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Reading Online: An Instructional Model and Ideas for the ELA Classroom

By Alexandra Panos and James Damico
 | Mar 23, 2018

Reading OnlineReading online about divisive and complicated topics can and should be central to the English language arts classroom. At least, that is what we have been advocating for the past four years, as we study how people read online about climate change. Reading online in a fake news era holds many challenges—and opportunities—for literacy teachers to directly confront the difficult nature of online sources about this divisive issue.

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has been examining public beliefs and attitudes around climate change since 2009. The program’s research has identified six unique audiences within the United States public that each respond to the issue in their own distinct way. Another 2017 study in the American Educational Research Journal about reading online determined that students struggle to identify misinformation online and instead rely on previously held opinions.

In our research, we developed an instructional model that supports students in reading online about climate change. In a forthcoming chapter of Literacy Research, Practice and Evaluationwe outline the following model:

  • Select a diverse set of digital information sources.
  • Ask students to make their thinking visible as they evaluate these sources.
  • Ensure students read/view sources multiple times in order to reflect upon and revise their evaluations.
  • Create opportunities for students to deliberate the reliability merits of each source.

Our findings indicate that there is real value in students reading independently as part of a multi-step evaluation process. Our findings also point to the importance of providing students with opportunities to talk across differences in both large group discussion and in pairs.

Here’s an example of what this kind of discussion-based lesson looks like in a high school class. The lesson begins with a diverse collection of sources, continues with questions to facilitate critical reading over multiple steps and ideas for promoting student-led evaluation and discussion, and concludes with a reminder about how to link these practices to civic engagement that turns knowledge into action.

Curating a set of diverse sources

Identify online sources that hold a range of perspectives about climate change, such as:

  • BP’s “Sustainability” webpage.
  • A Christian Science Monitor article about one scientist’s shifting perspective on climate change.
  • The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change’s website.
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s website.

Supporting critical reading practices over multiple steps

First, students read/view a source briefly and note their evaluation of its reliability. In a second reading, students evaluate sources independently using the following questions to support critical reading practices:

  • Who created the source?
  • Why was it created?
  • What claims are made?
  • Are claims well supported? Explain.
  • Do you detect biases or points of view?
  • To what extent is this source reliable? (Possible answers: highly reliable, somewhat reliable, somewhat unreliable, unreliable)

Student-led evaluation and discussion

We use the following Stand Your Ground discussion format:

  • Stage your classroom in four quadrants (highly reliable, somewhat reliable, somewhat unreliable, and unreliable).
  • Ask students to move to the area designated for their rating of each source (one source at a time). Students should explain, defend, persuade, and modify their stances throughout the discussion.
  • Ask students to take note of their final stances.
  • Extend the activity through argumentative writing.

Civic engagement across perspectives and beliefs

Finally, we promote a spirit of civic engagement that does not shy away from debate. We argue dialogue should remain rooted in the scientific consensus. In pairs, students who hold different climate change beliefs evaluate sources for their reliability, talking aloud as they read or view a source. Then students may search together for online sources they both deem reliable.

Other helpful resources

A People’s Curriculum for the Earth (Rethinking Schools, 2014) includes interdisciplinary resources on environmental issues. Author Paul Fleischman created a website to support his 2014 book, Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines. Researchers Richard Beach, Jeff Share, and Allen Webb created a Wiki workspace about teaching climate change in ELA, where educators can connect and share resources.

Reading online about divisive topics can and should be a part of the ELA classroom. We believe it is important to support students’ independent critical reading habits by creating opportunities to examine online text with careful guidance and support by their teachers and with their peers.

Alexandra Panos is a former middle school ELA teacher and currently works as a PhD candidate and education researcher in the Department of Literacy, Culture, and Language Education at Indiana University, Bloomington.

James Damico is a former elementary and middle school teacher and currently serves as the director of the INSPIRE Living-Learning Center at Indiana University, Bloomington in addition to his role as an associate professor in the Department of Literacy, Culture, and Language Education.

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