Reading to Learn and Writing to Teach: Literacy Strategies for Online Writing Instruction
by Beth L. Hewett, 2015

Part One: OWI and Literacy Needs

Neither age nor learning style accounts for the complexities that digital technology brings to the classroom and how such technology affects students. It helps to consider students in relation to the digital age in which we currently live. (2015, p. 21)

The Students

Hewett faced a difficult challenge in writing this book—recognizing the incredible diversity of students, teachers, institutions, technologies, and potential future changes to each of these while also generalizing enough about them to be able to write a meaningful and generally helpful book for her diverse audience: educators new to an online milieu or veteran digital educators. She acknowledged that "generalizations always fail to capture the uniqueness of students, potentially creating caricatures of the thinking and feeling people who inhabit our classes"; still, she continues by defending the use of generalizations: "yet, they are useful in discerning what students need from educators in an OWI setting" (p. 21). I found her direct handling of the struggle against but reliance on generalizations not to be a cop-out for cutting corners or drawing easy conclusions—part one was rife with nuanced thinking about who students are, how the digital affects them, what reading is, and practical considerations for how to teach in light of all of that.

Particularly helpful concepts included her pushback against the idea of the digital native: "We must respect that being born to digital technology does not equal enjoyment of, comfort with, or preference for it" (p. 26). She also theorized difference in maturity between students as "pedagogy" (literally derived from the Greek for "leading the child") for those reliant on teachers, "andragogy" for those independent students reliant on their own experience and needs, and an in-between "adolegogy" as a midpoint between the two (p. 18). Multitasking and the brain science behind it was also a factor she addressed: "Researchers have indicated that multitaskers make up to 50 percent more errors and take up to 50 percent longer to complete a task than nonmultitaskers (Medina, 2008, p. 87)" (p. 30). Throughout her treatment of student categorization, Hewett tried to bring more nuance to how we think and talk about students, rejecting "traditional" and "nontraditional" and claiming that "all OWI students [are] generally nontraditional" (p. 24).

screenshot with gray background, header text, image of smiling male face, and partially readable introuction text
Figure 4. Screenshot of Richard Samuelson's "Get-to-know-you" post, as Beth Hewett recommends. Text shows enthusiasm ("I'm excited for this class"), introduces the teacher (e.g., that he's a PhD student at Idaho State University), and provides "two truths and a lie": 1) "I came within 30–40 feet of a big bull moose this summer"; 2) "I made my own board game which I'm going to enter into a competition"; 3) "I'm actually Richard Samuelson the third, since I have my father's and grandfather's name."

Hewett's dilemma of talking about students in generalities yet creating personal connections with them is one that online teachers struggle to negotiate. The screenshot to the left is my entry in a get-to-know-you game I do with my students, yet by requiring students to be able to post images like this I worry that now I've assumed my students are digital natives, which Hewett also warns about.

The Science of Reading

Hewett brought a similar nuance to her discussion of reading, starting with the difficulty of even understanding what reading is. She drew on linguistic definitions of reading as involving phonological, orthographic, semantic/pragmatic, syntactic, and morphological elements; a "Textbase" and "Situation" model of deep and shallow reading; "The Brain on Text," a section about brain plasticity that notes, "while the brain is hardwired for many things, reading is not one of them" (p. 54); how the brain progressed from decoding to fluency to expert reading; eye/brain relations in saccades, fixations, and regressions; and finally reading as hard work: "Teachers of reading and writing…need to give up control of what they consider to be a good reading to accept instead a good enough reading" (p. 71). She concluded part one with a large section on the importance of access (including a 12-item bullet list about what teachers can do to help students) and practical considerations for teaching reading, including the value but danger of the cognitive disruption inherent in a text-rich online environment, bullet lists of possible exercise types/administrative and institutional concerns/tips for making online teaching time-efficient/best practices for cooperative work. Her short, concise focus on what's useful sets the stage for the next part of her book, which has a similar feel.

Back to Overview Continue to Part Two: Reading to Learn