What is a digital text?

New Texts, New Responsibilities

If one of our goals as literacy educators is to prepare or students to succeed in the reading and writing situations that they will face outside of our classrooms, then we have a new responsibility: we have to figure out the type of texts that students will encounter outside of our classrooms.

This means understanding the digital texts that our students will encounter.  Digital texts require an additional set of reading skills, both for making meaning of the texts and engaging with them.

But before teachers can understand how to read a digital text and how to teach a digital text, we have to understand what this mode of text is.

If you want to see what’s possible in a digital text. Jump right here or here, two projects from The New York Times that capture the depth of meaning that writers can convey using digital tools.

Here’s an example of the reader’s experience while reading “Snow Fall,” which is linked above:

Devote an hour or so to "Snow Fall." You won't regret it.

Devote an hour or so to “Snow Fall.” You won’t regret it.

Features of Digital Texts

Hyperlinks offer links to external webpages, or other texts from the same source, which are meant to supplement the reading experience.  These links might either be to provide attribution for information cited, or simply to offer the reading another text to read about a related topic.

When it comes to teaching digital texts, we have to acknowledge that these offer students a decision making process. They have to ask themselves if they want to click the link or not. Then, when they open the new tab, they have to determine whether or not this link is something they should dive into deeply, or simply acknowledge and return back to the original text.

Embedded images are familiar to teachers and students because they also appear in print texts, but images have never been easier to capture because of the proliferation of camera phones. We might consider having students discuss the significance of, for example, a journalist’s decision to features a cell phone photo instead of a professional photo.

Embedded videos can engage reluctant readers, especially when they appear at the topic of an article and provide context for the text below the video.  Increasingly, writers feature videos interspersed through a text that add deeper context or background information for the reader.

Interactive elements like maps or responsive features like this article, which asks you to draw your own line on a chart to predict how you think parental income affects child college attendance.  These types of features can be either engaging or distracting, depending on the reader’s level of interest in deciding how the interactive feature contributes to the overall meaning of the text.

Digital texts are increasingly interactive.

Pagination is another feature that becomes more complex when we move from print to digital texts. Often, it is difficult to perceive how long a digital text is, even if there is a total number of pages listed. Further, there is accidentally clicking or page load time that can affect our reading experience.

Pagination requires student readers to make another set of decisions while reading.

Pagination requires student readers to make another set of decisions while reading.


Reading tools like…

  • Highlighting important portions of the text
  • Defining unknown words 
  • Annotating

…all enrich our reading experience. Though all of these tasks can be done with paper text, there is a level of interactivity and personalization of the reading experience that comes with using these tools digitally.

Why this matters

Before we can teach or learn anything, we need the language required to communicate about it. For students to become better digital readers, they need teachers who are better digital readers. And before we become better digital readers, we must understand digital texts.

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