Paper or screens: how can teachers choose?

This post is part of an ongoing series on what it means to teach literacy in the digital age. I’m exploring the ways that reading and writing are affected by 1:1 classrooms, paper vs. screens and the constant battle that we face against distraction. Several teachers have already shared their problems and solutions with me through conversation and a quick survey, which you can fill out here.  If you have a quick moment to contribute to the conversation, thank you.

One problem that I see in the current world of education technology is that there seem to be two firmly dug-in camps in regards to the utility of technology in the classroom.  Below, I’ve outlined two caricatures of teachers who fall onto opposite ends of the spectrum on this debate. Then, I offer a potentially more sensible middle ground. Lastly, I offer some examples of when we should likely not use technology in the classroom, when it’s a toss-up, and when we likely should use it.

Two Archetypal Teachers in the EdTech Debate

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There’s a 90% chance that he refers to it strictly as “The Google.” (Wikimedia Commons)


The first type of teacher uses paperback novels, lined paper and a chalk board, if his school still let’s him keep the chalk. That’s it. Everything in his system of teaching students to read or write works already. So, there is little impetus for change.  His argument is that technology is often a hindrance and a distraction to the deep work required in an literacy classroom. Through high expectations and firm rules, students can learn the value of unplugging from their devices and having real face-to-face conversations with each other during class.

Pros of this teachers’s mindset: he has very clearly defined expectations for students, he has a clear lesson plan and students and parents understand the type of classroom that he runs. And his argument about student interaction is a strong one: our students certainly need practice interacting with each other without devices around.

Cons of this teacher’s mindset: he may limit himself to new opportunities (e.g. Internet research, formative assessment tools) because he feels it is a distraction from the paper-based reading and writing that has worked so well in the past.

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“Can you imagine the student engagement?” he says, eyes glazed over the massive screen. (Flickr)


The second type of teacher has experienced a revolution in his classroom, potentially after attending a professional development session, participating in an especially meaningful Twitter chat or reading a practice-changing professional book.  This teacher has set a specific goal of becoming a paperless classroom, and uses devices in nearly all reading and writing situations.  The teacher has a depth of knowledge about the latest edtech apps, and is constantly trying out new ones with his classes. Some of the students might get confused about which app is used when, or how they log-in to all of these websites. This teacher sees himself as preparing students for the modern world.

Pros of this teacher’s mindset: Students will need a foundation of technology skills to compete in the 21st century workforce, so this teacher is correct about that. Additionally,because he’s trying so much different stuff, the teacher has the possibility of hitting on a discovery about how certain intentional uses of technology might accelerate or facilitate learning.

Cons of this teacher’s mindset: This teacher is likely prone to putting the cart before the horse, and getting a little too focused on the technology itself instead of the content and skills being taught.

A Happy Medium: See Technology Like Construction Paper

In a recent conversation with Tracy Enos, she made an observation that has stuck with me and inspired this post. She explained that technology is “like construction paper.”  If we are asking students to display information in a large-print format so that other students can read it, we would provide them with chart paper instead of an index card. If we are asking student to respond to a whole-class novel, we would provide them with sticky notes as opposed to grid paper. Different types of paper serve different functions for student learning.

To view technology like construction paper means that we view it on the same spectrum of tools available as paper novels, whiteboards, notebooks and index cards.  Then, we don’t use technology just to try something out or because we received a district mandate, but we intentionally use to meet the learning goals we have for our students.

The three examples below are my attempt to provide evidence for this technology is like construction paper mindset, specifically for literacy teachers. Whether you are interested in learning how to navigate the complex digital transition we are teaching in or not, I hope at least one of the example activities will give you something to consider for your teaching tomorrow.

Definitely Paper: Use Printed Copies of Essays for Read Around Groups

Paper copies are great for peer response activities like Read Around Groups

Paper copies are great for peer response activities like Read Around Groups


When students are working in Read Around Groups to read and respond to each other’s work, printed copies of the writing is best.  Asking students to trade Chromebooks or move from screen to screen is inconvenient and maybe even dangerous depending on your classroom arrangement. When students are passing papers from seat to seat and eventually group to group, it is far easier to stack up a pile of essays than move bodies or computers.

Additionally, in many cases it can be easier for students to make simple annotations or comments on each others’ papers if they are using a printed copy and pen/pencil. This differs from my philosophy on responding to student essays using Google Docs.

Both the intellectual task and the physical task of this type of peer response to writing make paper the better choice.

A Toss-up: Use Google Drawings to Teach Writing Structure?


You can use Google Drawings to move around the pieces of text and change the structure.


Here is an example where the “tactile” experience might be better on a device than on paper. Yes, I recognize the irony (or absurdity) in that statement.

Google Drawings can help students to easily manipulate a piece of writing in order to allow the students to visualize and revise the structure of their writing.

The example above is an instance where I wrote a sample introduction for comparison essay that my English 10 Honors students are working on.  I broke the introduction into pieces and copied them onto a Google Drawing. Then, I mixed up the pieces and posted it to Google Classroom with a “Make each student a copy” setting. This let each student determine what they saw as the best order for the ideas. Additionally, students used the comments feature to label the purpose or function of each piece.

Can all this be done on paper? Yes.  Many times, I’ve written a sample piece of writing, printed out copies for individuals or groups, and had the students arrange the pieces of writing on their desk. That worked, too. But it was a lot more convenient to do digitally. Plus the commenting feature allows me instantly see students thinking by pulling up one Drawing from each table of students while I stand by my computer. This is a nice time saver for formative assessment.

Here’s a situation where it is unclear to me as to whether digital or print reading would be better. It’s a matter of preference and circumstance.

Definitely Digital: Use a Whole Class “Can Edit” Doc to Lead a Literature Discussion


The "can edit" setting on a Google Docs can facilitate whole class discussion of a text.

The “can edit” setting on a Google Docs can facilitate whole class discussion of a text.


One of the challenges of facilitating any discussion around a text is having students cite text evidence.  This presents at least two problems I can see:

  1. It’s difficult for students to find text evidence “on the fly” during a discussion
  2. Other students can’t or won’t easily find the section of a text that their classmates are discussing

This example offers a potential solution to both of those problems. If you are asking your students to read an article or short story in a Google Doc,  make one copy of the doc to share with every student in the class.  Set the permissions to “Anyone with the link ‘can edit.'”  This will allow all of the students in the class to make changes (add stuff and delete stuff) to the same document. Yes, this can be scary. And, yes, there is always one student who writes “Hi,” “Sup,” or “Yo Mr. D.”  The class laughs, I laugh. I say that “someone is always that guy when we do this activity, but now let’s get to work.”

So, when reading the whole class text, you can pose a question to the class, then ask students to work independently or in pairs to answer the question and find a piece of evidence that best supports their answer. Then, the students highlight the evidence. As the document owner, you can see the name of any student who makes a highlight. This makes facilitating the conversation easy, as you already know that students who’ve made a highlight have a thought about the text and have evidence to support it.  As students share their answers, the whole class can see the relevant place in the text on the interactive white board or on their device. The class can move through the pieces of evidence, as they are all displayed on the board. The class can also see when multiple students highlight the same piece of evidence.

This activity is valuable in a digital setting because it helps student share their thinking with the whole class in a way that might be difficult with each student having their own paper copy of the story.

Take it Back to the Learning Goal

At this point, you might be wondering how you can manage to make another set of decisions in your daily teaching. You are already differentiating instruction, integrating literacy skills into your non-ELA classroom, ensuring you prepare students for common assessments.

“Now, this blog post is suggesting that I evaluate each activity for whether it would be better in print or in paper?”

Well, yes.

Ultimately, that’s just now part of best practice as a teacher. At times, we all have to make decisions strictly out of convenience or time-saving, but the more we make decisions that align with supporting our learning goals, the more students will get the skills and content we are trying to have them get out of our lessons. And that sounds like it’s making things not harder…but better.


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