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Digital Storytelling Texts Transform Reading

by Nicole Timbrell
 | Apr 24, 2015

The new digital technologies, granting storytellers the ability to combine text with audio-visual, ludic, and hypertext elements, are not a death toll for the novel. Rather, like film, they present new frontiers for storytelling.

—R. Lyle Skains, “The Shifting Author—Reader Dynamic:
Online Novel Communities as a Bridge from Print to Digital Literature,” 2010

The emergence of new forms of digital texts blurs the lines among short film, journalism, documentary film, website, memoir, blog, short story, and novel. This cross-pollination of textual forms highlights the engaging new ways through which fiction and nonfiction stories can be told. A beneficial result of this development is new opportunities for teachers and adolescents to achieve reading and literacy standards using the lure of digital devices.

Here in Australia, our National Curriculum recognizes that literacy development is supported by the study of language in all its forms. Therefore, in addition to traditional texts types such as novels, short stories, and plays, students are required to “interpret, appreciate, evaluate and create literary texts in spoken, print and digital/online forms.” The multimedia features of digital texts enable students and teachers to cover a range of reading, viewing, and listening outcomes. For example, the use of a Web documentary–style digital text allows students to respond to the aural components of voice-over narration, background music, or audio interviews with subjects; print components of the written text on the screen; and visual components of video, photographs, or the graphic design elements of the text’s digital interface. In addition to these components, digital texts differ from traditional texts in that they often allow a self-paced, self-directed, nonlinear navigational pathway through the stories, enabling readers greater agency in their experience of the narrative.

Two nonfiction digital texts have been used recently with grade 11 students in my English classroom to analyze a range of literacy modes and meet the literacy requirements of the Australian Curriculum: “Firestorm” from The Guardian newspaper and “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek” from The New York Times that features journalism, documentary film, and memoir to tell the dramatic survival stories resulting from both an Australian bushfire and a Washington state avalanche. “Firestorm” employs looping background video of the rural Tasmanian setting, and a rotating slideshow of photojournalism images deliver an “as it happened” sensation when the reader scrolls through both the text and interviews with the surviving family. The coupling of these videos and archival photographs with ambient noise—the rustling of wind through the trees and the local birdlife, the crackling of flames in burning bush land, and the quiet chattering of local residents in a teahouse returning to normality after the fire—further enhance the reader’s sense of vicarious experience.

Likewise, “Snow Fall” makes innovative use of multimedia to convey the story of the Tunnel Creek avalanche that claimed the lives of three experienced skiers. A rotating three-dimensional model of the alpine setting, a time-lapse sequence of the meteorological map showing the storm cell present on the day of the disaster, and a graphic model demonstrating the deployment of a skier’s protective air bag are all multimodal elements that sit alongside the extensive prose, slideshows and film interviews with the survivors and the victims’ families. Even the most perfectly composed passage of descriptive prose or the most in-depth investigative reporting of these events would struggle to compete with the engaging and aesthetic presentation of these two stories in this digital form.

The study of “Snow Fall” and “Firestorm” with my digitally connected adolescent readers has resulted in some rich discussions about emerging modes of representation, robust debates about what it means to be a reader, and the ways storytellers in the 21st century use technology to appeal to a range of audiences. From reluctant to avid readers, technology experts to newcomers, the adoption of digital storytelling texts in your classroom will enable all students to think about the future of reading in their lives.

For an uninterrupted reading experience of both “Firestorm” and “Snow Fall,” teachers and students should seek out a high-speed Internet connection. Although both texts can be accessed on a tablet, a laptop or desktop computer will better enable all features to function to their full effect. Both texts are suitable for grades 10 and above; however, teachers of younger students may consider Inanimate Alice as an alternative digital storytelling text for grades 5–9. Inanimate Alice is also accompanied by a set of educational resources.

Nicole TimbrellNicole Timbrell is a high school English teacher and e-learning integrator at Loreto Kirribilli in Sydney, Australia. She is completing graduate studies in Cognition, Instruction and Learning Technologies at the University of Connecticut where she worked previously as a research assistant in The New Literacies Research Laboratory. Find her on Twitter.

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