed the texts being assigned in schools did not mention the word internet once. I find it hard to believe that not one student was asked to utilize the internet at all for any major assignment. In fact we know from recent Pew studies that the majority of students turn to the internet as their primary information source.

The Most Dominant and Complex Text

The internet by definition is the most complex text students will encounter. Let us ignore the additional complexities caused by searching for sources. We can suspend our knowledge about building your own texts through hyperlinks. Lets overlook the challenge of evaluating and synthesizing disparate texts. While all of these qualitative features greatly increase the complexity of internet based texts we could just examine the quantitative measures.

Using the Metametrics Lexile Analyzer I searched for websites that would fall in the suggested band for fourth grade. First I used Google advanced search just to find websites at the “basic level.” All of the websites I checked were well over the 6-8 band. I then checked teacher websites, teacher created webquests, and popular kids news magazines. Once again the Lexile scores fell well above grade level.

I found the search for internet resources  that fall within suggested lexile ranges for elementary quite difficult. Does that mean we should give up? Does that mean teachers should ignore the Internet in the early grades?

No. While much of the content at the elementary grade level could hide behind paywalls we still need to prepare our youngest students to read the most complex text. Here are a few tips:

Do not Create False Dichotomies

The CCSS, especially the writing standards, require students to integrate both print and digital sources. We should do so in the classroom as well. I just worry, based on the reports cited above the internet is being viewed as a tool to deliver texts and not as text that requires new tools.

Use Apss and Websites that provide Lexile Measures

New tools and apps have emerged that can provide guidance to teachers. Newsela,in partnership with major newspaper publishers provides links to multiple articles that can be adjusted by lexile range. Subtext, an iOS app, also will select texts at specific lexile scores.

Work to Create Open Ed Resources

The Professional Learning Networks I participate in have matured greatly in recent years. Maybe we should harness this power and move beyond the reflection, sharing, and discussion we engage in. Maybe it is time to become content creators instead of content pushers.

If we note a lack of Internet sources at the 450-945 range we could band together to make these sites available. Teachers across the country set yearly growth objectives. Why not include a self study of text complexity in those goals? Elementary teachers need far greater training in text structure, the teaching of academic vocabulary, and text complexity.

If we worked together to create open resources we would not only increase our own pedagogical and content knowledge but would fill a vast void in early elementary texts that has persisted since the birth of the internet.

Teach Online Reading Comprehension

This internet thing is going to be around for awhile. It will continue to transform our literacy practices. In fact I will say it again. We need to teach our youngest students to read our most complex text. Teachers can do this.

For example I often use Google Custom Search to make a personalized search engine. I will populate it with texts my students can use. I then throw in one or two distractor websites. This allows me to teach students about relevancy and reading search results.

I have also printed out search results and webpage so we can examine multiple cases of disparate text structure.

We can also utilize our librarians. They are one of the most important teachers schools have. By working in partnership we can design units that teach content while building internet inquiry skills.

Conclusion

I highly doubt our youngest students suffer from a lack of text complexity. My quick examination, and unscientific look, of the sites teachers assign during webquests actually show the opposite. Students, even when directed by teachers who sift through search results ahead of time, encounter texts well above the suggested grade bands. This of course ignores the additional layers of complexity caused by the act of internet inquiry itself.

I do not know if the same patterns hold true in the upper grades. I am sure someone has studies the lexile ranges of the most common assigned websites. I just know that by not even mentioning the internet in our discussion of texts assigned by teacher we ignore the greatest literacy challenge our students face.

Image: By Junior Melo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Does the internet change the way readers use background knowledge? Can readers with greater inquiry skills or more open mindsets make up for a lack of background? These questions have perplexed me and have driven my educational research in the last few years.

The internet has shifted so many of our social practices and literacy acts I wonder if it also changes how we historically look at background knowledge.

Recently the role of background knowledge has come to the forefront of reading instruction. Common Core (which I do support) advocates have called for greater close reading with very little pre-teaching. The thinking is this will help alleviate differences in the reader caused by varying background knowledge. Underlying the philosophy is the idea that all meaning is contained within the text.

David Coleman, a major author of the Common Core famously stated that the meaning of a text “lies within the four corners of the text.” While I appreciate an increased focus on analytical reading with a higher frequency of informational texts I wonder what happens when meaning has no corners.

First the idea that we can eliminate any differences caused in comprehension due to differences in background knowledge collapses in the face of decades of research. Simply attaining to the text without taking opportunities to activate and build upon that which is (un)known isn’t wise.

Second texts today have no corners. Specifically the internet, a boundless space of recorded knowledge remains in constant flux as readers build their own books..

Close(d) Reading in Open Spaces

Yet these two observations are deeply connected. The role of background knowledge in predicting comprehension is one of the most stable findings in all of reading research. Yet researchers when examining meaning making in online spaces have not reached a consensus as to the role of background knowledge.

Some researchers have found background knowledge to be a significant predictor of online reading comprehension. Other researchers found opposite results. The difference usually involved including a measure of Internet use (likert frequencies).

Yet I believe the role of background knowledge shifted because those with savvy skills and open mindsets have access to unlimited knowledge. In fact many colleagues posit that opening up the Internet to allow for just in time schema creation favors comprehension. Thus students who move beyond the four corners of their original source with an open mind set may outperform students who do stay locked within the four corners of a text either physically or mentally.

Examining On Demand Knowledge Assembly

Let us turn to a few examples from my own reading experiences to demonstrate how prior knowledge can shift. I am currently building a list of public domain texts I can use and share. In two separate instances I engaged in knowledge assembly on demand.

I came across Struck it at Last by Edward Dyson. When I read the poem the optimism of the voice in the face of such hardship attracted me. Yet I knew nothing of the context. I examined a few lines of one stanza:

Here he brandished axe and maul ere
Buninyong, and after that
Fought and bled with Peter Lalor
And the boys at Ballarat.

I ended up Googling “Lalor Ballarat” and learned the poem described a miner revolt in Australia during a Gold Rush. The poem, by moving out of the four corners of text, took on new levels of meaning. I immediately gained understanding in the author’s perspective. I then went on to read about Peter Lalor.

The second example came about when I decided not to continue the Orson Scott Card Ender series after Xenocide. I read many reviews on goodreads and came across the phrase Due ex Machina. I remembered the phrase from my English classrooms and from a Simpsons episode. I had to learn more. So I once again turned to knowledge assembly on demand. My just in time schema building allowed me to realize the phrase “god from the machine” traces it roots back to Greek literary critics. Science Fiction (a genre new to me) audiences use the phrase to describe events when protagonists get out impossible situations through a mixture of machines and bad writing.

In each of the previous examples the role of background knowledge shifted. I recognized a lack of understanding than quickly filled in the gaps. In fact I not only filled in the holes but built new structures of knowledge in those holes.

We need to continue to investigate how background knowledge and internet inquiry affect our traditional view of literacy practices. We need to teach our students to savvy searchers and sifters. Finally we need to create learning opportunities.

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Videogame communities, affinity spaces, and transformative learning: Fluid and connective literacy practices in online and offline spaces
Session Participants:

Chair: Sandra Schamroth Abrams (St. John’s University)

Chair: Thomas Liam Lynch (Pace University)
Discussant: Amy Stornaiuolo (University of Pennsylvania)

Fluid Literacies: Videogaming and Related Practices
*Sandra Schamroth Abrams (St. John’s University)

Connective Literacies: Gaming, Reading, and Writing
*Hannah Gerber (Sam Houston State University)

Transformative Literacies: Using World of Warcraft to Transform Language Learning
*Jason Lee (Pennsylvania State University)

Abstract

This symposium offers a new perspective on videogaming and digital literacy, one that focuses on interconnected literacy practices that seem inherently part of videogame-based learning. Data from three separate studies reveal how adolescent students and an adult college undergraduate utilized socio-historically imbued on-and-off screen activities, honing their understanding of traditional and digital texts. The rather seamless transitions among students’ practices call attention to the ways videogaming may serve as a catalyst for fluid literacy development.

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