Digital Literacy Does Not Mean Critical Thinking

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

Recently, in “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability to Tell Fake News from Real, Study Finds” (23 Nov. 2016), NPR reported that Stanford University researchers were shocked to learn that students are unable to distinguish real news from fake, ads from articles. The researchers collected and analyzed data from 7,800 middle school, high school and university students. The participants were from 12 states and were asked to evaluate information from various online sources such as tweets and articles.

The researchers’ “surprising” findings highlight that many people assume that young people are technology savvy because they can use their mobile devices and social media with seeming ease. However, their inability to use technology effectively is reflected in the results of this study. The students generally accept what is presented to them without questioning the validity or the bias. They accept it at face value.

I would hazard a guess that if the same study were done with any group of Internet users, the results would be equally as shocking. Rather than assuming that students or any users of technology and social media understand and are analyzing what they are seeing, our concern should be the quality of their digital literacy, their ability to read critically and not just accept everything without question.

The researchers propose that students and all other Internet users should be trained to read like fact checkers. They need to learn to not just read what is on the page but understand what it connects to. However, educators who work with and study technology use suggest that this is not enough.

Nik Peachey

Nik Peachey

Nik Peachey, for example, in his recent book, Thinking Critically Through Digital Media (2016), talks about how students are generally taught how to work with information through passive engagement. He suggests developing digital literacies, including understanding and analyzing what they are seeing.  They need to “assess the validity, credibility and underlying bias of the information they study” and be “given a range of research tools and techniques for reassessing the information and evaluating how it fits within their personal framework of belief systems and values.”

The International Literacy Association also addresses this issue in “Knowing the Difference Between Digital Skills and Digital Literacies, and Teaching Both” (3 Feb. 2016). The author, Maha Bali, points out that teaching digital skills needs to be embedded in authentic contexts so that learners are also becoming digitally literate. She states that “digital literacy is not about the skills of using technologies, but how we use our judgment to maintain awareness of what we are reading and writing, why we are doing it, and whom we are addressing.”

Computational Thinking, LiuLiShuo & Audiobooks


Why Computer Science Education in K-12 Settings Is Becoming Increasingly Essential by Mehran Sahami, The Huffington Post, 14 Sep. 2016.

Is computer science for everybody? In this blog post, the author reminds us that in today’s world, computer science goes beyond programming for programmers. It is more and more part of our everyday lives. The author asserts, “This is the reason we don’t talk about teaching CS as just teaching ‘programming,’ but rather as a means for students to develop ‘computational thinking’ skills.”

Ex-Google Guy Builds English Teaching App That Adapts to Student by Selina Wang, Bloomberg Technology, 13 Sep. 2016.

Chinese parents spend quite a bit of money for English lessons for their children, then find out that their children don’t speak English very well. In steps LiuLiShuo, which means “speaking fluently,” an app which incorporates gaming and social media into English learning. While it has its critics, it also has 30 million (yes, million) users.

Audiobooks Can Support K-12 Readers in the Classroom by Kate Stoltzfus, Education Week, 19 Sep. 2016.

Audiobooks have been around for quite a while, and their usefulness for struggling readers has been supported by research. With the growth of digital media, audiobooks are becoming even more important as a tool for learners, especially students who have trouble reading. A study by the American Association of Schools Libraries in 2012, which focused on elementary students, found that “audiobooks improved students’ reading scores, increased students’ positive attitudes about their reading ability, and offered students more personal choice in what they read.”

Poverty, Reading, and Technology

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

In his article “Technology Holds Promise for Students With Poor Vocabulary Skills” (Education Week, 23 July 2015), Steven L. Miller argues that technology offers one solution for creating individualized learning experiences for students to develop better literacy skills.

Miller’s premise is that children, especially from impoverished backgrounds, also come to school with impoverished language skills. He asserts that “children with lower vocabulary skills are often poor readers, so they continue to fall further and further behind in academic language and cognitive skills.”

While Miller’s article offers an effective solution to the problem of building vocabulary and consequently literacy skills, we have to be careful about generalizations regarding students from low-income or poverty situations. He bases his argument on research demonstrating that they hear more negative communication while students from professional families hear more positive and encouraging communications.

However, there is a broader range of research on the impact of poverty on learning, showing that while communication may be one aspect of literacy development, there are other factors such as poor nutrition and inadequate healthcare.

Regardless of the causes, education and educational technology can, as Miller states, help students with poor vocabulary skills. For example, he says:

Using speech-recognition software … students receive one-on-one guidance and real-time feedback from an unbiased listener as they read aloud. Using this approach, students can improve their reading grade level by up to 50 percent more than the students who only receive classroom instruction in the same time period.

Miller’s article is based on Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley’s 1995 study Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. For a summary, see Hart and Risley’s “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3”  (American Educator, spring 2003).

Making Literacy More Personal for Kids

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

Research has shown that a key to developing language skills, for the native speaker and for the English language learner, is reading. A home filled with books is a home filled with readers. That was certainly the case in my experience. My first “literacy” memories are the favorite stories that my father, very patiently, told me over and over and over. One of my earliest “reading” memories is going to the library with him and selecting my own book to read, Horton Hears a Who. Of course, I couldn’t read it myself, but it was “my” book. As I became a reader, I started acquiring books, some of them through a children’s book club. I remember how excited I was when “my” book arrived in the mail.

Susan Frey, in “Study Says Reading Aloud to Children, More Than Talking, Builds Literacy” (EdSource, 8 July 2015), focuses on a research project by Dominic Massaro at the University of California. Massaro says that “[r]eading aloud is the best way to help children develop word mastery and grammatical understanding” because the written word tends to follow these conventions more closely than speech. He goes on to say that we tend to be lazy when we speak using simplified forms and vocabulary.

Then, in “Making Reading Your Own” (Language Magazine, Sep. 2015), Todd Brekhus makes the point about the importance of “making literacy more personal to kids.” For the 21st century reader, he encourages the development of a digital library. He points out that one advantage of a digital library is the technological tools that are not available with hard-copy books, including opportunities for collaboration. He supports the use of interactive digital texts with English Language Learners, which can build literacy skills and reader confidence.

How do you use books and digital texts with your students, or even your children?