Friday, September 19, 2014

A plea for your visual learners

This week I accidentally discovered something about digital text books and visual learners.  I love it when this happens because it reminds me that there is still so very much to learn about the way we teach and the way our students learn.  Two things happened on the very same day that created new understanding for me.

I had a teacher contact me asking if we could meet.  She was using a new text book (online), and more students were struggling with the text book than not.  We set up a meeting during lunch the very next day.

The period before we met, my eighth graders were working on a vocabulary matching activity (for my kinesthetics and aurals), and I overheard one of them saying, "That can't be the definition!  It was longer than that."  Now some teachers would call that lazy.  What? Measure the definition, but heaven forbid you read it!  I would call that visual.  But it never dawned on me that some students (especially those who are reluctant to take reading risks) might rely on their visual perception to compensate for their reading challenges.

After the eighth graders left, I warmed up my lunch and headed down to the sixth grade pods to meet with my colleague.  She was using a brand-new online version of a text book, and she reported that many of her students were having difficulty with the text book.  As soon as she opened the online text book, my eyes popped out of my head as I (me, the read/write linguistic person) tried to make sense of the portion of the page I was seeing!  Talk about inconsiderate text!  I was blown away by the difficulty, and we discussed possibly doing a lexile test to see what the level of it actually was.

As our discussion progressed we talked about different ways to help the kids break down the text to help them to make sense of it, but before we had gotten very far, the bell rang.  As I walked out the door, she handed me a hard copy of the text to look through, and we made plans to continue our discussion the next day.

Later on that day, I had a chance to sit down and look at the hard copy of the text book.  I opened the cover to the same chapter we were discussing, and I was shocked to discover how considerate the book actually was!  The page was laid out so nicely with a few pictures, nice headings, nicely organized and clearly marked sections.  And each section was only two pages long!  I couldn't believe the difference in the way I felt looking at the hard copy versus looking at the online version - and I'm not a visual learner!

After I went home that night, I started processing the two separate incidents, and my mind began to put together some very interesting questions that I would LOVE to research more.

As an experienced reader, I (even though I am not really visual) need to see where my reading begins and ends.  I need to see how it is organized so that I know what questions I can answer in my head and make predictions about what I will be reading.  The digital format of the text didn't allow me do this easily.   When we logged in and clicked on the section of text, it was just there.  I wasn't motivated to turn a page to see when the reading ended or eyeball the page to see how many sections were in it and how they were organized because all I saw was probably half the page, if that!

How can we teach our students how to read non-fiction text if they can't eyeball the page?  It seems to me that our publishers are trying to accommodate us with a "digital format" but to just put a paper-copy into a digital format isn't working for our kiddos!  They can't use their strategies to read it, which means we have to take extra steps to show them how.  Here are some ideas when making an attempt to tackle digital text books:

  1. Know what your purpose for reading is.  If the entire selection doesn't have to be read to meet the goal, please don't make your risk-avoiding students do any more risk-taking than they already are.  
  2. Offer hard copies for kiddos who are not reading risk-takers or to those who prefer it.  Chances are, they need to see the entire page visually and need to have a page to turn - and all for different reasons, but many for our visual and kinesthetic learners.  You may have to insist that some kids use the hard copy and explain that you are interested in seeing if it makes a difference in their learning.  
  3. If you absolutely have to use the digital text, start teaching them how to zoom in and zoom out.  REQUIRE students to zoom out to take a look at the entire selection required for reading and consciously analyze it for structure.  Use a strategy/organizer like the THIEVES organizer that forces students to preview the entire selection before reading.
  4. Teach students how to maneuver the online text.  There are features on the computer that cannot obviously be used in a hard copy of the text.  If you're going to make them read the online version - teach them how to pin sticky notes to it, highlight text, and click on video links, and then REQUIRE them to use those features until they become automatic.  
  5. Don't ask them to answer questions that can be found directly in the text.  There may likely be a search function.  Once your students discover this, all bets are off - nobody will be reading that text.  
  6. Create purpose for reading by looking at the beginning of each section for goals, objectives, or purposes.  Then teach kids how to organize notes.
  7. Do these things over and over and over again.
Please don't misunderstand this blog post to be anti-digital-text - there certainly is a time and place for digital text.  But understand your goal, where your students are, and what you really need to do to get them from where they are to where you need them to be.  And don't be afraid to seek out colleagues for additional suggestions!  Chances are, more of us are struggling than you realize!

Feel free to add suggestions below for additional ideas on how to tackle digital text.  Happy reading!


  1. This is a terrific post. My WMS colleague and I (turtle) have been helping our students decode from online text for the last few weeks. We find ourselves jumping back to the objectives of each sections to help our students section off portions of their notes. We have found that when students take 2 column notes sometimes all they do is search for the vocabulary words and right the definitions on the opposite side. We have been stressing how the context of each paragraph offers so much more. With stress on the topic sentences and paragraphs giving details and examples the students are becoming more inclined to writing the main ideas from each section and then adding those details to the opposite side of their 2-column notes. Success is on its way but there is defiantly a learning curve for us.