Reading Pixels: A Canyon Metaphor

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A metaphor for the difference between online and offline reading reveals that we can’t see what students are having to do to make sense of the text or the test. It’s important to uncover what’s happening under our hard heads as we tackle online reading assessment success. What layers are present in reading online and cognitively that we understand and use to intervene? 



As I’ve been working with teachers and students on online reading comprehension, we are all starting to notice that elements of what we do during online and offline reading aren’t alike… in books. And when we add the complexities of online assessment portals, the reading act seems even more bizarre and divorced from how we read physical texts. Add the high stakes and stress, and we’ve got a Gordian knot to untie so students don’t experience the screen or the devices as barriers. 

I live out here in the Texas Panhandle. It’s flat, y’all. Flat. But a few miles from Amarillo, the land just stops and turns to air. The flatness plummets straight down to the Prairie Dog fork of the Red River. We call this canyon, Palo Duro. A long time ago, the water from the river rushed through the canyon and carved out that 800-foot-, 120-mile-long hole. It also left a lot of layers and strange geological features. One of them – a hoodoo – is a perfect metaphor for the complexities of online assessment. 

Hoodoos have a hard stone on the top that protects a column of earth below it. Everything without the hard stone cover was washed away. The erosion left some layered structures that seem like they shouldn’t be able to stand upright. But they do. Now, I’m tempted to begin and say that test takers need to be hard-headed like that top stone. Part of that is true. But it really got me thinking. If all that water and erosion didn’t happen, we’d never know what kind of layers we were standing on. 

Seems like that’s what’s happening in test takers’ heads. That’s what makes it a perfect metaphor for the difference between online and offline reading. We can’t see what they are having to do to make sense of the text or the test. Deconstructing the thoughts and the layers of technology, I started to see some things that used to be invisible. When I look at the standards, it seems like there’s a whole lot of knowledge and processing that has to take place before we get to assess whether or not someone can master 4/5F. And the scary part is: I fear we didn’t know that we needed to be teaching online reading comprehension. Even worse, we didn’t know how. 

How to Achieve Online Reading Assessment 

So, through this set of videos and blogs, I want to uncover what’s happening under our hard heads as we tackle online reading assessment success. What layers are present in reading online – and cognitively – that we understand and use to intervene? 
First, let’s explore the characteristics and habits associated with digital texts. Then, let’s uncover the layers of the Cambium assessment portal and how these realities impact our working memory.

After that, let’s dig into how we use the online tools to differentiate specific reading needs (and disabilities). We’ll climb through the genres and how their characteristics change our purposes for reading, and how we can use digital and physical tools to offload working memory that frees up space for decision making.

Once that’s clear, we’ll look into the nuances of each assessment item type and specific skills and approaches that empower students beyond compliance and familiarity to cognition and fluency with online reading comprehension and assessment practices. 

A Caveat Regarding Online and Offline Reading

Now, you should know something. This ain’t no picnic. It’s not like PEMDAS in math. There’s no set of procedures that will lead to the right answer in the same way each time. It’s not like “My very excellent mother just served us noodles” in science to memorize the planets. (Yeah, I still miss the nine pizzas too. Poor Pluto.) There is no content for a person to memorize and study. In regards to both online and offline reading,  it’s all about decision making – and no one makes decisions the same way or comes to their conclusions by taking the same road. Depends on where they’re coming from. Background, schema, individualism…all that rugged stuff. 

Since reading and writing are about thinking and reasoning, the approach is messy, sometimes unpredictable, and always a challenge. What I’m sharing isn’t a trick to bypass thinking and hack a test. There won’t be any cute acronyms or checklists that tell folks what to do. And that’s because what we want to do is to empower learners with strategies and solutions that become automatic skills. Eventually, we want reading, writing, and decision making to become old hat…something thinkers can do without much effort. And if the thinking is difficult, we want them to know what tools to use to solve the problems as they arise. We want kids to have ideas for what they can do to help themselves at the point of their individual needs and difficulties. No rule following and checklists, but true problem solving for both online and offline reading with deep thinking and logical reasoning regardless of the grade level, text complexity, question, or item type. 

Action and Reaction

As you watch the videos, read the blogs, and use the materials, I encourage you to try them out with those around you. Consider these offerings as a collaboration with your learners and us. Ask them what works and what doesn’t. As grandma used to tell me, you’ll have more than the nothing you started with. In other words, I don’t have all the answers, but we’ll all make more progress if we try things out and tweak the results together. 

Interested in More

I’ve had the chance to work through these ideas in trainings, with students, and in PLCs. Here’s a copy of my slides if you’d like to use them.

TEKS Commentary for Online Reading Comprehension

This is the same as what we shared in the 1.1 post. Ignore if you’d like.

  1. Introduction: A lot of folks never see these ideas in the introduction, but they contextualize how the standards are to be applied meaningfully according to best practices:
    1. All TEKS are about all domains of language plus thinking. All TEKS strands integrally connect to one another reciprocally.
    2. TEKS progress in complexity and nuance to cause critical response to the evolving nature (vs. static) of language and literacy.
    3. TEKS are not written in any particular order and aren’t meant to be taught one at a time, but integrated with one another and in a recursive manner. Students should be using all domains of language, all content areas, and choosing texts daily.
    4. Text complexity is about “vocabulary, sophisticated sentence structures, nuanced text features, cognitively demanding content, and subtle relationships among ideas” within and across the grade levels. The goal is to develop “self-directed,” “critical,” and “collaborative” learners.
    5. ELLs will need additional supports to meet the ELAR standards. Use of the first language and connected, meaningful discourse are critical for their success.
    6. Content area subjects accelerate learning and language development. Knowing the ELPS is part of effective ELAR instruction.
    7. Learners must talk about and be exposed to the academic language of the discipline and content areas. 
  2. Foundational Language Skills: Oral Language 1A,B.
  3. Foundational Language Skills: Beginning Reading and Writing: 2Di,ii. Note that the TEKS explicitly reference print materials. There is an absence of information regarding how to teach digital text features. When you see references that miss digital references, this is a red flag for curriculum development. Where are these lessons and distinctions explicitly taught to students?
  4. Foundational Language Skills: Vocabulary: 3A,B. Note a specific reference to use of digital resources to explore various features of word knowledge in context with connected text. This means that readers/writers are using the resources to develop and communicate meaning.
  5. Foundational Language Skills: Fluency: 4/3 A,B. Note that fluency is not addressed in the TEKS after 8th grade. All references to fluency are based on the reader’s purpose and use. Specific distinctions between print and digital texts are not referenced, but are critical components of online reading comprehension success.
  6. Foundational Language Skills: Self Sustained Reading: 5/4 A. Most curriculum resources do not differentiate between physical and digital texts for independent reading time. Both have their own routines, processes, and procedures.
  7. Comprehension Skills: Metacognition: 6/5A-I. While digital skills are not explicitly mentioned, they are implied for all reading acts in all content areas.
  8. Response Skills: A-I. Note that the knowledge and skills statement references texts that are read, heard, or viewed. This language explodes the definition of text and implies specific digital literacies. The absence of digital literacies is a red flag for curriculum needs as students will need to consume, critique, and compose digital media.
  9. Multiple Genres: Genres: 9/8F. Note that multimodal and digital texts are referenced throughout the K–12 continuum. All previous TEKS, A-G can also be digital and multimodal. The term multimodal is also new to many teachers and curriculum writers. Staff development and curriculum materials are needed to expand student exposure to this type of media.
  10. Author’s Purpose and Craft: No specific mention of digital literacies are referenced in the TEKS, but nuanced decisions ARE being made in TEA’s assessment division for digital tests based on mode of delivery: viewed, read, heard, genre, and purpose (propaganda, entertainment, assessment, etc.). Again, an absence of digital references is a red flag for curriculum purposes.
  11. Composition: Writing Process/Genres. Note that the TEKS do not specifically mention digital composition other than vague references to multiple texts and in publishing for specific audiences, and genre characteristics. Since students will be expected to compose and respond digitally, specific skills in typing fluency, formatting, editing and revising, and the digital composing process itself may not be present in curriculum materials.
  12. Inquiry and Research: 13/12E,H, J, I. Note that the TEKS do not specifically mention digital research skills other than vague references to the research plan and mode of delivery. Curriculum materials may or may not have references to using updated tools and resources to manage digital research and document management for content or citation references. 

Up Next: 

It’s time to move away from the differences between online and offline reading. Sometimes, our brain gets full and complicates online reading comprehension. Let’s figure out why and what to do about it in Working Memory and Screen Components.

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About the Author

Dr Shona Rose

Shona Rose

Dr. Shona Rose, passionate about literacy and improving student experiences, researches and presents solutions to cause displays of learner growth. These displays become tools for teachers to provide support and intervention to accelerate the impact on student performance.
Dr. Rose uses her experiences as a baker at Kind House Ukraine Bakery, gardening and music, and budding interest as an outdoorswoman and overlander to make concrete connections to literary processes. Her rescue mutt, Joy, and ugly Cornish Rex cat, Youglie, often appear in her writings and activities.
When not researching and reading, Dr. Rose revels in being a “Nona” to her three grandchildren. 
Connect with Shona: 
Or by email to shonarose67 at gmail