Chapter 4: Developing Reading Engagement

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Engaged readers approach reading with enthusiasm and confidence. Pursuing clear reading goals, they focus their attention purposefully and demonstrate well-established habits of concentration. They take pleasure in using their skills to understand a text and invest special effort in what they care about most. Many say they love to read, and show it by consuming book after book.

Students become deeply engaged in reading for many reasons: the subject or the author's handling of words fascinates them; they are challenged to just the right degree and feel themselves progressing and learning; they enjoy doing what they do well; or working hard at reading serves a broader goal of doing well in school.

Engagement is essential to successful reading. Children who are beginning to read must be engaged in the material they are trying to read and in the process of learning. Excellent readers learning advanced comprehension skills read more effectively if they are interested and confident of their ability to succeed. Every teacher knows that engaging children in reading includes building their confidence and arousing their interest, enthusiasm, and desire. Successful reading teachers help children think of themselves as readers from the first day of instruction.

Motivation and the Brain

The affective systems at the core of the brain are the networks responsible for engagement. These are the systems that know why. While recognition systems know what and where an object is, and strategic systems know how to do things, the affective systems know which objects and actions are important. They are responsible for feelings: knowing that we are hungry or afraid, or that we love reading. They also give us our capacity to prioritize our attention as we pursue complex activities such as reading — focusing on a page of text, reading the sentences in order, or stopping to make a note.

The desirability that the affective systems find in various activities depends on our physical and psychological states. For instance, sub-systems of the affective systems turn information about our blood sugar levels into feelings about food. When blood sugar is low, our desire for food increases. We are motivated to eat, and the craving for food may make it difficult to concentrate on anything else. When blood sugar is normal, food is less important. When blood sugar is extremely high, we may actually feel an aversion to food and be motivated to avoid even seeing or smelling it. Other sub-systems control our interest in seeking novelty, challenge, safety, rest, air, and so forth. In each case, discrepancy from a specific internal goal or set point leads to affective changes that help us know what is important. Many of these set points involve subtle correlations. We are drawn to novelty at times when we need stimulation (we feel bored) but avoid it when we feel overstimulated. Individuals' set points vary so the amount of sameness they find boring and the amount of novelty they seek varies among them.

Within the context of this familiar ebb and flow of interest and desire, we each have characteristic interests and priorities that define what we like and what we choose to do. Though we may not want to eat a meal or read a book at a given moment, we know whether we like eating or reading in general. Just as our recognition and strategic systems learn patterns over time, our affective systems learn patterns of feeling and emotional response. Past experience teaches us to repeat activities that give us pleasure or satisfaction and avoid the ones that cause pain or humiliation. In fact, studies of amnesiac patients show that affective systems can learn and remember feelings even when the patient doesn't consciously recognize the causes.

Research shows that we do not have a single "learning and remembering" system. In fact, we have several. Although they often work together, they develop their own learned patterns and can function independently to some extent. All of us have learned feelings whose experiential roots we may not be able to recognize.

Instruction and Engagement


Research suggests that students can actually be taught to value and enjoy reading. Just as recognition skills are built over time and models of strategic action are constructed through guidance and practice, patterns of positive feeling are established over time in the affective systems. Teachers, parents, and others can help students develop positive feelings about reading that provide the essential motivation for learning to read and being a reader — carrying a love of reading through school and into adulthood. Once again, research is telling experienced teachers something they already know: that confidence, enthusiasm, and enjoyment support learning. Though this is not new news, research that clarifies why and how engagement happens can help us evaluate technology to support engagement.

Engagement depends upon a complex mix of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. Intrinsic motivation includes curiosity, aesthetic involvement, challenge, feelings of competence, and enjoyment. Extrinsic motivations include compliance, recognition, and grades (Guthrie, McGough, Bennett, & Rice, 1996). Most students are influenced by several of these factors at once, but studies show that an emphasis on extrinsic rewards can actually diminish a student's motivation to engage in learning, and may even reduce the quality of learning outcomes (Condry, 1977; Corno, 1993; Kohn, 1993; Lepper & Greene, 1978; Malone, 1981). On the other hand, intrinsically motivated students tend to persist longer, work harder, actively apply strategies, and retain key information more consistently (Guthrie, McGough, et al., 1996; Guthrie, Van Meter, et al., 1996; Malone, 1981; Piaget, 1951; Shulman & Keislar, 1966).

Intrinsic motivations arise from many sources. A positive feeling about books at home and the experience of being read to by parents generally build intrinsic motivation for reading. Research and practice suggest that a number of factors affect the development of intrinsic motivation in a school setting: the level of challenge offered by tasks and materials; the quality and timing of feedback to students about their work; the supports and scaffolds available to learners; students' interest in tasks and content; and the nature of the learning context. We will look at these one at a time so we can understand more clearly how teachers and computer technology can cultivate student engagement in reading.

Providing Appropriate Levels of Challenge

How often have parents bemoaned the fact that their children have difficulty concentrating on school work, but can remain absorbed by "mindless" video games for hours? The same children who seem unfocused, even "lazy," in school are often the ones who become deeply immersed in computer games. Unlike the classroom environment, the simulated environment on the screen engages them: they concentrate for long periods of time.

Csikszentmihalyi (1997) calls this feeling of deep engagement a state of "flow":

Flow tends to occur when a person's skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable. … When goals are clear, feedback relevant, and challenges and skills are in balance, attention becomes ordered and fully invested. Because of the total demand on psychic energy, a person in flow is completely focused. (pp. 30-31)

In his study of what makes computer games so captivating, Malone (1981) found variable challenge to be of key importance. Most popular computer games take players through increasingly challenging levels as they become more and more skillful. Lode Runner, for instance, has over 100 levels, each slightly harder than the previous one. Mastery of one level opens the door to the next. The difference between level 1 and level 100 seems an unbridgeable chasm; a novice player forced to attempt level 100 would give up in frustration. The difference between levels 1 and 2 is a small, highly motivating step. Each level gives the player a new opportunity to overcome, in Csikszentmihalyi's words, "a challenge that is just about manageable." The "right" level of challenge is always a moving target. As skill improves, the next challenge tests new mastery to just the right extent. The same kind of incremental, responsive challenge can foster engagement in the classroom. Without new challenges, students become bored; impossible challenges frustrate and dishearten them. The right level of challenge at the right time can "pull in" students the way video games do, building mastery a step at a time.


Ongoing feedback on performance is equally critical to deep immersion in a task. Feedback includes reflections back to students that help them experience their own work as others see it, or that measure their efforts against an objective standard. Feedback helps learners monitor their progress and the appropriateness of their actions. Outside recognition of growing skills creates feelings of accomplishment, progress, and effectiveness — and motivates further work. Most of us have our own sense of how well we are doing, but that internal measure has been calibrated by past experiences of praise and criticism from others. Even the most self-reliant among us benefit from external confirmation of our internal sense of accomplishment and from useful criticism that points the way to new achievement. Video games and game-like educational software offer feedback in the form of scores and promotion to a higher level. Teacher comments and teacher or peer responses to entries in reading journals provide feedback in the context of a substantive exchange. Publication of work in a booklet, a class newspaper, or on the Web provides recognition that the student's work will interest others. All of these forms of feedback can support student engagement.

Providing Support

Appropriate scaffolding also helps engage children in activities. In both games and learning environments, the best scaffolds are present only when needed. For example, players of the computer game Tetris may elect to preview each upcoming shape. The preview costs points, but makes the challenge of the game manageable and helps build competence. Having mastered the skills needed to succeed at one level, they can turn off the preview until a greater challenge reintroduces the need for help. Particularly when new concepts or skills are introduced, learning requires incremental supports along with incremental challenges.

Providing tasks that are just beyond a learner's independent reach, and at the same time offering the necessary support to bridge that gap, can engage students deeply in learning. This connection between levels of challenge and support is captured by Vygotsky's concept of the "zone of proximal development" (ZPD). The ZPD is "the distance between the actual developmental level ... and the level of potential development ... under adult guidance or in collaboration with more able peers" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). In literacy instruction, this means giving a child a task that is too difficult for him to accomplish on his own, but within reach with support from a teacher or peer. Implicit in the idea of the ZPD is both an appropriate level of challenge — one that stretches the learner past his or her current knowledge and skill but is within his or her range — and an interaction between the learner and others who make the "stretch" possible by providing a pedagogical experience that supports the learner.

Mercer and Fisher (1992) point out that only tasks requiring scaffolding are truly in the student's zone of proximal development. Tasks that can be accomplished without scaffolds do not lead to learning, because they are too easy. Tasks that cannot be achieved even with scaffolds do not lead to learning because they are too difficult.

Appropriate scaffolding is essential to teaching in the ZPD. Too much scaffolding undermines a student's sense of accomplishment; too little means frustration and discouragement. The right amount helps engage students in the learning process, building interest and enjoyment. The right blend of challenge, support, and meaningful feedback can put even beginning students in the state of flow described earlier, fully engaged in the learning process.

Fostering Interest

Deep engagement also depends on interesting material. Challenge has its own fascination, but most people grow tired of challenges that have nothing to do with their real interests. Though the role of interest in learning is generally acknowledged, many underestimate its power as a motivator. In her study of 12 adults who had achieved extraordinary professional success despite severe and persistent dyslexia, Fink (1995) discovered a common thread: "In childhood, each had a passionate personal interest, a burning desire to know more about a discipline that required reading" (p. 274). Many of these individuals continued to have difficulty with reading mechanics and to read slowly as adults; yet they developed most of the skills in Chall's "stage five" reading. They could "read all kinds of materials — up to highly difficult, specialized, technical, and abstract — for their own needs … [and] analyze and synthesize knowledge from reading" (Chall, 1996, p. 100).

One key to their success was deep knowledge in a single domain. When they read new texts, their prior knowledge provided scaffolding that helped them conquer difficult material. A structure of familiar vocabulary, form, and content let them focus on whatever material was new, pursuing their interest through continuing extensive reading. That knowledge and persistence derived from their original passionate engagement with a subject. For individuals with skill deficits, interest can lead to remarkable engagement and success. It can motivate them to make extraordinary efforts to overcome difficulties that would stop them cold if they did not care so much about the subject.

On the face of it, interest seems a straightforward sort of business, but it has been the subject of extensive research and heated debate in education for decades (Alexander, Kulikowich, & Jetton, 1994; Garner, Alexander, Gillingham, Kulikowich, & Brown, 1991; Hidi, 1990; Renninger, Hidi, & Krapp, 1992; Schiefele, 1991). Interest is sometimes described as an individual's desire to learn about a subject for its own sake. Most researchers differentiate "individual" from "situational" or "text-based" interest. Individual interest is a sustained preference for certain content or activities; situational interest derives from the appeal of a particular set of stimuli, and is more short-lived and episodic (Hidi, 1990; James, 1890; Renninger et al., 1992; Schiefele, 1991). Factors such as novelty, fantasy, and authentic learning contexts can heighten situational interest. Some uses of situational interest have troubled educators. As early as 1913, Dewey cautioned teachers against "fictitious inducements to attention" (as cited in Garner et al., 1991, p. 644). Studies have supported his warning, demonstrating the ineffectiveness of inserting intriguing detail in expository writing in an effort to attract students' attention and keep them engaged in the text. This "seductive detail" (as interesting but unimportant information added to text is called) does attract students' attention, but has no positive effect on reading comprehension because it is irrelevant to the subject itself. In some cases, it distracts from important information and actually diminishes student recall (Alexander et al, 1994; Garner, Brown, Sanders, & Menke, 1992; Garner, Gillingham, & White, 1989; Hidi & Baird, 1988). Thus entertaining elements in "edutainment" software may actually distract students from learning. Though these concerns merit further attention, the value of situational interest should not be discounted. Applied appropriately, situational elements that increase novelty or introduce an appealing environment can increase students' engagement in reading itself.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that cognitive performance improves when students are personally interested in the material (Asher, 1980; Estes & Vaughan, 1973; Renninger et al., 1992). Using students' interests as a guide in selection of materials is an obvious approach to building engagement in reading (Harris & Sipay, 1990; Roswell & Natchez, 1977), even among poor readers (Carbo, 1997; Fink, 1995). This suggests that teachers should provide reading choices to students whenever possible.

A significant component of personal interest is familiarity with the domain or background knowledge. Background knowledge fosters further interest and becomes a scaffold for new learning (Fink, 1995; Ross, McCormick, & Krisak, 1986). Richek and McTague (1988) used the Curious George series to tap the interest of second- and third-grade students who were having difficulty learning to read. Students' growing familiarity with content, structure, characters, and vocabulary — and word activities based on story content — supported their reading and built their skills. Richek and McTague report:

... we began to notice a marked increase in the children's enthusiasm for reading. This enthusiasm made them willing to read more material at one time and to read independently at home. Expanded reading, in turn, provided a scaffold which further enhanced word recognition abilities and enabled the strategy to become increasingly more effective. (p. 223)

Richek and McTague's success came in part from choosing material likely to interest most students in second and third grade. The less obvious source of success was their use of a series of books that supports extensive, continuing work on familiar material without the boredom of repetition. By having students work with several Curious George books, the teachers could build prior knowledge even in students who had not been introduced to those books before.

Learning Contexts

We know that learners vary widely in their preferences for learning context. Some thrive in an exploratory environment that gives them room to construct and discover ideas; others like a high degree of structure. Some engage deeply with fantasy environments, while others prefer authentic, real-life contexts. No one environment will motivate and engage the entire class. Teachers who offer a variety of learning contexts and give all students opportunities to inhabit the ones they prefer will be more successful than those who provide only one. No matter how engaging or creative any single context seems, it will work well for some students and not others.

Computers and Engagement


In a print-based environment, individualizing instruction to promote engagement is challenging. Extensive, costly collections of subject matter are needed if children are to choose their own reading content. Printed matter cannot be customized to give each student the right balance of challenge and support. Teachers have limited time to provide the individual encouragement and guidance that motivate students to read. What can computers do to help teachers make learning to read engaging?

From the earliest days of computer-based teaching materials, it has been commonplace to describe the computer's ability to engage the interest of children as one of its main advantages. Children enjoy using computers because they are novel, because they feature sound, color, and movement, and because they offer environments that are both surprising and controllable. And children are as good as, or better than, adults at using computers — a powerful attraction. Though novelty wears off and multimedia effects grow tiresome over time, computers nevertheless hold the attention of many students who may be hard to motivate in other ways.

Some of the computer's attractions clearly evoke situational interest. Sometimes students drawn in by the computer version of "seductive detail" will stay drawn in and become engaged in the process of reading. Sometimes — depending on the particular student and software — they may be distracted and diverted. Willingness to spend time with reading software does not automatically signal interest in reading. Some engaging games may be engaging only as games. Similarly, many electronic books include animated illustrations that may or may not be related to the text. Readers click on various graphic elements and animals scurry down trees, birds sing, doors slam, lights go on and off, and amusing exchanges occur between characters. These animations are often entertaining, and some children will spend more time with the CD-ROM because they enjoy them. Since they do not support the text, though, it is not clear whether they help children learn to read or distract them from the text. Further research may tell us more about how educationally useful these entertainment features are.

Imaginative design and attractive multimedia effects can contribute to the motivating potential of computers, but the flexibility of the computer is the source of its real power to engage students deeply in reading. Good teachers use flexible approaches to motivate their students: providing individually appropriate challenge, feedback, support, and context, and fostering personal interest in subjects. To help students develop lasting, intrinsic motivation, computers must support students in similar ways.


Video games take advantage of the computer's flexibility to create incremental levels of challenge, accommodating highly varied skills among players. The ability to select and change challenge levels for different students is critically important in educational software too. Adjustability lets teachers hold some variables constant and focus students' learning where they most need to attend and practice. Technically and theoretically, computers can teach in the zone of proximal development for each student, providing exactly the right level of challenge with exactly the right scaffolds to bridge students to the next level of skill.

How well have software designers taken advantage of this capacity to date? As we saw in earlier chapters, programs use game formats to teach patterns or strategies. The best of these programs draw motivational lessons from the design principles that make video games tick, providing adjustable challenges, or incremental levels through which the student can progress with success.

In the example in Figure 4-1, from Working Phonics, the management system supports customization of challenge levels. Teachers can delete activities that are too easy or difficult from the list, thereby setting optimal levels for individual students.

FIGURE 4-1. Working Phonics (Curriculum Associates)

Word Munchers Deluxe (see Figure 4-2) uses a Pac-Man-style game format to offer learning activities with customizable levels. Students move a "Muncher" around a grid of words or pictures, munching those that fit a given category while being chased by "Troggles." If they wish, students can play with "Troggles off," eliminating the need to move quickly.

FIGURE 4-2. In Word Munchers Deluxe, the student controls a green "Muncher" who must move around a grid and munch only the words that fit the given criteria. In this case, the Muncher is being chased by a Troggle while trying to find words that have the same vowel sound as in the word book.

When starting a new game, students can also choose a subject (Classification, Grammar, Phonics, Vocabulary, Sentences, or Challenge — a combination of the other four), a level of difficulty, and a variety of activities (see Figure 4-3).

FIGURE 4-3. When students begin a new game of Word Munchers Deluxe, they have many options for customization.

This flexibility engages students by inviting them to climb the challenge ladder at their own pace, increasing the level of difficulty as appropriate to their skills.


The highest quality computer-based educational activities provide appealing feedback that is germane to the task at hand, and furthers or reinforces learning. An activity in My Personal Tutor, shown in Figure 4-4, provides relevant feedback to reinforce left-to-right reading.

FIGURE 4-4. My Personal Tutor (Microsoft)

The directions for this activity say, "Click on the fruit where we begin reading." When the student selects the fruit at the top left of the screen, an arrow appears pointing toward the right and the voice then says, "Drag the fruit in this direction. Put the fruit in the basket. That's the direction you go when you read." As the student drags the fruit from left to right, words appear, forming a full sentence. Each word is pronounced as it is revealed. The student is then told to start at the left side of the next line and repeat the action of dragging the fruit from left to right, revealing another sentence. Together, the sentences form a small passage. When the activity is completed, the entire passage is read and highlighted word by word while a finger points at each word. The reinforcement for this practice activity is to hear the passage read while words are highlighted — the "reward" is reading itself!

Feedback can also be directed at specific activities to help students work through particular skills. Kid Phonics 2 provides practice with phonemic patterns. One activity displays a word, then scrambles its letters in phonemic units (see the scrambled word squeak shown in Figure 4-5). The student must put the phonemes back in correct order. Unlike many other "scramble" activities, this one provides relevant feedback during the process of solving the scramble. While the student is working, he or she can click and hear the sound of each group of letters individually (by clicking the letter group) or in whole word context (by clicking the play button).

FIGURE 4-5. Kid Phonics 2 (Davidson & Associates).
Reproduced courtesy of Davidson & Associates, Inc. 1996.

Unlike the examples here, most educational software games provide performance feedback in the form of extrinsic "rewards." Instead of content-related feedback that contributes to learning, children find dancing animals, cheering crowds, and other random events that are supposed to entertain and reinforce success. While some children enjoy these animations, their length and irrelevance to the task reduce the time spent on learning. These electronic bribes may also subtly communicate the message that reading is not very interesting. Worse, some programs actually disallow behaviors that further learning goals. One program we examined attempted to use a game show format to build reading comprehension skills. The game penalized students for referring back to an on-line passage and re-reading the text when answering a question — discouraging use of an important learning strategy! Appropriate feedback can motivate students to keep learning, but we need to be wary of feedback that — at best — only encourages them to keep playing.

Adjustable Scaffolds

Computers are good tools for building reading scaffolds that help teachers support weak or undeveloped skills. Then students can focus on targeted aspects of reading without being "dragged down" by their weaknesses. Scaffolds motivate students by helping them progress faster and read at a higher level than they could without help. They take many forms; the examples provided here are drawn from electronic books, most of which offer a wide range of supports for learners with varied styles and needs. These scaffolds enable young readers to read "like an expert" by supporting decoding, background knowledge, and vocabulary skills. In our experience, working with electronic books seems to lead young readers to engage more with printed books. This may be because they have experienced success as readers.

Stories on CD-ROM usually provide recorded speech and sequential text highlighting, offering a model of expressive, well-paced reading, and opportunities for learners to read independently with support. The best programs use multiple media to support learning to read, and allow reading scaffolds to be tailored to individual student needs.

Reader Rabbit's Reading Development Library offers options for content display and narrator. Selecting from stories such as "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" and "The Three Little Pigs," children, parents, or teachers can elect to have text read by sentence or page, to turn text highlighting on or off, and to display or hide the story word list. Readers also choose the narrator from whose viewpoint they would like the story told (see Figure 4-6 ).

FIGURE 4-6. Reader Rabbit's Reading Development Library
(The Learning Company)

Hearing the story told by more than one narrator supports understanding of speaker's viewpoint and encourages identification with different characters. It also provides an opportunity to build familiarity with the characters and story through a mix of repetition and variety — in some ways an electronic variation on Richek and McTague's work with the Curious George series.

Graphics and animation furnish additional support for reading. Reader Rabbit's Reading Development Library uses animation to represent the written story in another medium, actively showing the events described in the text. This alternative representation supports children's understanding of the text and sometimes extends story content. Successive mouse clicks on the illustrations evoke the animations in segments, rather than all at once. Short, discrete "bits of meaning" avoid too much passive waiting. Unlike some electronic books, those in the Reader Rabbit's Reading Development Library tie animations strongly to the text (see Figure 4-7). This tie supports children's understanding of sentences as discrete units of meaning. Through the animations, children see each sentence enacted. Those with strong preferences for visual representation can view the animation first, and then click on the read button to hear the text read. Others may choose to hear the text first. The program supports reading comprehension while accommodating different learning styles.

Screenshot of Reader Rabbit's Reading Development Library software
FIGURE 4-7. In Reader Rabbit's Reading Development Library (The Learning Company), animations illustrate the action of the story. On this page of "The Three Little Pigs," the illustration at first shows only the setting.
Screenshot of Reader Rabbit's Reading Development Library software
One click on the illustration sends the pig running down the road.
Screenshot of Reader Rabbit's Reading Development Library software
A second click sets the wolf on his trail. The animation is both entertaining and pertinent.

Building Engagement by Supporting Composition

Multimedia reading programs often give students tools for producing their own multimedia compositions. Supporting composition strengthens the reading-writing connection and fosters engagement, since children are almost certain to be deeply interested in their own creations.

In the My Book area of WiggleWorks, for example, editable versions of the books appear in black line form (see Figure 4-8). Available support ranges from almost total to almost none. A student not yet ready to do much composition can simply color the picture or replace a word or two, using those few changes to make the original story his or her own. At the opposite extreme, students can erase the entire page, and fill the blank text and picture space with a wholly original composition. Their new text is read aloud through synthetic speech by the computer.

Three screenshots of WiggleWorks software
Original book page
Three screenshots of WiggleWorks software
"My Book" black-line version
Three screenshots of WiggleWorks software
Jared's version

FIGURE 4-8. In the WiggleWorks My Book area, a child can modify the illustrations and text from each page of the book or write and illustrate their own version. After reading The Rainy Day Alphabet Book, Jared Seigal, age 6, used the My Book area to make a book about the activities he enjoys on rainy days.

WiggleWorks also provides alternative means for composing. Children can first record their text and then play it back as they write, using their spoken words as a guide. Students can listen to a teacher's recorded suggestion or story starter to help them get going. They can select words saved from reading in the My Words list and paste them into their composition. At any point, they can hear their text read in the computer's synthetic speech, and use this external collaboration to help them monitor and revise their work. New stories can be printed and shared or played back on screen. The high degree of interactivity, variable scaffolds, and multiple composition modes make the program a rich environment for supporting student composition at many levels of ability. In the example in Figure 4-8, an alphabet book about rainy days has been personalized by a young reader.

Supporting Interest by Offering Reading Options

Supported reading and writing programs such as Reader Rabbit Reading Development Library and Story Web offer students a variety of titles to read independently, supported by the scaffolding the programs provide. But even a large library of CD-ROMs is not likely to provide depth of content needed to interest all students. Nor can they offer brand-new material — material that is engaging because it is current. A connection to the Internet, however, offers almost unlimited content, including texts about the latest events. The Internet was created so that far-flung scientists and academics could communicate with each other. It has grown to become the most widespread communications network the world has ever known. Sources of electronic texts on the World Wide Web are multiplying exponentially. To avoid wasting time, locate and bookmark a few appropriate collections of resources so you can go directly to material that will be useful for your students (see the sidebar, "Great Sources of Text on the World Wide Web," opposite). One such collection, the Reading Zone of the Internet Public Library, is pictured in Figure 4-9.

FIGURE 4-9. The Reading Zone of the Internet Public Library {} includes links to picture books, short stories, poetry, myths, fables, magazines, and information about authors on the Web.

1998 Netscape Communications Corp. Used with permission. All rights reserved. This electronic file or page may not be reprinted or copied without the express written permission of Netscape.

Teachers can select and download stories, books, and articles on a variety of subjects from these sources and save them electronically as word-processor documents. These electronic texts can then be placed in software programs that provide additional reading and learning supports. Judith Sweeney has worked extensively to develop methods and resources for downloading electronic text from the Internet so it can readily be used with programs that provide support (Sweeney, 1997). Write:OutLoud and ULTimate Reader both provide support through word processing and text-to-speech features. ULTimate Reader includes basic Web browser functionality; users can open documents on-line and read them with support, eliminating the need to copy text from the Web into a different program. Both Write:OutLoud and ULTimate Reader feature adjustable support; students can have words automatically highlighted in sequence at an appropriate pace, and hear only the words that give them difficulty. By combining supports and content matched to the interests of individuals, these strategies can motivate many students.

Varying Reading Context

The Internet offers an exciting new context for authentic reading and writing. It is an ideal environment for supporting the kind of communication that fully engages learners. Web sites created by parents, teachers, and students offer opportunities to communicate with mentors, experts, peers, and pen pals from around the world. Simple exchanges of e-mail can get students writing and reading with the same intensity they bring to the most exciting video game. Publishing work on the Web and receiving feedback from across the globe conveys to young children the power of reading and writing and demonstrates their ultimate purpose — to communicate across time and space. Many schools have set up Web sites so students can tell the millions of others on the Web about themselves and engage in extended conversations.

In the combined K-1-2 classrooms at Buckman Elementary School in Portland Oregon, Tim Lauer and Beth Rohloff help students create and publish class projects on subjects as diverse as animal studies, hovercraft design, and women in history on their Web site, shown in Figure 4-10 (Leu, 1997).

FIGURE 4-10. The Room 100 Web Site, Buckman Elementary School {}.
1998 Netscape Communications Corp. Used with permission. All rights reserved. This electronic file or page may not be reprinted or copied without the express written permission of Netscape.

There are many sites that allow students to publish work on-line, such as the KidPub Web site (see Figure 4-11). On the KidPub Web site, individuals can publish their own stories, contribute to a group-authored story, join a fantasy adventure, or sign up to get a pen pal (Leu, 1997; McMillen, Shanahan, Dowd, MacPhee, & Hester, 1997).

FIGURE 4-11. KidPub Web Site {}.
1998 Netscape Communications Corp. Used with permission. All rights reserved. This electronic file or page may not be reprinted or copied without the express written permission of Netscape.

On-line mentoring is a growing resource for teachers and students. Students can contact experts in a variety of fields, learn more about their work, and ask questions and advice. Pitsco's Ask an Expert page (see Figure 4-12) connects readers to experts in a number of fields (Leu, 1997).

FIGURE 4-12. Ask an Expert Web Site {}.
1998 Netscape Communications Corp. Used with permission. All rights reserved. This electronic file or page may not be reprinted or copied without the express written permission of Netscape.

The Harvard Literacy Lab Web site encourages children with reading and writing difficulties to write, to share their work, and to engage in e-mail exchanges with people from around the world (Purcell-Gates, 1996). According to David Grogan, Web developer for the Literacy Lab:

The Lab's director and supervisors decided to create a Web site as a place for the Lab's students to display their work for others to read and to initiate e-mail conversations among the students in the Lab and visitors to the site. The rationale behind the Web site is that this will help motivate the students to read and write by relying on the fascination for computers that many of the children have combined with the concept of a worldwide audience for their work. The motivating factors behind the Web site will also provide a catalyst for engagement with texts outside of the computer. (D. Grogan, personal communication, October 21, 1997)

Each student creates a home page with four sections: a self portrait and short autobiography; links to other students' work; links to Web sites of interest to the students; and an e-mail form. Their self-portraits and autobiographies give students a sense of ownership and give teachers insight into students' interests. Student work submitted during the week is collected and posted as Work of the Week, which is highlighted on the first page of the Lab's Web site. Students are deeply engaged in the process of posting work, linking to other work, and receiving e-mails from around the world. According to Grogan:

... the concept that their work is being viewed by others outside of the Lab has generated excitement and engagement in the writing process. One student commented that "it's cool that sixth graders in another school are reading my story when I'm only in fourth grade!"
To reinforce this concept of a global audience for their work the Lab has hung a wall map of the world above the computer where the students have been pinning labels on the locations from where they have received e-mail. Many adults might be apprehensive about displaying their work to such a large audience but most of the students in the Lab are not so shy and are simply delighted to receive e-mail from Australia or Japan from someone who has read their poem or story and indeed they want to write more. (D. Grogan, personal communication, October 21, 1997)

The Lab's links to other, related Web sites create, in effect, supported text on the Web because they connect the reader to familiar domains of knowledge. Grogan describes a girl interested in photography who linked her home page to a Kodak Web site containing helpful hints on taking pictures. Because of her deep interest in the subject, her motivation to read material from this site was intense.

Finally, the Literacy Lab student home pages contain forms that enable visitors to send their comments to the student via e-mail. Dialogues begin, reinforcing the students' awareness that their work is being read by outsiders, and engaging them in a two-way, reading and writing conversation. Grogan observes:

One teacher observed of her student that unlike other reading and writing tasks there was no effort required to get her student started on responding to her e-mail and in fact it was difficult to get her to stop and start something else. (D. Grogan, personal communication, October 21, 1997)

The World Wide Web is an authentic communication environment offering almost infinite opportunities for highly engaging literacy development. The challenge is to select points of entry and provide structures for students so that they do not become overwhelmed or wander into inappropriate sites. The Harvard Literacy Lab site and the project publishing structures used at the Buckman Elementary School are two examples of what can be done. Given such structures, the Web may be unrivaled as a highly engaging literacy learning opportunity, open to whatever uses imaginative teachers and students make of it.

The Right Kind of Engagement

To realize the full potential of computer technology to engage students in reading and learning to read, we need to look beyond the bells and whistles that make computers engaging in the most superficial sense. Computer games offer educational software designers and teachers some valuable lessons, especially in the way they adjust challenge and support to match developing skills; but there is more to motivating readers than adding entertainment value to reading lessons or tests.

Software that can engage students in learning to read, rather than in playing with the software, takes advantage of the flexibility of the computer to provide support, encouragement, and interest appropriate to individual students. The best software uses the various capabilities of the computer to support reading skills and help students discover the pleasures and rewards of reading. Increasingly, computers can and will offer students the satisfaction and excitement of authentic communication. Here are some guidelines for evaluating software to help motivate students. As always, using a number of programs and Web sites in combination is likely to be the most fruitful strategy. Look for:

  • software that provides variable challenges and adjustable supports
  • software with engaging multimedia features and rewards that are germane to reading processes and the meanings of texts
  • software that respects and emphasizes the pleasures of reading
  • software that provides tools that students can use to create and publish their own works
  • communications software and networks that provide a broad and varied real-life context for authentic communication
  • software that invites students to set their own challenges and levels of support
  • software that contains or is open to a great variety of texts

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