Reading digital texts.
The current emphasis on the teaching and integration of technology in the primary classroom lacks specific direction for teaching about and with digital texts although several researchers (Unsworth, 2001; Kress, 2003; Unsworth, Thomas, & Bush, 2004; Simpson, 2004; Walsh, 2006) are investigating aspects of this area. In light of the findings from the National Literacy Inquiry and its report, Teaching Reading (DEST, 2005), it is essential that further research develop evidence for the ways in which students read and learn from digital texts and how this evidence may inform both new theory and pedagogy. This paper describes a small study that aimed to investigate the way students read and navigate digital texts and whether the explicit teaching of visual grammar, with a shared metalanguage, allows students and teachers to discuss and understand digital texts.
The environment of students today is filled with digital texts. The textual shift that has occurred entails more than just distinguishing the difference between reading print-based texts and reading digital texts. Students are comfortable with the range of technology that allows them to surf the internet, send a text message or photo to a friend, or play a digital game while listening to music. They are able to multitask between a variety of digital media, simultaneously processing the various modes of print, image, movement, graphics, animation, sound and music. Such a shift in communication has many researchers contending that there needs to be a pedagogical shift so that the classroom is able to incorporate these new modes of communication (e.g. Kress & Van Leeuwen, 2001; Kress et al., 2001; Kress, 2003; Unsworth, 2001, 2003; Lankshear, Snyder, & Green, 2000; Lankshear & Noble, 2003; Lemke, 2002; Gee, 2003).
Research is at the early stages of determining the exact features that are needed for reading digital texts and how the reading process is similar to or different from reading conventional texts (Walsh, 2006). During the 1990s there was a strong move to determine the differences between reading images and reading print, and to establish image-text relations, along with attempts to develop a 'visual grammar' (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996). There have been more recent attempts to refine this visual grammar so it applies to digital or multimodal texts (Unsworth, 2001; Callow & Zammitt, 2002; Simpson, 2004; Noad, 2005).
Kress (2003) has shown that the difference between reading words and images is in the 'logic of the words' compared with the 'logic of the image'. For example, he shows that the logic of words is linear and sequential whereas the logic of an image is non-linear and non-sequential. In an analysis of the similarities and differences between reading print and multimodal texts, Walsh (2006) has demonstrated how the similarities are linked to aspects of meaning-making, whatever the type of text or purpose of the reader. She shows that the differences are in the processing of the different modes and in the affordances of these modes. In multimodal texts, compared with print-based texts, the reader will use various senses (sight, hearing, tactile, kinaesthetic) to respond to other modes. This processing may be influenced by the synchronous effects of images, colour, line, angle, position or the arrangement of these with movement, animation or sound effects. We need to theorise the interactions that occur as readers process these modes, separately or simultaneously, in a digital text.
As well as theorising the reading process with digital texts, we need to determine those modes that teachers need to be aware of to assist students in reading digital texts. We have developed some standard approaches for helping students learn to read, from developing concepts of print to word recognition and comprehension strategies, but we have not developed strategies for assisting students with reading digital texts and determining the specific skills needed. Turbill (2003) has recently been developing a framework for monitoring 'concepts of screen' with Kindergarten children and this framework is patterned on Clay's 'concepts of print' (1979). In a similar way, researchers in the US, Lefever-Davis and Pearman (2005), have added aspects of electronic criteria to running records in assessing students' reading. Further development is needed to determine whether we 'add to' theories of reading print or whether we develop quite different criteria. Currently a Special Interest Group of the United Kingdom Literacy Association is researching aspects of students' 'Reading on Screen'.
Research on reading digital texts is new and more studies have been conducted to date with the reading of CD ROMs. Unsworth (2003) has developed a detailed analysis of electronic books and CD ROM narratives. He contends that the negotiation of hypertext and hypermedia links in such texts is more likely to augment than to harm the reading process. He shows how some of the ways multimodal resources are used in digital texts can facilitate more active, reflective reading. Unsworth emphasises the importance of educators mediating the interaction between new digital media and conventional text forms. Asha (2005) has shown how a classroom teacher can integrate the reading and use of websites into teaching children's literature.
Studies in the United States have highlighted advantages and disadvantages of students' reading on screen, particularly CD ROMs. For example, Doty et al. (2001) have shown that visuals, graphics and sound effects assist prediction, comprehension and vocabulary knowledge. Mathews (1996) found that children engaged in richer storytelling after reading CD ROM stories while Lefever-Davis and Pearman (2005) found that CD ROMs assisted children's decoding of words and aided self-confidence in pronunciation, while the self-selection features of programs meant children were in control of their own learning. Disadvantages were that children became dependent on electronic features for decoding, they were distracted by hot spots or gaming features not linked to the storyline, and there was often frustration with electronic features if there was slowness in animations or in the transfer of electronic pages. More recently web-based programs seem to have taken over from CD ROMs, although the quality of many of these varies. Presumably these will improve with the sophistication of technology and with the possibilities of podcasting and e-books.
In this project we worked with teachers in five schools, who selected small groups of students to be reading digital texts. The focus of the study was to examine how the students were reading digital texts and whether an understanding of visual grammar contributed to the reading process with digital texts. Due to the highly visual nature of digital texts it was thought that drawing students' attention to the visual devices used by the creators of digital texts would better equip them to meet the reading/viewing challenges of digital texts. By giving teachers and students a shared metalanguage it was hoped that clear discussion of digital texts would also be facilitated.
The methodology chosen was a case study in three Stage 3 primary classrooms involving sessions with teachers and observations of small groups of students. Five teachers, working in pairs where possible, volunteered for the project and met several times with the researchers. The study developed in three stages:
Stage 1: One of the researchers observed and videotaped students as they read and navigated digital texts that teachers were incorporating for research within specific curriculum areas of English, Science and HSIE. These were all non-fiction sites that included an author study of Chris van Allsburg, a study of Antarctica, work on the theme of 'Built environments and Bridges', and research on the discovery of gold in Australia (see References for these websites).
Stage 2: Teachers participated in a session with the researchers on both Luke and Freebody's four 'reading practices' (2002) and ways of reading digital texts through the metalanguage of visual grammar (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996). Terms were explained such as use of colour, angles, perspective framing, salience, vectors, reading pathway, given and new, demand and offer. Teachers were encouraged to then teach this visual grammar in lessons with their students using digital texts.
Stage 3: After teachers indicated that they had been using these approaches in their teaching, one of the researchers returned to the same classrooms, observed and videotaped students reading and navigating different websites (see References for sites on Anzacs, Life Saving, and authors Roald Dahl and Libby Hathorn).
In classroom observations and analysis of video data, the researchers were searching for answers to the following two questions:
* What specific aspects of 'reading' were evident in students' processing of digital texts?
* Did the students' 'reading' and navigation of digital texts change after the teachers were given professional development on the metalanguage of visual grammar?
In the analysis of data, the researchers examined student interactions with digital texts using the following criteria:
* Evidence of aspects of the 'reading process' using Luke and Freebody's (2002) four reading practices of coding, semantic, pragmatic and critical practice. Luke and Freebody's (2002) criteria are well established as covering all aspects of the reading process with conventional texts. It is a relevant model as it is not tied to one particular pedagogy for teaching reading but looks at the different practices required for reading, including decoding, different levels of comprehension as well as critical and social responses to texts.
* Evidence of specific ICT skills that were needed and used as students interacted with digital texts. These are discussed separately in order to consider the level of reading response that students engaged in, and to consider how similar or different reading practices might be when combined with the ICT skills that are needed when engaging with digital texts compared with traditional texts.
* Students' use of the metalanguage of visual grammar after the researchers' session with teachers and the teachers' subsequent classroom work on visual grammar.
The analysis is comparative and interpretive. Findings in relation to the two questions are now discussed in relation to 'Stage 1' and 'Stage 3' of the study.
Discussion of findings
Analysis of Stage 1: Students' reading practices with websites
In each classroom teachers had provided students with questions and tasks, akin to 'web quests', that would lead them in their research using the different websites. Similar patterns were evident in each of the classes with most responses being evidence of coding, semantic or pragmatic practice combined with ICT skills needed for the tasks. There was no evidence found of critical practice or of the use of any metalanguage related to visual grammar or an awareness of how the visuals were constructing meaning. Samples of students' responses in relation to the reading practices and use of ICT skills are summarised in Table 1 then discussed.
Evidence of coding practice
As students navigated each website they needed to decode information on search engines or a home page to find the information they needed and to know where to go from the home page. There were different types of decoding needed as a website requires use of images, icons, hyperlinks, navigation of the home page and links to other pages. Students found out that typing and spelling the URL correctly was an essential coding practice for using a search engine. Other associated skills were using keyboard shortcuts, using drop down boxes and using the 'Home' link/icon, using 'highlight, copy and paste' to put unknown words into a search engine, clicking up/down arrows to scroll text, minimising or maximising pages/windows, scrolling, clicking, reading the code of coloured bars across the bottom of a screen, moving to a new site through logo/banner, changing volume settings, using 'back' icon, using delete key as a short cut to go back, identifying the end of a page, using the properties of 'right click' and moving between open windows using a task bar. Students who were working together in pairs or small groups read aloud to each other. Some students used their fingers to trace along the screen or others would point to where they wanted another student to click on the mouse. Often students would spell words to each other when using search engines. These could all be described as 'coding practice', since the students were involved in decoding each website text and learning its patterns and conventions.
Decoding of digital texts therefore involved the integration of ICT skills with the decoding of words, images and graphics. The use of key words to search in this context differs from searching using key words in a book. An important question emerged for the researchers: Does this process involve the traditional reading practice of decoding combined with ICT skills? Or does the reading of digital texts such as websites involve a new way of reading? If this is a new way of reading, as ongoing research suggests, how do we describe and theorise this process?
Decoding was occurring differently in the way images were used on screen. The salience of images and graphics was significant in the way screens were accessed and navigated. Although at this stage students or teachers were not using any metalanguage related to the visuals, it was apparent they were led to particular aspects on a screen depending on the colour, size, animation, and/or positioning to locate particular information. Sometimes enlarging images was of benefit to students and students were attracted by the colourful bars of an index. Students' navigation of all sites demonstrated the salience of hyperlinks, thus showing the crucial importance of these links as part of the reading of digital texts. This occurred particularly with the Antarctica site, which had many links from the home page to different types of information. In observing student exploration of all sites, it was apparent that images were usually more salient as were hyperlinks, well known images, or using the first hit on the list. Sometimes a familiar cover or a book would become salient if presented on a screen. Movement or animation also became salient: as a student commented in one instance, 'Look at the little feet wiggling'. Often students expected movement of some images or graphics and would comment: 'It's not moving' as they moved the mouse over an image.
Evidence of semantic practice
Drawing on background knowledge, different levels of understanding, and making intertextual links are part of semantic practice. In this study students' semantic practice was evoked not just by text, but also by images, text, hyperlinks and other digital features. Semantic practice was evident in students' comments during their navigation and use of websites. For example, in the site for author Chris van Allsburg, students answered literal questions about the author with information from the text and talked about their own experience of the author and his books. Engagement with the texts caused students to call to mind previous experiences of texts or to make intertextual links. For example when viewing the Antarctica site the image on the screen prompted a student to react and tell a story beginning with the comment, 'Ooh. They're in the frozen ice. [Shiver] Ooh. Just imagine falling in that ice and something wrapping around your leg. I'd scream.'
Students' comments showed they could scan a site for relevant information and that they could locate relevant key words on a web page to correlate with questions they had been given, choosing information from a site to copy down or put into their own words. Alternatively they would reject sites that seemed irrelevant, as shown in comments such as, 'We clicked on a site that didn't say anything about tourism,' or 'I don't think that's something we need.' Many students found it difficult to understand how to refine a search. Students scanned 'hit lists' of search engines for relevant information but would commonly use the first hit on the list, just working from top to bottom, suggesting literal understanding prompted by the salience of the first item on the list. At other times students would choose which sites from a hit list to visit. Inferring was evident when students decided on relevance of information and rejected sites. For example, with the Bridge site, as students scanned 'hit lists' they were refining search criteria with comments such as, 'This one might be more about materials they use'. In some instances students made connections between a book read and relevant websites on a search engine hit list.
Images influenced students' interpretations. In the Gold website, the images provided a large amount of information about the size and shape of gold nuggets. Children decided that this site was 'a good one' because the images were highly realistic. In this site students looked more closely at images and commented on images regarding their interpretation of the issue it was illustrating. Students used pictures and labels to gather information--for example: 'The sun comes up at 10.40am'--and were also able to generalise: 'Most days the sun rises at 10.30am.' Students made connections between labels and images: 'That's what it looks like now,' or made comparisons between pictures: 'It hasn't changed all day.' In one case, one student wanted to write the comment: 'It's windy there,' whereas the other child asked 'How can you tell? It's not moving.' These comments reveal the students were using the images to infer, drawing conclusions or correcting a conclusion. Students were using picture/text correlation to make inferences about the features of bridges and responded to the modality in the colour of images to gauge relevance/usefulness of the site for gathering information about the appearance of certain bridges and features. Students used diagrams and labels to gather literal information as diagrams triggered prior knowledge of structures and construction. For example, it prompted one child to recount a science program he had been watching. Students were inferring/generalising using information from a number of diagrams.
Images were significant in the Chris van Allsburg site. The use of an image of one of his picture book covers on the site became a salient part of the home page and prompted one student to ask: 'Is he an artist or an author?' This showed that information was being gathered from the image as much as from the written text. Students' oral responses showed a clear enjoyment of the experience. Boys viewing the Chris Van Allsburg site expressed their enjoyment of the task through comments such as: 'Cool sculptures.' One student asked another student for his opinion of sculptures then offered his own interpretation. However, as stated previously, there was no evidence through all our observations of the students evaluating or critiquing the construction of the websites.
Evidence of pragmatic practice
The understanding of the social purpose of texts is part of pragmatic practice. The research-based activities set by teachers afforded opportunities for students to use digital texts for purposes other than those specifically set by the teacher while supporting their work. For example, students used Google definition searches to locate the meaning of unfamiliar words from web pages, to help them make sense of the digital text they were reading. Students used technical words from diagram labels to create their own written text explaining features of the topic they were investigating, such as bridges.
Students gave their opinion of a site based on what they had expected to see or how they expected to be able to interact with the page and shared their discoveries with other groups, as was shown in comments such as 'It's to the right side of the page,' 'Let's go to the Home,' 'Click on Science,' or 'We found something called fact files on the left.' Other pragmatic practices that arose from the use of digital texts included those that were an extension of the set reading/viewing or were somehow prompted by the set activity. Some students participated in the game playing aspect of a site.
Analysis of Stage 3: Students' use of visual grammar when reading websites
As a result of the explicit explanations of visual grammar from their teachers, students seemed more aware of the constructedness of the digital texts they viewed. Their understanding of visual concepts underpinned their discussions although their confidence with terminology was still developing. There was a marked increase in the incidence of metalanguage use during conversation with the teacher, researcher and each other about their work. Students used metalanguage such as 'layouts, centred, left to right, top to bottom, symbol, vectors, line, salience' during discussion of what had been learnt. This metalanguage did not occur very often as part of students' own discussions about websites, however. Their talk was more focussed on the task of locating information. When asked, they could apply their knowledge of visual grammar to the page they were viewing but the use of metalanguage was more artificial at this stage of their learning. Table 2 shows examples that were typical of the range of responses.
As the responses in Table 2 show, students' repertoire of metalanguage included some visual grammar terminology. They were beginning to break the design code of the text and in the process they were using semantic, pragmatic practice and some aspects of critical practice as they looked more closely at how meanings were conveyed through a visual, digital text.
Two girls were able to explain why an aspect of a digital text was salient, although they did not use the term 'salience'. They used their knowledge of size of font and colours that attracted their attention. Children's use of left to right, top to bottom layouts and salience was observable as they 'read' the texts they were using. This seemed to be unconscious on their part. They were able to describe these visual aspects when scaffolded through questioning by the researcher. When questioned about layout by a researcher, two boys were able to explain the layout of a page they were viewing: 'It's left to right because it has the links on the left and the writing on the right.' Another student commented: 'This one is top to bottom. And it has pictures that are hyperlinks.' The second part of the comment shows the extreme salience of hyperlinks that quickly attract the attention of students, although they are not recognising the manner in which such aspects guide their reading of the digital text at this stage of their learning.
Teacher input varied from direct instruction of visual grammar terminology to teachers using their new knowledge of visual grammar in their choice of texts and activities for students. The second round of observations showed that students who were given direct instruction on visual grammar not only began to use the metalanguage, but were also becoming more aware of the constructedness of texts. This change was revealed in comments such as a comment on layout: 'This page has lots of lines separating the paragraphs. So it's much easier to read. If it was just like that you wouldn't be able to see it properly;' and a comment on the effect of top/bottom and left/right layouts: 'It's a lot easier doing it like that than having hyperlinks in the middle of nowhere or just at the top having heaps more because then it would be really confusing.' Other comments showed awareness of the authors or constructors of a website, for example: 'Whoever constructed this website ...', and 'The creators made the web page top to bottom (layout) and they used movement, like that, and they used clear, bright colours to attract your attention.' When students were talking about the hyperlinks and the movement on the Roald Dahl, they compared them with other websites: 'It makes you in control of the website,' 'We can do what we want ... you can choose what you want to go to,' and 'It makes it more interesting to search around yourself.' Students had some time to begin developing their own website designs. This made them more aware of aspects of layout, colour and salience, as shown in comments in Table 3.
Developing a description of digital reading practices
Using Luke and Freebody's framework of four reading practices (2002) was helpful in this study to analyse the different ways of reading that students engaged in as they responded to digital texts and to compare students' responses in Stage 3 with those in Stage 1. Observation of students throughout the study has prompted the researchers to apply these observations to Luke and Freebody's framework as shown in Table 3.
Table 3 presents an initial attempt to suggest a framework for the reading practices that occur in the reading of digital texts. This framework is principally focusing on the reading of websites and does not include sound or movement that occurs in some sites and in other digital texts such as e-literature, film or gaming. There is much that needs to be further researched in this area, particularly to what extent the metalanguage of visual grammar, and ongoing research in this area by others, can be applied to the reading of digital texts.
Although this small study does not offer enough evidence to be generalisable, it offers insights that contribute to the corpus of knowledge about the reading of digital texts. The study revealed that students in the study were highly motivated to work with digital texts and they were able to use basic ICT skills to navigate sites. However, their reading responses and understanding seemed to be at a literal, often superficial, level with little evidence of inferring, evaluating or critical reading. Several questions arise from these observations. Are we as educators assuming that students will transfer reading practices for the reading of print-based texts to digital texts? Do these reading practices need to be more explicitly taught with digital texts? Do teachers know how to do this? Is there a different way of teaching needed for processing digital modes? These are all questions that need further investigation.
Even though students of today are growing up in the midst of sophisticated digital communication, they need a great deal of understanding of the messages and knowledge being created through different modes of communication, as well as the ability to discriminate and critique these messages. The small scope of the study did not provide enough evidence to support our premise that the teaching of the metalanguage of visual grammar would assist the reading of digital texts. There is much more research needed to understand whether the reading of digital texts requires a new theory of reading and, if so, how pedagogy needs to be developed to incorporate the reading of digital texts within the curriculum
We wish to acknowledge and express our appreciation to the teachers and students who participated in this project. We thank the Catholic Education Office Parramatta, the School of Education (NSW), and the Australian Catholic University, for their contribution to this research.
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www.rochedalss.qld.edu.au/anzac.htm www.anzacs.net/AnzacStory.htm www.dimdima.com/science/science.asp www.royallifesaving.com.au/ www.lifesaving.com.au/home/home.cfm www.anzacsite.gov.au/ www.wiltonlibrary.org/kids/science.asp www.roalddahlmuseum.org/ (Roald Dahl author site) www.matsuo-bridge.co.jp/english/bridges/index.shtm (bridge site) www.chrisvanallsburg.com (Chris van Allsburg author site) www.aad.gov.au/ (Antarctica site) www.libbyhathorn.com/lh/index.asp (Libby Hathorn author site)
Table 1. Observations Stage 1. Reading Practices observed Examples of students' comments Coding practice 'See what's there'; 'it comes up Involved searching, scrolling, itself'; 'we'll go back to the pointing to menu bars and key back file thing'; 'look-- words, using 'back' command to 'transport' is there'; 'nothing on navigate between screens, reading that page, or that'; 'I want to aloud to each other, point to, see that bit'. tracing on screen with finger while identifying the titles or words for their 'topic'. Semantic practice 'I chose this one because it said Involved using key words, locating about him being a governor'; 'we information, identifying main read the summary below the web ideas, obtaining facts, a little address and it looked like what we use of interpreting, inferencing. were looking for'. 'This site might be more about materials they use'. Students identified 'triangles' in bridge diagram and identified this with aspects of structure. Pragmatic practice 'We searched Google'; 'I want to Used 'Google' & other search see what's on that screen'. 'Let's engines; online dictionaries; go to the home page'. 'Look at the navigating between sites; feet wiggling'. Students used enlarging images; printing print out of one web page to sections. Attracted by animation. compare with another site. Critical practice No examples. Table 2. Observations Stage 3. Reading Practices observed Examples of students' comments Coding Practice 'Lines are used'; 'there are bright colours'; 'this one is top to bottom'; 'it's left to right because it has links on the left and writing on the right'; 'it has pictures that are hyperlinks'. Semantic Practice 'The picture shows us what sort of materials the buildings made out of'. Pragmatic Practice 'This page has lots of lines separating the paragraphs. So it's much easier to read. If it was just like that you wouldn't be able to read it properly'. Students began creating their own web pages and PowerPoints: 'we've been making our own web pages and using top to bottom and left to right layout and vectors'. Critical Practice 'The creators made the web page top to bottom [layout] and they used movement and they used clear, bright colours to attract your attention'. 'It makes you in control of the website'; 'We can do what we want ... choose where we want to go'; 'The heading is the most salient thing on the page because the creator wants to emphasise the name of the author'. Table 3. Digital reading practices: Evidence derived from the study. Coding Practices Semantic Practices operational ICT skills, scanning, exploring web texts for a specific scrolling--or 'concepts of screen' purpose, understanding, inferring (Turbill, 2003) using a search engine--key words decoding text, images, diagrams, interpreting symbolic meanings graphics acquiring info through visual & identifying symbolic modes: e.g., multimedia elements icons, hyperlinks, use of colour, background knowledge of digital animation texts understanding inter-textual links Pragmatic Practices Critical Practices using digital texts for related critically evaluating web based tasks: e.g., Google definitions, resources: authenticity, currency, use of technical language for reliability, credibility diagrams comparing the construction of graphics, hyperlinks different sites considering comparing different websites 'author', 'audience', purpose relating texts to other known detecting underlying bias, point internet texts of view, ideologies creating new texts: web pages, Understanding how visual codes PowerPoints with digital photos, (colour, framing, angles, movie clips, e-texts salience, vectors, etc.) construct meaning