Digital classrooms and the quest for core-knowledge – but I can’t read it.

Children, or adolescents at least are routinely given text to de-code in order to ‘learn’. Off the shelf material is generally written to a targeted reading level, and therefore those using it are assumed to have attained that level in order to access the content.

This is largely based on the belief that students can acquire ‘core knowledge’ in a subject from this text- and powers the ‘learn about’ and ‘learn to’ approach in many schools. Core-knowledge is based upon E D Hirsch’s thesis that, once students have mastered decoding (turning printed letters on the page into imagined sounds), reading comprehension largely depends upon background or general knowledge. Thus, students are often presented with identical printed texts (books and worksheets) while digital text is often ‘tarted up’ to appear more exciting: meaning extraneous words, pictures, and media are not eliminated but added; important information is not highlighted but lost in a soup of digital content, video and images. Who hasn’t been subjected to a Prezi which leaves the viewer dazed and confused? And don’t get me started on Canva hipster text.

There are several problems with the idea that students can acquire core-knowledge in any subject using this approach. Firstly, research has shown it to have zero effect on comprehension. The key issue is that this approach assumes children are largely identical; that the teacher has sufficient personal core-knowledge to teach it – and beyond; and the standardised text is revealing a true picture of the student.

In digital contexts, using the Internet to search for text to apply to an online course, or being able to operate MS Office like word-processors isn’t sufficient. Some understanding of eLearning principles and methods is needed. For example: is the text being given to students too complex to decode.

By the end of middle school the curriculum is expecting students can read:

  • elements that require interpretation, such as complex plots, sophisticated themes and abstract ideas
  • complex layers of meaning, and/or information that is irrelevant to the identified purpose for reading (that is, competing information), requiring students to infer meanings or make judgments
  • non-continuous text structures and mixed text types
  • sentences that vary in length, including long, complex sentences that contain a lot of information
  • adverbial clauses or connectives that require students to make links across the whole text
  • academic and content-specific vocabulary
  • words and phrases with multiple meanings that require students to know and use effective word-solving strategies to retain their focus on meaning
  • metaphor, analogy, and connotative language that is open to interpretation
  • illustrations, photographs, text boxes, diagrams, maps, charts, and graphs, containing main ideas that relate to the text’s content.

Hirsch’s point is that, beyond decoding text, reading comprehension skills are not transferable. So how come children appear to have little difficulty comprehending complex video games – which are largely designed for adults?

Here’s another example of the problem in just using things found online as a class text.


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Here’s an example from the ABC’s history website of digital text – pasted into the free Hemmingway app. Yes, it meets a Grade 8 (good readability), but it also shows a number of sentences will be hard to read for some students – yet all students will be given it.

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In a digital book on the website, the above is from the first page of a multi-page digital book. It’s twice as hard to ‘read’. I guess my point is that it’s all too easy to create digital text and place it in front of students as they get older and assumes that the core-knowledge approach has been successful. In contrast, we are constantly being told that children’s reading ability is falling – and an increase in using standardised tests to ‘check’ their reading ability both online and on paper. There are some obvious issues here: digital texts are not the same as printed text, people process digital information differently to print; digital text comes with an array of sensory and accessibility issues and the ease at which we can ‘throw a doc up’ – doesn’t mean the text is easily read by any given set of individuals who happen to be in a room.

The two biggest factors to consider (IMO) when creating digital texts is their modality and how they are segmented. The goal is to allow more able students to read beyond what is being shown, but for the least able to be able to at least de-code the key information, through the use of formatting and layout. We know that better background knowledge causes better reading comprehension. I cannot express enough how much I dislike the practice of ‘providing students with content’.  Piles of text issued on paper (see Will Richardson’s view on paper piles) and digital dumpsters of documents. From this we attempt to determine comprehension through some standardised test. Yes you handed out all the text that applied to the dot point and then gave the kids a test. Well done, but what did they actually read – and what did they comprehend.

Great teachers think carefully about the text they give out. They craft it to be readable and are well prepared to segment it with their own background knowledge. They use the digital to scaffold the modality of the text – with video, graphics and other images. They are conscious of the need for teachers to provide a natural voice in their practice. I think that those who use the digital well (but often unseen by external observers) are also likely to change the physical space to suit their objectives. These teachers are likely to also be the ones who are very interested in classroom design – for the digital age. I do like this infographic from USC on the topic.