The Impact of Technology on Reading Practices for 21C Learners

Peer reviewed article


Alyson Simpson is an Associate Professor in English Literacy Education at the University of Sydney.

Maureen Walsh is Professor of Literacy Education at the Australian Catholic University, Strathfield Campus

Seeking stability on a moving platform

The challenge for school classrooms and libraries has been not when to respond to the digital revolution, but how to respond. When we speak of making connections between classrooms, we most commonly mean virtual connections to create networked learning opportunities. In schools where progressive moves have been made, students are familiar with multiple ways of seeking information, communicating new ideas and working collaboratively. Where these kinds of learning opportunities exist, we often see signs of what Linda Darling Hammond would call ‘intellectualinquiry, hands-on projects and activity-based curriculum’(Hammond, 2011, p. 3). Research to identify how wide these practices are is still in its early stages, so the impact of teaching reading in the digital environment is largely unknown.

This paper reports on a small scale project that investigated the ways digital technology had been integrated into reading lessons. We know that the growth in embedding technology into the classroom has been fast paced. We also know that, as technology develops faster than we can keep up, the growth in appropriate professional development lags behind. Leu set the challenge in 2004 asking for data to direct future developments in education, and stating that access to technology was not the difficulty to solve, rather what we should consider more carefully is ‘the thoughtful use of powerful new technologies for literacy’ (2004, p. 24).

Based on their years of observing teachers working with technological change, the researchers knew, if they framed up a study that took them into classrooms to observe teachers, they would find good examples of thoughtful practice. They were keen to collect evidence to frame up a broader picture of the impact of technology on reading practices.

As concepts of literacy are continually in flux due to constant shifts in learning design, it was considered timely to assess the flexibility of teachers’ pedagogy to see how they dealt with this complex reality in the every day demands of working with their students. The research based evidence could then inform further large scale studies that could support future decision making processes at a school or system wide level. Thus, the research project grew out of a concern that all the added ICT extras with bonus buzz sounded wonderful, but there was a risk that teachers could become so focused on incorporating technology that the balance between new literacies and the explicit teaching of core literacy practices would be lost. The research question became:

How do teachers plan and implement the teaching of reading in balance with the use of digital resources?


Since ICT has been introduced ‘en masse’ into classrooms, various studies have pointed to two important issues. The first issue is the gap between acquisition of technology and the establishment of suitable pedagogy (for example Dwyer, Ringstaff, & Sandholtz, 1991; Jewitt et al, 2004; Lankshear & Knobel, 2003).

Initially, in the early days of computer use, as Brown, Bryan and Brown stated, ‘Although technologychanged the classroom environment to some degree, curriculum and instruction did not change’ (2005, p. 2).

As time has gone by, teachers have employed more open ended tasks which encouraged students to explore the affordances of the internet to problem solve. This has often led to students designing multimodal texts, as active participants in the communication dialogue rather than passive receptors. Now, many teachers are beginning to integrate the use of technology into cross disciplinary teaching to allow students opportunities for learning through socially networked projects. For these teachers, classrooms have become flexible learning spaces where local and global communities of literates (Heath, 1991) can meet as students connect across time and distance. The recent Scan article by Lee showcased one particular model of a learning community at Broulee Public School that connects, not only students but also, parents and others into the learning process (Lee, 2011). For students lucky enough to be taught by innovative teachers like these, technology has brought about pedagogic change. This is not the case in all classrooms but research is continuing to determine the impact of technology on pedagogic development.

The second issue addressed in this review is the speed with which change in technology leads to changes in literacy practices. Research has encouraged teachers to be dynamic in their response to both challenge and change and to adapt their practices as new definitions of literacy shift beneath their feet and students learn to deal with digital metacognitive knowledge (Leu, et al, 2008). Initially, the term new literacies introduced a paradigm of understanding devised to alert educators to the potential of

… metalanguage that describes meaning in various realms. These include the textual and the visual, as well as the multi-modal relations between the different meaning-making processes that are now so critical in media texts and texts of electronic multimedia.

The New London Group, 2000, p. 24

However, in 2011, the term new is needed to refer to currently evolving ideas that now must be included in any conceptualisation of literacy as it continues to evolve.

Digital texts and reading

Alongside changes in technology, teachers recognise that texts have become more complicated as the potential for communication has become more interactive. These developments mean that students need to learn how to read, write, view and create across a range of semiotic systems (Coiro et al, 2008; Kress, 2003). The skills that students need to develop as they use multimodal digital texts is broader than what is needed for print based texts, yet models of learning to read have traditionally dealt with concepts of print (Clay, 1972).

A significant guide for teachers that pointed out the complexity of reading practices is Luke and Freebody’s (1999) model that set out four reading roles which encompass all aspects of reading that need to be considered when reading print text, such as decoding, comprehending and critical reading within the social context and purpose of texts. However, now when we examine what is happening in classrooms in terms of ICT, we must also be aware that there is a need for new pedagogic models for teaching reading on screen.

Although some work has been done to consider how reading on screen is different to reading print (for example Bearne et al, 2007; Labbo, 1996; Lawless & Shrader, 2008; Turbill, 2001; Walsh, 2011), a systematic approach to the teaching of reading with digital texts has not yet been developed.

As we have observed teachers in classrooms and students interacting with texts, we have seen that they are dealing with challenges placed on them simultaneously from technological and literacy evolution. Leu described the relationship between technology and literacy as transactional (2004, p.14) as he proposed changes in technology bring about changes in literacy and vice versa. In order to examine how this relationship plays out as shifts in pedagogic practices, our research collected data about literacy practices and technological provision from a range of contexts. Part of our research agenda was to model the interaction between the two dimensions. After looking closely at a large number of teaching episodes we were able to propose a descriptive model that plots interactions against twin axes of complexity.

Looking at what others have done

The aim of the research was to discover how teachers planned and implemented the teaching of reading in balance with the use of digital resources. Questions were posed such as:

  • What does interaction with technology add to a child’s reading experience?
  • Is it different kinds of reading or is it merely a broader range of physical interactions with texts and modes?

To offer some answers to the underlying issues raised by this focus, the study was designed as a close examination of the teaching of reading in Stage 2 classes in three urban primary schools from different regions in NSW. Five classes of Stage 2 students aged 8 to 10 years of age took part in the study = total of approximately 125 students. Appropriate ethics conditions were met and the five teachers who participated allowed researchers free entry to their classrooms to film literacy sessions. The researchers were able to move around different reading group activities and observe students’ engagement.

The researchers wished to collect specific examples of pedagogical approaches that teachers were using with digital technology to assist the explicit teaching of reading with print, screen based and multimodal texts with Stage 2 students. So a qualitative approach to research was taken where a rich description of the classroom context was built up through video recordings, interviews, field notes, and teacher program notes.

  1. Flip video recordings of group reading activities with some video clips of individual students engaged in reading tasks with print or digital texts. Fourteen visits to the schools were made over three school terms with a total of 99 teaching/learning episodes recorded. This video data is not intended to represent every possible teaching/learning scenario. It is used to show the scope of different kinds of pedagogy captured across the times that the researchers visited the schools.
  2. Discussion and interviews with teachers. The teachers were interviewed in Term 4 about their programming for reading, their teaching background, their understanding about the relationship between literacy and technology, and about the strategies they use to teach reading. These interviews were recorded and analysed to further inform and validate the researchers’ observations and conclusions.
  3. Field notes.
  4. Teachers’ programming documents and resources. The variety of data gave the researchers insight into the nature of students’ reading behaviour with print and digital texts as well as the balance of teachers’ explicit teaching practices to support learning about technology and reading.

Answering the same question through three different ways of looking

After collection the data set was aligned with three conceptual frameworks. Each one gave the researchers a different view so that a multidimensional perspective of reading practices was built up. First, the recorded classroom literacy events were coded using a proforma that set reading behaviours such as decoding, comprehending, responding and critiquing (Luke and Freebody, 1999) alongside evidence of the impact of technology on the students’ reading practices.

The second framework examined modes of communication. This enabled researchers to attend to the layering of semiotic systems in print based and digital texts.

As a third framework, we analysed the complete series of episodes for evidence of approaches to reading and innovation to examine the impact of technology on the students’ reading practices.

The combined coding from all three approaches achieved the purpose of recording the characteristics of instances of traditional and new reading practices where either could, but did not have to, involve the innovative use of technology. The end result provides information about the ICT skills and knowledge and reading behaviours demonstrated by students in each literacy task rated against continua of complexity. As the research focus was to investigate the balance achieved between the teaching of reading and the use of digital resources, this coding provided information to address both halves of the enquiry.

Recognising patterns in the mix

When all the data were analysed using these three frameworks, four distinct groupings emerged within the teaching/learning episodes. These groupings represent the variety of reading practices in which students engaged across the school sites and reveal the variation between traditional and newer reading practices. The four terms we are using to describe these are: traditional, transferred, transitional and transformative. These are now explained and justified with reference to specific examples.

Traditional texts and reading practices

As would be expected, teachers continued to use print based texts to engage students in reading and responding tasks. These lessons involved students responding to literary or factual texts that were related to curriculum topics they were studying. For example, one class was studying the digestive system of the human body for Science so they were required to read information texts and make notes on the names of the organs of the body and their functions. These texts involved one or two modes (for example, written text and visual) and no digital technology. Teachers usually set tasks that were drawing on literal, inferential and sometimes critical comprehension. Reciprocal reading was also applied in group tasks.

Transferred texts and reading practices

These practices occurred when digital texts were used for reading and responding in a similar way to how traditional texts have previously been used. However, they involved the transfer of print to digital context, for example, a printed text with comprehension questions could be displayed on an Interactive whiteboard (IWB).

In an activity, the IWB was used to display a proforma shaped like a hamburger to help students read an information text and identify the parts that matched sections such as topic sentence, supporting information and conclusion. All students had to do was fill in the gaps by reading and writing on the screen instead of on a sheet of paper. In such cases students used only a small range of modes, such as text and image, that could be manipulated through touch or with a mouse. In some cases sound effects may have accompanied movements on the screen.

Transitional texts and reading practices

In these cases, students were responding to digital texts that had been specially created for reading on screen to involve a wide range of modes simultaneously such as music and animated image and text.

For example, students watched a video advertisement for a popular soft drink to study the impact of the different modes of music, image and text on their feelings about the product.

Students were scaffolded to become critical readers, as they had to interpret the multiple layers of meaning being created through different modes in the digital text. We refer to these kinds of activities as transitional because students needed to use literacy and technological skills that are additional to what they need to use with paper based texts.

Transformative texts and reading practices

We identified some practices as transformative because these were when teachers made use of innovative pedagogy to ensure a strong connection between high level literacy and high level digital skills was necessary to achieve any task. For example, as part of their novel study of the Harry Potter series of books, students worked on a wiki that allowed them to share their personal response to the text with peers. The teacher and other students could access and comment on the wiki pages.

After students answered inferential comprehension questions that depended on multimodal text interpretation and required critical literacy skills at text analyst level in an interactive context, they then innovated on an episode of the original Harry Potter text to actively repurpose it and write fan fiction style narratives, always including images and sometimes including music. That is, students were engaged in responding to and/or producing digital texts in a totally different way to what could be achieved with traditional print materials. Students used multiple modes of communication and an extensive range of digital affordances to access, read, create and publish interactive texts for new audiences who could access these texts through technology and could, in turn, respond and create their own.

4T model

We refer to the four groups of traditional, transferred, transitional and transformative reading practices as the 4T model. This 4T model is illustrated in the diagram in Figure 4. The horizontal axis shows a continuum from the use of print based texts to the use of more sophisticated digital texts in terms of technology. The vertical axis illustrates students’ engagement in less complex reading practices (for example, literal comprehension) to more complex reading practices (for example, inferential, evaluative or critical comprehension).

The four quadrants represent how the four groups of reading practices clustered after the data sets were plotted on each axis. For example, the lower left quadrant represents less complex reading and technology demands while the upper right quadrant represents more complex reading and technology demands.

What have we discovered?

There are two main implications that can be drawn from our creation of the 4T model.

First, it illustrates the synthesis of the relationship between the demands of reading and the demands of the technological features of digital communication.

That is, as the research question was seeking to discover how a balance was achieved between the teaching of reading and the use of digital resources, the model provides a visible representation of that balance. It reminds us of the integrative and participatory nature of multimodal communication. This kind of modelling helps us to recognise the relationship between the way an individual reads and makes meaning with a digital text and the simultaneous processing of visual, textual, physical or other semiotic systems.

There is dynamic potential in the multiplicative (Lemke, 1998) processing of modes for communication, as in the example of the wiki that is created, read and built on with photographs, video and music; or through a podcast with detailed editing of sound and music with images and text. The integral relationship between processing texts and modes, whether image, sound or movement, means that we need new approaches to both teaching and assessing reading that are appropriate to the learning context and aligned with what has been taught.

A second implication is that the model showed us the range of practices that teachers from these particular classrooms were using and how these could be designed, and more equally balanced, for more effective use of the affordances of the technology.

The clustering of tasks revealed that there were very few instances where students were engaged in the dynamic reading and literacy learning that is possible with digital texts. For example, as shown in the fourth quadrant in Figure 4, there were not many examples of learning episodes where we could confirm that students were engaged in transformative tasks.

There were a few more that we could categorise as transitional. In fact the majority of tasks were categorised as requiring either traditional or transferred reading practices. There were two main reasons for this: access to reliable technology and, more importantly, the way teachers were able to change their pedagogy to adapt to new modes of communication.

The literature suggested that change in pedagogy would take time, as curriculum revisions usually follow in the wake of technological development (Brown, Bryan and Brown, 2005). Our results show that there has been a shift for some teachers as we predicted there would be but that there is a large proportion of old pedagogy being used with new technologies.

While we acknowledge that teaching with print text cannot and should not be replaced entirely, there is cause for concern if traditional teaching is merely transferred to digital media. Where evidence of the considered explicit teaching of reading with digital texts that Leu (2004) called for? Indeed, how can there be evidenced based practice when the evidence has not yet been collected?

As the pace of digital affordances continues to evolve through the fast release of apps for nearly every need, the theoretical basis on which we pin our planning is stretched ever thinner. Reading digital texts on screen with their rich complexity of semiosis is a challenge for which our traditional models of learning to read are not fully prepared.

There is clearly a need for further research in this area.

In the meantime, let us celebrate those examples of good practice that we can see. To those innovative teachers, teacher librarians and students who are at the front line of new concepts of learning, keep it up.

We are depending on you to lead the way while the rest of us catch up. Let us use our learning networks, our professional development teams, and our reflective conversations to share our discoveries so we can get a more detailed view of a very complex terrain. We need to keep examining practice to ensure that pedagogy develops which recognises the potential of integrating technology with traditional approaches to teaching reading.

What next?

This research study offers insight into the need for synergistic approaches to the teaching of reading to suit 21st century technology. The 4T model is a framework that has been derived from a small study that analysed classroom episodes over one school term where students were engaged in reading print and/or digital texts. The study needs to be replicated in other contexts with other students. However, the model has enabled the authors to discriminate between the pedagogy and the learning associated with the different tasks. For this reason we argue that it is a new way of looking at the way reading is taught within contemporary classrooms and we invite comments from educators and educational researchers as to the helpfulness of this framework.

[Editor’s note: The authors wish to acknowledge the support of the Catholic Education Office (CEO) Sydney and to particularly thank the teachers and students for their participation in this ongoing research.]

References and further reading

Bearne, E., Clark, C., Johnson, A., Manford, P. & Mottram, M. 2007, Reading on screen, United Kingdom Literacy Association, Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, UK.

Clay, M. 1972, The early detection of reading difficulties: A diagnostic survey with recovery procedures, 2nd edn,Heinemann, Portsmouth, NH.

Coiro, J., Knobel, M., Lankshear, C. & Leu, D. J. 2008, Handbook of research on new literacies, Lawrence Erlbaum,Mahwaw, NJ.

Brown, J., Bryan, J. & Brown, T. 2005, 'Twenty-first century literacy and technology in K-8 classrooms', Innovate, vol. 1, no 3.

Dwyer, D. C., Ringstaff, C. & Sandholtz, J. H. 1991, 'Changes in teachers' beliefs and practices in technology-rich classrooms', Educational Leadership, vol. 48, no. 8, pp.45-52.

Hammond, L. 2011, 'The service of democratic education', The Nation, 21 May, accessed 14 January 2018.

Heath, S. B. 1991, 'The sense of being literate: Historical and cross-cultural features', in Handbook of reading research, eds R. Barr, M. Kamil, P. B. Mosenthal & P. D. Pearson

Longmans, White Plains, NY, pp.3-25.

Jewitt, C., et al 2004, The interactive whiteboards, pedagogy and pupil performance evaluation: An evaluation of the Schools Whiteboard Expansion (SWE) Project: London Challenge, Institute of Education, University of London, UK.

Kress, G. 2003, Literacy in the new media age, Routledge, London.

Labbo, L. 1996, 'A semiotic analysis of young children’s symbol making in a classroom computer center', Reading Research Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 4, pp.356-385.

Lankshear, C. & Knobel, M. 2003, New literacies: Changing knowledge in the classroom, Open University Press, Buckingham, UK.

Lawless, K. A. & Schrader, P. G. 2008, ‘Where do we go now? Understanding research on navigation in complex digital environments’, in Handbook of new literacies, eds, J. Coiro,

M. Knobel, C. Lankshear & D. J. Leu, Lawrence Erlbaum, Mahwaw, NJ.

Lee, M. 2011, ‘The networked school community and Broulee Public School’, Scan, vol. 30, no. 3, pp.24-31.

Lemke, J. 1998, ‘Metamedia literacy: transforming meanings and media’, in Handbook of literacy and technology, eds, D. Reingking, M. McKenna, L. Labbo & R. Keiffer, Lawrence

Erlbaum, London, pp.283-301.

Leu, D. J., Corio, J., Castek, J., Hartman, D. J., Henry, L. A. & Reinking, D. 2008, ‘Comprehension instruction: Research-based best practices’, in eds, C. Collins-Block & P. S. R., Comprehension instruction: Research-based best practices, Guildford Press, London.

Leu, D. J., Kinzer, C. K., Coiro, J. & Cammack, D. W. 2004, ‘Toward a theory of new literacies emerging from the internet and other information and communication technologies’, in

eds, R. B. Ruddell & N. Unrau, Theoretical models and processes of reading, 5th edn, International Reading Association, Newark, DE.

Luke, A. & Freebody, P. 1999, ‘Further notes on the four resources model’, in Reading Online, accessed 14 January 2018.

New London Group, 2000, ‘A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures', in eds, B. Cope & M. Kalantzis, Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures, Macmillan, Melbourne.

Turbill, J. 2001, ‘Getting Kindergarteners started with technology: The story of one school’, in Reading Online, vol. 5, no.1.

Walsh, M. 2011, Multimodal literacy: Researching classroom practice, e:lit, Sydney.

Keywords: literacy; multiliteracies, peer reviewed article, research

How to cite this article: Simpson, A. & Walsh, M. 2012, ‘The impact of technology on reading practices for 21C learners’, Scan 31(1)

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