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Linda Sweeney

The Electronics of Teaching Developmental Reading

By Linda Sweeney, National-Louis University

Literacy has been entwined with technology since the first human being picked up a stick and scratched signs on a cave wall. Most of us are aware of the various methods used to read and write through the ages: chisels and stone tablets, brushes and papyrus, quill pens and scrolls, typeset and printing presses. It's just that we no longer connect the word "technology" to any of this equipment, though we oldsters do tend to privilege the printed page, especially if it's bound and called a book.

I refer to myself and those who are reading this article as "old" because the generations that follow us, even the kids now in elementary school, will be dealing with far more technological change in the future than we can even imagine. They may likely do as much or more reading on the Internet or via electronic devices as with printed pages. Since around 1980 or so, our society has undergone a revolution, has entered a new age of literacy (Coiro, 2003; Schmar-Dobler, 2003; Reinking, 1997). It is estimated that at least 50% of current 12-17 year olds have computers, as well as the Internet (Sutherland-Smith, 2002). Almost all jobs require computers, even car repair. With the leaps and bounds of both software and hardware, it is hard to say how "wired" we will be in just 2-5 years.

Reading is Different on the Internet

So what do computers have to do with teaching developmental coursework? As far as writing, they are pretty much integrated into the classroom in the guise of helpful word processing programs. In the case of reading, however, there has been too much emphasis on software that offers interactive skills and drills and too many debates on whether or not developmental reading should be offered completely online (considering the neediness of developmental readers, I vote for not).

Strategic reading needs to be taught to those who need it, whether the print is on a computer screen or a paper page. Developmental students require as much help reading electronic formats as they do textbooks. Just because a poor reader knows how to surf the Internet does not mean he or she fully comprehends what web sites have to say.

The look of text is different on a computer screen as any would agree who feel they must print out documents and read hard copy. This may just be clinging to old ways, as many younger individuals claim they don't need to hold paper in their hands to read. However, the sheer vastness and choices offered by the Internet add lateral movement to reading, a traditionally linear process, at least in the way book pages are organized and arranged. With their hypertext and links, computer texts are nonlinear and multi-layered.

Strategies for Teaching Electronic Reading

Good reading strategies have been outlined by Pearson, et al. (1992): (1) asking questions before and while reading, (2) determining the importance of ideas, (3) monitoring comprehension and repairing it when it breaks down, (4) synthesizing, (5) drawing inferences, and (6) activating prior knowledge. The same abilities are needed for electronic text with some particular areas of emphasis. In Reading on the Internet (2003), Schmar-Dobler stresses that reading instructors need to help students come up with specific questions for searching Internet sites in order not to be sidetracked too much by links and an overload of information.

For the same reason, Schmar-Dobler says that students particularly need to learn how to skim and scan, and she adds another reading strategy for electronic material - the ability to navigate the new format. Navigation can even be modeled in the form of an online think-aloud (Kyme, 2005). An instructor can examine a web site with a class, using an LCD projector, speaking aloud: "Oops, I don't want to go there . . . click back . . . right, there is a reference to APA style for citing email conversations. Now where do I go to find multiple authors of an article? I guess we'll have to return to the home page."

Navigation brings up the importance of text structure in reading. In my own experience, I have found that students have an easier time with textbooks and other print materials if they have learned expectations as to the organization of essays and textbooks (even portions of textbooks) beforehand. The most helpful sources for understanding the structure of text are guidelines given to authors. As a former professional writer, I was familiar with those and shared "how to write a newspaper article" and "how to plot a novel" with my students to their great interest. They liked taking an author's stance. Therefore, for reading the Internet, we might assign and go over an article on how to create a good web site.

Web sites include visuals. Sutherland-Smith (2002) says that reading instructors need to address visual literacy along with print literacy. The Internet is full of color, movement, and graphics but are these visuals just attention-grabbers or do they tell the reader something important about the text they accompany?

Thinking Critically

As they critique the layout of a web site, students also need to ascertain whether or not the site is valid and its information legitimate. Sutherland-Smith (2002) found that students tend to be more impatient with the Internet than they are with books, adopting a "snatch and grab" philosophy when they are exploring web sites. Instructors can encourage students to slow down and evaluate web sites before they go clicking around. Jim Burke offers an example of a web evaluation document in Illuminating Texts: Teaching Students to Read the World (2002) which includes questions such as: (1) who created the site? (2) when was it last updated? (3) is it affiliated with a professional organization or with a university? There is similar information on evaluating the Internet available through web sites such as from the University of

The interactivity and seeming casualness of the Internet offer more possibilities for questioning authors than regular books. With one click of the mouse, a student can usually send an email to the author or the publisher of the web site asking questions or making comments.

More Implications for Instruction

Since Internet content is primarily nonlinear and nonsequential, reading instructors can help students learn to think laterally. An example of a lateral task is creating a list of related key words and synonyms for a search (Sutherland-Smith, 2002).

We certainly don't have to give up "real" books either, at least for the moment. David Reinking (1997), a leading authority on technology and literacy recommends integrating print and electronic sources. Most text books, including developmental reading books, have web sites with helpful information. Comparing print and electronic encyclopedias is another way of bridging print and Internet sources.

Any good reading assignment, of course, should be meaningful to students (Pearson et al., 1992), rather than an isolated drill. Students can collect articles from the Internet on a self-chosen subject, map or summarize the articles, and present them in a portfolio. If the student is capable of handling it, the portfolio can be multi-media. A class can be divided into small groups in researching annotated webliographies, again on self-chosen topics. Students can email responses to the instructor and each other on literature or other readings. If equipment and software are available, some students may even be able to combine their reading and writing abilities with knowledge of computers to create their own web sites.

Students from younger generations may know more about computers than their instructors do, even if they need help with reading comprehension. The rule here is to not stand in the way - use students who know more than you do to help you and the class learn more about virtual reality. Unfortunately, most colleges and universities are not on the cutting edge of the technology revolution. They lack funds for cutting edge equipment and their faculty, educated with and entrenched in traditional text, often distrust electronic media. You will do your students and yourself a favor if you are open to learning all you can about computers.

I recently participated in a focus group on technology. Another participant, a college reading teacher, expressed her dismay that her average student would probably never appreciate Doris Lessing or crack open one of her novels. My view is that it is not important whether or not a student reads Lessing but, rather, whether he or she can read that level of text with appropriate strategies (onscreen or on a paper page) while also being able to obtain background information on Lessing/other literary authors/historical periods/related topics via the Internet so that reading such novels might be more appealing in the first place.


Burke, J. (2001). Illuminating Texts: How to Teach Students to Read the World. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Coiro, J. (2003). Reading comprehension on the Internet: What do teachers need to know? The Reading Teacher, 56, 458-464.

Kymes, A. (2005). Teaching online comprehension strategies using think-alouds. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 48, 482-500.

Pearson, P.D., Roehler, L.R., Dole, J.A., & Duffy, G.G. (1992). Developing expertise in reading comprehension. In S.J. Samuels & A.E. Farstrup (Eds.), What Research Has to Say About Reading Instruction (2nd ed., 145-199). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Reinking, D. (1997). Me and my hypertext: A multiple digression analysis of technology and literacy (sic). The Reading Teacher, 50, 626-643.

Schmar-Dobler, E. (2003). Reading on the Internet: The link between literacy and technology. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47, 80-85.

Sutherland-Smith, W. (2002). Weaving the literacy Web: Changes in reading from page to screen. The Reading Teacher, 55, 662-669.

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