The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Innovations in technology have changed the way in which society acts. As classical scholar and university librarian James O’Donnell points out in the 1999 radio broadcast “From Papyrus to Cyberspace,” one generation’s frontier becomes the next generation’s reality. One can assume that with each new frontier there are gains and losses. For example, the invention of the automobile sparked a transportation revolution, but with this improved accessibility we also implicitly accept thousands of car-related deaths each year. Advancements in writing technologies have unpredictable changes in human roles and geography. Printing presses led to the spread of unorthodox ideas across the world and new forms of democratization, while the shift from a primarily oral to literate society brought with it new lines of exclusion between those who could read and those who could not.

James Engell, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard, highlights the point that such revolutions of technology do not occur suddenly but are instead a gradual shift within societies. Just as manuscripts continued to be produced well after the invention of the printing press, it is common for information from the internet to be written down on paper. Thus the challenge with emerging digital technologies is not that such societal shifts are occurring, but finding the most effective way new technologies can be integrated with the way things are currently functioning. Learn more about the impact of the typewriter on literacy in my short documentary The Shift from Handwriting to Typewriting:

Full List of References and Media Content Sources

The shift from handwriting to digital text and their associated issues continue to plague educators as one-to-one devices become the norm in schools. My English Department meetings often consist of heated debates concerning whether students should complete their coursework on paper or digitally. The topic seems to polarise the teachers within the department and we cannot collectively decide on the "correct" answer.

"students who write out their notes on paper may actually learn more" (Mueller & Oppenheiner, 2014).

In 2012, scientists find that the brains of preliterate kids respond like a reader's brain when they write their ABCs, but not when they type or trace the letters (Pauly, 2016). Another research team reports that college students who transcribed lectures on their laptops recalled more information than those who took notes by hand because the use of laptops results in shallower processing (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). Across three experiments, researchers had students take notes in a classroom setting and then tested students on their memory for factual detail, their conceptual understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize and generalize the information. The two types of note-takers performed equally well on questions that involved recalling facts, laptop note-takers performed significantly worse on the conceptual questions (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014). This research suggests that perhaps completing tasks on paper may be more beneficial for students.

However, sometimes the purpose of note taking is simply to collect information. During novel studies I often have my students take notes to record key quotations or details from the book we are reading under the categories of the elements of fiction (e.g. setting, characters, style, theme). When forced to write on paper, I find students’ notes quickly become disorganised and chaotic. Factor in that a novel study last several weeks - sometimes months - I find students’ paper notes become more of a hassle than helpful.

Instead of making the paper-or-digital choice for my high school students, I share research findings and we collaboratively discuss the benefits and advantages of each format. I then prompt them to make the choice for themselves and give them the opportunity to change formats if they feel they made the wrong choice. In Benedict Carey's book "How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where and Why It Happens" he refocusses attention away from a mono-solution to the learning conundrum, by prompting learners to consider the task at hand:  

"It's not that there is a right and wrong way to learn. It's that there are different strategies, each uniquely suited to capturing a particular type of information. A good hunter tailors the trap to the prey" (Carey, 2014, p. 44). 

My vision for my students is for them to discover for themselves how they work best in a time where they are living and learning during this technological revolution. The following is a lesson to prompt a discussion surrounding the ambiguity of the paper of digital argument:

While reading and writing remains at the heart of education, emerging technologies will continue to alter the concept of literacy itself. As we continue to move from written text to digitized information, educators must adapt their didactic methods to coincide with modern technologies. The technologies of handwriting and typewriting need not exist in a binary relationship in our postmodernist culture. They can co-exist, offering us a multiplicity of ways to communicate where each is geared for its own different purpose.


Mueller, P. A. & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking. Psychological Science, 25(6). 

O'Donnell, J. & Engell, J. (1999). "From papyrus to cyberspace" [radio broadcasts]. Cambridge Forum.

Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Pauly, M. (2016). A Brief History of Handwriting. Mother Jones, 41(5), 60.

Information Processing Theory and Impact on Learning

The Information Processing Theory is an approach to cognitive development that suggests humans process information they receive. This theory contrasts a behaviourist that humans simply respond to stimuli. This theory suggests that information is processed in stages, much like the way in which a computer processes data (Orey 2002). Information enters the brain (or computer) through our senses (mouse/keyboard). Next, the information is processed in our working memory (processor/ram), where it is stored and recalled from specific areas of our long-term memory (hard drive). This recalled information can lead to an output response to the stimuli (monitor).

Our sensory memory intakes information through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. If we decide to pay attention to certain stimuli, it moves into our short-term memory, also known as our working memory as it is the place where we process information. In order for information to be stored in our long-term memory and formally learned, the information must be elaborated on through rehearsal to consolidate the new data.

Adapted from: Lutz, S. & Huitt, W. (2003).

We can then organize new information into existing knowledge sets (if information is similar to prior information) or create a completely new knowledge structure if the new information is unlike anything we have experienced before. Once information is stored in our long-term memory, we can later recall this knowledge back into our working memory to compare to incoming information or help elaborate on our knowledge experiences.

Many of these operations involve executive function to pay attention to new information, attend to rehearsal practices in the working memory and help consolidate information into our long-term memory. Unfortunately, new information can be lost at all stages of information processing.  If incoming stimulus is not paid attention to in our sensory memory, our brain does not notice the information. In our short-term memory, only a maximum of five stimulus can be used at once - if this information is not encoded within 15-30 seconds it will be lost altogether. In long-term memory retrieval, there are also chances of encoding failure during information consolidation if elaboration does not occur or the information cannot be properly organized in existing knowledge structures. Finally, information in long-term memory could be lost through a retrieval failure or “overridden” if new information contradicts something previously learned.

Watch my visual breakdown of the stages of the theory and applications to classroom practice:

When considering the stages of the Information Processing Theory, there are 5 easy steps teachers can take to support students in the acquisition of new information.

RECEPTION to ensure teachers gain students’ attention using an abrupt stimulus change to focus students’ sensory memory on the lesson. 
I like to use music or short video clips to gain students’ attention. Catchy songs such as this Information Literacy Song or the Literary Devices Rap work well.

RETRIEVAL educators should stimulate recall of prior learning and skills from students’ long-term memory into their working memory. 
I like to use kinesthetic warmups that gets the students moving around and talking to peers other than their elbow partner. Simple activities work great such as having the students move around the room and when the music stops (often I use the songs above), I yell out a number. Students must form a group with that many people and answer a question about the content from the previous lesson. Scholastics's Mind Up Curriculum books are full of such activities.

RECEIVE information transmitted by the teacher that should have distinctive features and suggest a meaningful organization of ideas for students. 
I started “branding” my lessons by using the same template and colour scheme for all lesson within a unit. For other skills such as the MYP Approaches to Learning, I always use the same cover slide. I have also started using less unconnected slides and utilising animations to put together the “pieces” of a slide. Finally, acronyms and step-by-step procedures have become the focus of my lessons. For example, when I was teaching my students about how to find reliable online sources, I began the lesson by playing the research song, played the kinesthetics warmup game, then introduce an acronym to help them remember the criteria for reliable websites:

RESPOND or experience the information for themselves to absorb knowledge into their preexisting knowledge sets by eliciting performance from students. 
Arguably the most important step in student learning! Students need to immediately do something with their new knowledge. When introducing the CRAP acronym for determining reliable resources, I had students decide whether example websites are reliable or not. One issue I often run into for this stage is running out of time when I have 30 minute class time blocks. What I have come to learn is it is better to break up the learning into smaller pieces where students have the opportunity to immediately respond to new knowledge, rather than using a whole block to introduce content and the following block as a work period. 

REINFORCE by providing ongoing feedback to students and especially give them additional performance opportunities to apply the feedback. 
Encouraging students to make mistakes and learn from those “failures” is key. I try to give as many opportunities for students to experiment with new ideas by offering several chances to practice new skills. I aim to give my students individual verbal feedback once a week and written feedback every other week. Since I utilise Google for Education Apps Suite in my teaching, this is often done through the comments function. I have learned to create one ongoing template my students work in throughout a unit so all of my comments and their work is in one place. This way, it is easy for both myself and students to see their ongoing progress.

More than anything, learning about the Information Processing Theory reminded me of the importance of lesson warm-ups and "hooking" students into a learning activity. The theory also offers a simple explanation of how memory may work and is something I have even taught my students to make them more away of their own learning behaviours. 


Lutz, S., & Huitt, W. (2003). Information processing and memory: Theory and applications. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved from

Orey, M. (2002). Information Processing. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from

Digital Literacy vs. Digital Fluency

The rapid emergence of modern technologies had drastically changed the way the world works and the way in which information and knowledge is acquired. The internet generation (net geners) have begun to absorb information in new ways and have a limited tolerance for absorbing information which they could easily find through a Google search. Growing up digital “has encouraged this generation to be active and demanding inquirers - not passive consumers of media created for a mass audience” (Tapscott, 2008, p.18). The development of of these skills has been a coping mechanism to handle the information overload in the digital age.
"If it were possible to define generally the mission of education, it could be said that its fundamental purpose is to ensure that all students benefit from learning in ways that allow them to participate fully in public, community, creative, and economic life” (New London Group, 2000).

Effectively preparing students to be successful in the twenty-first century involves a development of digital fluencies that go beyond just being able to use digital tools - they must become producers of content and be able to take advantage of peer-to-peer learning opportunities, have a changed attitude toward intellectual property, develop the skills valued in the modern workplace, and have a more empowered conception of citizenship.

So what does it mean to be digitally fluent? There seems to be much discussion about digital literacy in schools today, but I don’t hear as much chatter about digital fluency. While literacy refers to knowing what tools to use and how to use them, to be considered fluent one must be able to reliably produce a desired outcome. Just like most students arrive knowing what a book or pencil is and have some idea how to use them, they still need guidance to become fluent with the tool.

Source: SociaLens Blog

An effective way to imagine the difference between literacy and fluency is to consider language. Developing fluency is like learning a foreign language: to be literate in that language means that you have learned some phrases and can share some basic ideas. However, to be fluent means the ability to create your own story and proficiently use the language in varying situations. Digitally fluent people are able create, re-mix, and share ideas through the use of technology. 
"The key idea is the ability to produce content rather than simply use technology" (Crockett, L., Jukes, I., & Churches, A. (2011).

It is important to remember that literacy occurs on a spectrum and students don't simply become fluent after a single lesson. It takes time, practice, and continuing feedback much like the acquisition of most other skill sets. The Global Digital Citizen Foundation divides digital fluency into five categories: Information, Solution, Creativity, Collaboration and Media. The organisation has developed a structured framework to model the critical skills that today's students require to become digitally fluent.

Source: Global Digital Citizen Foundation

Great - yet another set of criteria I must integrate into my teaching. 
Teachers are already juggling an array of criteria that must be covered through their programs. I currently must satisfy the demands of the MYP concepts, objectives, ATL skills, a national curriculum and the ISTE Standards. The last thing I need is another set of criteria that must be infused into my program. However, what I like about The Global Digital Citizen Foundation is that the fluencies listed are easily integrated into already existing programs. Instead of restructuring my units, I simply reviewed my program with these standards in mind to see which areas I deficient in.

There are many large and small scale educational activities which can be integrated into current teaching practices to promote technology competence and digital fluency. The following is a brief collection of classroom activities and technology tools I collected to encourage the acquisition of digital fluencies using the five categories identified by The Global Digital Citizen Foundation:

Curated alongside: Costello, J., Hamilton, D., Langford, C., Stigall, J. (2016)


Briggs, C. (2012). The Difference Between Digital Literacy and Digital Fluency. Retrieved from

Costello, J., Hamilton, D., Langford, C., Stigall, J. & Turple, C. (2016). Digital Fluency in the Classroom. Retrieved from

Crockett, L., Jukes, I., & Churches, A. (2011). Literacy is not enough: 21st century fluencies for the digital age. Corwin Press. 

Jukes, I. (2015). Global Digital Citizen Foundation. 21st Century Fluencies. Retrieved from

New London Group (2000). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures in Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures, ed. Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis. London: Routledge, p 9-38.

Copyright: The War against Piracy is Stifling Creativity

As an educator who utilizes technology in her teaching, I had so many questions about copyright that no one seemed to be able to answer: 

What does copyright mean?
Where can I find free-to-use content?
Do Fair Use principles cover me as an educator?

My pursuit of answers that led me down a rabbit hole of information, contradictions, and legal jargon. Unfortunately contemporary copyright laws are convoluted and full of “grey areas”. The hypocrisy of how most laws have been established (through large corporations looking to cash-in) has stunted culture and put limits on creativity in the digital world. While I do believe direct copy and paste piracy should be illegal, today’s restrictions may be crippling today’s Creative Class of learners.

Finding Free-to-Use Content for Multimedia Projects

I once tried what I thought was a fantastic idea as an English teacher: have students create a movie trailer for a book they had read to present to their classmates. Students did an excellent job carefully piecing together images, footage and background music using a variety of editing software. When they presented in front of their peers, we filmed their presentations and posted them privately on YouTube.

Then YouTube took down the majority of my students' videos 
for copyright infringement. Oops.

I had to backtrack and learn more about copyright laws and teach this information to my digital citizens:

I also created a student-friendly printable "cheat sheets" to help students find content for their multimedia projects:

Please feel free to copy these materials and use them for educational purposes.

Digital Literacy is Crucial for Reading and Writing Instruction

Literacy is known as the ability to read for knowledge, write coherently, and think critically about a language. The emergence of new technologies has brought about a need for the addition of digital literacy which refers to the ability to select appropriate technological tools and use them effectively. Though digital literacy goes beyond the use of specific tools to encompass a whole set of skills needed to flourish in today’s technology rich environment. 
The Future Lab’s report Digital Literacy Across the Curriculum defines digital literacy as having “access to a broad range of practices and cultural resources that you are able to apply to digital tools. It is the ability to make and share meaning in different modes and formats; to create, collaborate and communicate effectively and to understand how and when digital technologies can best be used to support these processes.” (1) It’s about collaborating, staying safe and communicating effectively; it’s about cultural and social awareness and understanding; it’s about being creative.
Digital literacy can be envisioned as a number of interrelated components:
The Components of Digital Literacy from Futurelab report

However, the education systems - and schools on both sides of the digital divide - have been slow to adapt this new type of literacy in reading and writing instruction. Troy Hicks (Central Michigan University) and Kristen Hawley Turner (Fordham University) offer a passionate plea for teachers to incorporate technology in more meaningful ways in their article No Longer a Luxury: Digital Literacy Can’t Wait (2). They offer some examples of how teachers commonly integrate technology tools in the classroom in an ineffective manner:

Hicks and Turner claim that educators should not just focus on students learning how to use specific technology tools, but we should be teaching students how to be literate across multiple forms of media and in a variety of contexts.

Students should be able to:
  • critically consume information and share across time and space
  • co-create and collaborate to solve problems
  • persevere in light of setbacks
  • maintain flexibility

Understanding how technologies enable new literacies and meaningful communication should be a core curricular and pedagogical function of English education (3). Henry Jenkins (MIT Media Lab) calls this ability to function in online networks a “participatory culture” which has a relatively low barrier to artistic expression and civic engagement (4). Benefits of this digital culture include peer-to-peer learning, a changed attitude towards intellectual property, diversification of cultural expression, modern workplace skill development, and an empowered conception of citizenship. Jenkins further claims that participatory culture is the new “hidden curriculum” in schools.

Digital literacy is a crucial component in modern literacy instruction and is necessary for today’s students to be productive members of a digital world. Teachers should focus on the skills related to digital literacy, not specific tools which will soon be obsolete in the ever changing world of technology.

1. Hague, C. & Payton, S. (2010). Digital literacy across the curriculum. Bristol, England: Futurelab.
2. Hicks, T. & Turner, K. H. (2013). No longer a luxury: Digital literacy can’t wait. National Council of Teachers of English. English Education, 102(6), pp 58-65.
3. Grabill, J. T. & Hicks, T. (2005). Multiliteracies meet methods: The case for digital writing in English education. National Council of Teachers of English. English Education, 37(4), pp 301-311.
4. Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media Education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gamifying Education: Not Just Playing Video Games

The observed motivators which engage children in free play are tantamount to the key elements found in games (1). Further, it is no question that video games are a dominant entertainment form in the twenty-first century and have the capabilities to engage users (2). Such game mechanics are beginning to be applied outside the immersive environments of games themselves, to create engaging experiences for participants in the real world. Gamification is the concept of applying game-design thinking and game elements to engage users in solving problems and increase users’ self contributions (3).

The gamification of education is NOT just playing video games in the classroom - sometimes it doesn't involve digital technologies at all.

Research reveals that the longer students stayed in school, the less likely they are to attend and feel engaged in their classes (4). Yet, game players regularly exhibit persistence, risk-taking, attention to detail and problem solving skills - all behaviors that would be ideal for students to possess in the classroom. Games are important as they embody four elements associated with how people learn; games are “immersive, they require players to have goals and make frequent decisions, they adapt to each player, and they unfold within the context of a community that supports the social dimension of learning” (5). Through the new media literacies of play and performance, players of games have the capacity to experiment with their surrounding as a form of problem solving, and can practice improvisation from varying perspectives (6). Guiding learners through the curriculum by encouraging thought and action is the foundation of intellectual engagement and aids students in the development of original work, collaboration, and confidence as knowledge-builders (4).

I synthesized my understanding of academic literature to create this visualization of the key elements of gamification:
Special thanks to @TyRiddick for his input.

The gamification of education supports the constructivist theory where knowledge is not simply transmitted from teacher to student, but actively constructed by the mind of the learner (7). Games allow for role play and the immersion in experience through situated practice (8). Well-designed games allow for players to “construct understanding actively, and at individual paces, and. . . enable players to advance on different paths at different rates in response to each player’s interests and abilities, while also fostering collaboration and just-in-time learning” (1). Since the cycle between choice and result is much shorter in games than in life, hypotheses are regularly tested and refined, lowering the emotional stake of failing and encouraging risk taking (6). With this increased willingness to experiment, players continue to make choices, contextualizing facts and information as tools for problem solving (9). The intrinsic motivations instilled in players of games is only increased through extrinsic positive or negative reinforcements such as awards, achievements, or loss of power often found in games. This sort of operant conditioning affects the users’ choices if faced with a similar scenario later in the game (10). Students are forced to use their power of reasoning to construct knowledge for themselves when immersed in a game, no matter their age. The relevance of these capacities beyond a games context, form the basis of a modern literacy that should be developed by all young people.

See my (first) stop-motion video explaining the four principle elements in game that make them engaging to users:

James Paul Gee is a psycholinguistics researcher who has crossed over into literacy and learning. His book "What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy" is an excellent account of gaming principles and discuses how these elements can be applied to the k-12 classroom.

Again, gamification is not playing video games - it in the idea that the elements of video games can be applied in other areas.

See the video below for an overview of his work:

1. Klopfer, E., Osterweil, S. and Salen, K. (2009). Moving learning games forward: Obstacles, opportunities & openness. The Education Arcade. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
2. Prensky, M. (2001). Chapter 5: Fun, play and games: What makes games engaging. Digital Game-Based Learning. New York: McGraw-Hill.
3. Deterding, S., Sicart, M., Nacke, L., O’Hara, K. & Dixon, D. (2009). Gamification: Using game design elements in non-gaming contexts. Vancouver: CHI.
4. Willms, J. D., S. Friesen, & P. Milton (2009). What did you do in school today? Transforming classrooms through social, academic and intellectual engagement — First national report. Toronto, ON: Canadian Education Association.
5. Mouza, C. and Lavigne, N. (eds). 2013. Chapter 1: Emerging technologies for the classroom. Explorations in the Learning Sciences, Instructional Systems, and Performance Technologies. New York: Springer Science and Business Media.
6. Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: Media Education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
7. Piaget, J. & B. Inhelder (1967). A child’s concept of space (F. J. Langdon & J. L. Lunzer, Trans.) New York: Norton (Original work published 1948).
8. New London Group. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review. 66(1), 60-92.
9. Gee, J.P. (2003). What video games can teach us about literacy and learning. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan.
10. Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.