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How to Help Students Interpret Digital Texts

Carolyn Fortuna
 | May 26, 2017
How to Help Students Interpret Digital Texts

Even in our increasingly digital world, some of my students still have difficulty interpreting digital texts; they seem to summarize main points rather than interpret underlying meanings and messages.

How can we help students to move beyond summary and toward interpretation? I’ve found that a combination of digital popular culture modeling, heuristics, and choice—along with digital composition—can initiate that process.

Interpretation combines summary, synthesis, and analysis. We take a whole text and break it into its parts. Those parts, when reassembled, create a more powerful whole than would any individual element. This concept is known as gestalt.

Digital Culture Modeling

Let’s take the example of the Chrysler Eminem Super Bowl Commercial in which the rapper protagonist is set against an increasingly revitalized Detroit.

I showed this video to high school and college students and asked them a series of questions:

  • Identifying details: Who is driving the car? What do you know about him? What’s the camera’s perspective? Name what he sees as he drives.
  • Deciphering symbolism: What does a clenched fist represent? Why did the artist choose an image of workers pulling in unison? What could a statue with a Golden Globe symbolize?
  • Determining overarching thematic meanings: Why was it important, socially and culturally, for Eminem to stand below the chorus? What role do people of color have in Detroit? Who’s paying for this commercial, and why would they want these particular messages portrayed in these particular ways?

I have found that the fluid and dynamic questioning process involved with this kind of modeling helps students connect the digital dots.

Heuristics That Lead to Meaning-Making

I also encourage students to use a step-by-step Digital Visual Analysis Protocol as they attempt to deconstruct digital texts. This protocol arose from my research into the work of Gunther Kress, the National Association for Media Literacy Education Association, and Renee Hobbs’ innovative methodology around digital media text analysis, including her Mind over Media interactive platform.

Choice + Digital Composition= Interpretation

William Glasser’s Choice Theory inspired me to let my students choose their own digital texts whenever possible. When they choose which digital texts to interpret through their own original digital compositions, their interpretation skills rise to entirely new heights.

Interpretation isn’t easy for any of us. But, with guidance and protocols, students can interpret digital texts in ways that move beyond the classroom and into the real world. That’s where the important work of digital text interpretation takes place.

Carolyn FortunaCarolyn Fortuna, PhD is a retired secondary school English teacher whose next career centers around producing events for the University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab and teaching in the Gender and Women’s Studies Department at Rhode Island College. You can contact her at

This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association’s Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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