Fostering Student Engagement Through the Use of Digital Literacy and Multimodal Texts

By PrinciPal Connection posted 03-28-2013 10:12



Sarah L. McCusker
Illinois State Board of Education

Digital literacy is speaking, listening, writing and reading through the use of a technology such as a cell phone, ipad, computer, laptop, video camera, Playstation, Wii and so forth. Often texts are multimodal in the case of graphic novels which incorporate drawing and writing. As curriculum leaders in schools, administrators need to be aware of common digital literacy practices. The following examples of practices are not an exhaustive list. Rather, they are a beginning point for leaders to consider when designing curriculum and instruction.

In his book Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males, Alfred Tatum (2005) suggests using nontraditional text to engage learners in addition to the core reading curriculum. Electronic documents, song lyrics, and movie dialog are a few that he mentioned. Tatum suggested that reading an article on the internet may help to segue learning a topic in a content area as well.

Skinner and Lichenstein (2009) explain that students think deeply and become active producers of multimodal texts when sharing photo stories digitally. They use Movie Maker and iMovie to create documentaries which allows them social empowerment and creative expression.

Animoto is a tool for creating videos and presentations with images, video clips, music and text. Podzielinski (2011) suggests using Animoto to replace the common book report with a photo production. She suggests using royalty free music to ensure there are no copyright issues.

Merchant (2010) explains a process similar to using Twitter to teach history. Teachers and students can pick a historical figure, those that kept a journal or diary, and tell a story of the past. The site lists a broadcast schedule of re-enactments. Students and teachers can browse re-enactments as well.

Smilanich and Lafreniene (April, 2010) posit that when students study film, regular classroom learning concepts are supported. The authors explain that for students who struggle film study demystifies literature. After learning basic film concepts students could then analyze the director’s intent and write about a segment of film.

Fisher and Frey (2011a) explain that feature length films can be watched out of school because it is not good use of instructional time.  However, the authors suggest using five minutes of film segments or less when teaching, and later students write summaries of the clips. As another option to a book report, students produce movie/book trailers on iMovie.

Patrick Finn (2009) describes the City Voices, City Visions Project in his book, Literacy with an Attitude. In this project the purpose is to give kids video cameras to capture their lives and teachers then use the material to create lessons. The overall goal is for the students to meet higher literacy standards. These videos focus on what students are thinking without the gatekeeping that teachers often do when they edit students’ work.

Another author Brozo (2011) explained how a teacher instructed students about allusion through digital media. The teacher showed a video clip of a movie from YouTube that referenced a person, place or thing in history or another work of literature.

Hughes and Dymoke (2011a) urge teachers to set up a wiki for students on Wikispaces to teach poetry. The authors suggest that students post copies of their favorite poems, drafts of poems that they craft or collaborative poems. Posting digital poems using Photostory is another suggestion.

King-Sears, Swanson and Mainzer (2011) suggest using video book chats and audio books to assist adolescents with disabilities. The authors list sources for technology learning matched to literacy learning. One computer program assists students who have trouble with decoding by reading the print from word documents. Another site is accessible for readers with print disabilities and has a large selection of digital texts.

Bowers-Campbell (2011) talks about her research on virtual literature circles. She found, contrary to popular beliefs about online lit circles, that readers were actively connecting with each other and often directed communication to a particular group member. And, since the discussion is online, people who are absent for the talk can make posts later.

Blogging is an activity that students do outside school regularly. The content area teacher can use a blog to foster dialog based on the text being read in the class or ask for thoughts about a prompt related to the teaching in class. Melissa Venters (2009) describes using blog posts as 20% of a student’s grade for the course with extra credit being given for commenting on other students’ posts. In the eighth grade classrooms that implemented the blogging project, student engagement improved. In her chapter in New Literacy Practices, Venters compares the active participation of social networking students experience outside of school such as facebook to the passive acceptance of in-school experiences.

Mills and Chandra (2011) describe microblogging as an activity that teachers can use as a platform for literacy learning. In the study the researchers used Edmodo and constructed a relay-writing task by writing the first and last sentence of a fairy tale and had participants create posts with only 140 characters.

Fisher and Frey (2011) describe graphic novels as sequential having a beginning, middle and end and have a binding. Graphic novels have also been described as thick comic books and may not always be fiction. Some graphic novels are memoirs. Students can be assigned to create a graphic novel and the teacher may use the rubric of research report for informational graphic novels found on Hughes (2011b) and colleagues explain that the pictures in graphic novels help visual learners and reluctant readers comprehend the story as well as diminish intimidation.  In the authors’ case studies they found students to be engaged by reading and producing graphic novels and their writings showed a connection to their current environments.

Gee (2005) makes observations about video gaming that would be useful for teachers in classrooms. He suggests that the game is a story and the actions are story elements. The player controls the story elements and is playing the part of a particular game character. Except in the game the gamer is free from the fear and pain and is more able to take risks.  While game playing a social network of gamers offers guidance, instruction and scaffolding.

In discussing students both consuming and interacting with media and technology Kinzer (2010) suggests that students need to know how to search online, evaluate what is listed after searching, and should read more than one source. He mentioned that literacy curriculum needs to incorporate this in primary grades. Digital environments have different genres, structures, conventions and expectations that can be taught to students to become better digital readers and writers. He also encouraged policy makers and researchers to discover more literacy uses for mobile technologies and teachers to teach privacy issues to students.

After requesting information from Laura Beltchenko, Associate Superintendent of Wauconda Community Unit School District #118, she explained her particular interests in digital storytelling as well as her thoughts about impact on student achievement. Laura mentioned that educators often think of digital literacy differently.  If research were to be conducted in the area, she would be interested in a study designed with a treatment group having access to tablets and apps while the control group did not to determine student growth.

Janis Lindsey, Principal of Sherman Elementary School, stated that when faced with considering digital literacy needs she would first examine the professional development needs of her staff. She would then consider buying new equipment such as SMART Boards or Prometheans but would weigh the availability of tech support. Being mindful of how the new technology fits into the curriculum as well as how students would be monitored using the technology are concerns for Janis.

Children and adolescents today are using a computer, smartphone, or  Playstation 3 for social networking, gaming, watching YouTube, listening to music, watching movies and for finding information on Wikipedia, Google and so forth. Students are also reading books on a Kindle or another e-reader. Often they use multiple digital tools at once. For example, students Skype each other while they are playing an on-line video game. While navigating these places simultaneously, children and youth are learning. However, they are learning in a different way than traditional learning in schools.

Digital literacy is embedded throughout the Common Core Standards (2010) in both English language arts and in the content area literacy section. In the introduction the authors explain that students today must be able to critically read and sort through not only print media but digital media as well. And, in order to be prepared for college and career training, students must be able to analyze information, answer questions and solve problems using texts that are print as well as digital. Critically consuming, compiling, understanding, synthesizing and producing research are skills needed by students at the present time. Technology is used by students to enhance their literacy. The authors report that students currently search for information using technology and can synthesize that new information with what they learn offline. Students also know what uses of technology fit their purposes to convey information and know the strengths and disadvantages of using a particular form of digital media.

Even though the Common Core Standards include digital learning and use of multi-modal technology, the transition within classrooms from traditional literacy practices to literacy practices that are more closely relate to how students learn outside of school may be occurring gradually.  Hardcopy textbooks or classic literature are often the primary tools teachers use within the middle and high schools. Traditionally the classroom teacher lectures using information found in the textbook or previous textbooks. Often students then read and respond to worksheets. Most educators agree that using digital practices in schools is favorable. However, how to incorporate learning using these new literacies is more challenging.  Administrators are often limited on the amount of teacher professional development they can provide due to decreased funding for teacher training.

Other barriers to implementing digital literacy are mentioned in research. According to Guzzetti (2009), instead of viewing web surfing or playing video games as new literacy activities some teachers have the view that these activities are not related to literacy. Authors Skinner and Lichenstein (2009)  in their chapter about digital storytelling mention teacher obstacles to implementing new technology is related to time constraints and technology issues. As an administrator, challenges may be encountered when trying to encourage teachers to begin using digital literacy practices.

To engage students, I am suggesting teaching practices in schools need to coincide with how students are learning outside of school. Using what students know and adding to it is what teachers are already trained to do. So it would be a natural next step to use the technologies children and adolescents are most familiar with to teach them content area information. Administrators of schools need to be cognizant of digital literacy practices and also to beware of vendors claiming to have a quick fix to learning through use of software. Creativity is needed to provide professional development that is low in cost. For example, an administrator may provide training through a webinar or videotape a teacher instructing using the digital literacy practice. The teachers may then watch the training at a later time on their own and discuss at the next staff meeting further questions they may have. My prediction is that in order to be career and college ready students will need access to technology within the context of learning in schools. Students who regularly communicate through the use of technology will be more prepared for life beyond high school than those who do not have access to digital literacy.


Bowers-Campbell, J. (2011). Take it out of class: Exploring virtual literature circles. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 54, 557-567.

Brozo, W.  G. (2010). To be a boy, to be a reader. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Finn, P. J. (2009). Literacy with an attitude: Educating working class children in their own self-interest. Second edition. Albany, NY: State University of New York  Press.

Fisher, D. & Frey N. (2011a). Using video and film in the classroom. Engaging the Adolescent learner. Retrieved from

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2011b). Making the most of graphic novels in the classroom. Engaging the Adolescent learner. Retrieved from

Gee, J. P. (2005). Why video games are good for your soul: Pleasure and learning. Australia: Common Ground Publishing, Pty Ltd.

Guzzetti, B. J. (2009).  Adolescents’ explorations with do-it-yourself media: Authoring identity in out of school settings. In M. C. Hagood, (Ed.), New literacies: Designing literacy learning practices (pp.41-57). New York, NY:  Peter Lang.

Hughes, J.  & Dymoke., S. (2011a). “Wiki-ed poetry”: Transforming preservice teachers’ preconceptions about poetry and poetry teaching.  The Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55, 46-56.

Hughes, J. M., King, A., Perkins, P. & Fuke, V. (2011b). Adolescents and “autographics”: Reading and writing coming-of-age graphic novels.   Journal of  Adolescent & Adult Literacy 54, 601-612.

King-Sears, M.E. , Swanson, C. & Mainzer L. (2011). TECHnology and literacy for adolescents with disabilities. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 54, 569-578. 

Kinzer, C. K. (2010). Considering literacy and policy in the context of digital environments.  Language Arts, 88, 51-61.

Merchant, G. (2010). View My Profile(s). In D. E.  Alvermann, (Ed.) Adolescents’ online literacies: Connecting classrooms, digital media, and popular culture (pp. 51-69). New York, NY:  Peter Lang.

Mills, K. A. & Chandra, V. (2011). Microblogging as a literacy practice for educational communities. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 55, 35-45.

National Governors Association/Council of Chief State School Officers (2010). Common Core State Standards:   English Language Arts.  Retrieved from

Podzielinkski, M. (2011) Online composing tools: Using Animoto in the classroom. Reading Today Online.  Retrieved from

Skinner, E., & Lichenstein, M. (2009). Digital storytelling is not the new PowerPoint: Adolescents critical constructives of presidental election issues.  In M. C. Hagood, (Ed.), New literacies: designing literacy learning practices. New York, NY:  Peter Lang.

Smilanich, B., & Lafreniere, N. (2010, April). Reel teaching = real learning: Motivating reluctant students through film studies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 53(7), 604–606. doi: 10.1598/JAAL.53.7.8.

Tatum, A. W. (2005). Teaching reading to black adolescent males: Closing the  achievement gap. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Venters, M. I. (2009). Days of tears: Day of desperation. Using blogging to make social studies content engaging and comprehensible. In M. C. Hagood, (Ed.), New Literacies: Designing literacy learning Practices (pp. 77-90). New York, NY:  Peter Lang.

Resources  Tools to enhance literacy is from a special interest group, Technology in Literacy Education, affiliated with the International Reading Association. Read, write, think includes digital literacy lesson plans for teachers grades K-12.  and Assistive technology for students can be found at these sites. Text to speech allows students to listen as the text is read to them. The scriptorium is a webzine for writers. Bitstrips is a comic strip creator for students. This site includes graphic novel booklists from the American Library Association. Digital textbooks can be used by teachers, parents and students. School Tube is a site that has royalty free music, videos and lesson plans for video production and digital storytelling. Teacher Tube has videos, audio clips and photos.  Curriki includes content area information for teachers, parents and students. Khan Academy provides a K-12 grade library of primarily math and science video lessons for students, parents and teachers. The Illinois WWII veteran project has full length videos including veterans talking about the war. Animoto combines pictures with music and text to create presentations and videos.  and are sites to view for video creation. Use this site for video book talks. Blog about text or prompts related to content area being studied at this site.  Microblog on this social networking site for use within the classroom. The company posted a video to play on this site that shows how to use edmodo.

Annotated Bibliography

Alvermann, D. E.  (Ed.) (2010). Adolescents’ online literacies: Connecting classrooms, digital  media and popular culture (pp. 51-69).  New York, NY:  Peter Lang.

Donna  Alvermann edited this book focusing on connecting student out-of-school online literacy with literacy learning in schools. Dr. Alvermann thought it was important for the audience to learn about student engagement in digital literacy learning by people who were actually practically applying the concepts. This book is an overview of ways of thinking about digital literacy from teachers, researchers and others.

Finn, P. J. (2009). Literacy with an attitude: Educating working class children in their  own self-interest. Second edition. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Patrick Finn’s focus in this book is to provide kids who are impoverished and struggling with a reason to be engaged in learning. In this piece the author couches literacy learning for working class and poor youth in social contexts.  Professor Finn, a native of Chicago, describes the distinction between the students who have access to learning literacy and those that have barriers. Some of the factors he describes as impeding learning for disadvantaged students can be altered, however, in order to empower them. One project that he describes in his book explains how students become engaged in learning through capturing their lives through videos.

Gee, J. P. (2005). Why video games are good for your soul: Pleasure and learning. Australia: Common Ground Publishing, Pty Ltd.

To truly understand a gamer and how best to teach him, every teacher, principal or parent should read one of Gee’s books. Often adults view video gaming as ruining thought processes or stifling learning.  Professor Gee describes the specific qualities and attributes of gamers. He then proceeds to explain how to best teach these students in general terms. This book is more theory-based rather than a practical application text.

Hagood, M. C. (Ed.) (2009). New literacies: designing literacy learning practices. New York, NY:  Peter Lang.

Margaret Hagood studies adolescent digital literacy practices and the relation to pop culture.  Professor Hagood edited this book comprised of chapters written by teachers and researchers.   The new literacies children and youth are involved in need to be accessed inside school, according to the authors. This book is a good place to start for an educator who is beginning to learn about digital literacy and how to implement practices within the classroom.

Tatum, A. W. (2005). Teaching reading to black adolescent males: Closing the achievement gap. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Alfred Tatum not only talks about teaching black males, but he recalls his experience growing up as a black youth in the city of Chicago. Dr. Tatum’s advice about teaching youth of color is a timely and valuable read even though it is was published several years ago. This work does not focus on digital literacy specifically but does mention using components of pop culture as well as particular texts and lyrics written by black authors to intrigue today’s youth when teaching.



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