Content Area Literacy Lessons Go High Tech

Judy S. Richardson

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This article addresses literacy and technology as integral tools within content lessons at all levels. It begins with a brief history of content reading instruction as it has developed over the past few decades. This account demonstrates the importance of content reading instruction as a means of providing teachers with tools that can help them help their students learn content material. Next, a new tool — technology — is introduced through background information and a description of its impact on content area reading instruction. Third, the article presents an instructional framework to guide teachers in planning and delivering excellent content lessons, and explains one adaptation of that framework. Technology-infused lessons that demonstrate each step of the framework are provided, along with some examples that combine all stages. Last, important factors in designing content lessons that incorporate technology are presented to provide teachers with recommendations for developing their own lessons.   Related Postings from the Archives

Find dozens of related articles under the “Content Area Literacy” heading in Reading Online’s subject index.

Lessons, examples, and activities described in the article include

A Brief History | A New Tool | Instructional Framework | Preparation Activities | Assistance Activities | Reflection Activities | Putting It All Together | Factors to Consider | References

A Brief History of Content Reading Instruction

The pyschologist Abraham Maslow once commented, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Teachers who focus on particular subject areas, myself included, have been guilty in the past of teaching with only one tool: the lecture. When Nila Banton Smith (1965) and Harold Herber (1978) pioneered an emphasis on reading instruction in the content areas, teachers began to implement a more reading-oriented approach to their subject matter instruction.

In the decades following this pioneering work, the term reading to learn (Richardson & Morgan, 2003; Vacca & Vacca, 1999) and strategy-based activities that incorporate reading into content lessons have become popular. Teachers have recognized that students encounter many new words, or words used in new ways, in subject area instruction, and that students need to read with understanding and to study effectively in order to learn subject matter. Discussion and writing are now frequently incorporated into content lessons. Thus, content teachers have been encouraged in recent decades to identify and use tools other than the lecture that can enable students to engage with and more effectively learn subject matter.

And just when we we were becoming satisfied that we had incorporated a variety of ways to present content material, along comes technology. Once a tool for research and business, technology is now a tool for instruction — and its use is mandated by more and more school systems. Now we need also to incorporate this new tool.

In this article, literacy and technology are presented as integral tools within content lessons. Content area lessons that infuse literacy and technology are presented and explained. The lessons are drawn from practicing teachers who have completed a graduate course, “Teaching Reading in the Content Areas,” at my institution (Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond, Virginia, USA). The course is intended for middle and high school teachers who teach such things as English, history, geography, economics, mathematics, science, and other disciplines, and for elementary teachers in self-contained classrooms who teach all of these subjects. The course is designed to create an understanding among teachers that students learn subject matter more effectively when they have effective tools and know how to use them — specifically literacy and technology strategies. The course goal is that teachers will incorporate these strategies into their subject matter teaching.

This content reading course is not unique; such courses are taught across the United States and in other countries. What may be different is the emphasis placed in this course on technology, along with literacy. While teachers practice the technology skills in the course, they also learn how to use technology and content reading strategies in their classrooms. As a first step, the teachers learn about an instructional framework (IF) called “PAR,” for “preparation-assistance-reflection.” Next, they learn about content literacy and how to infuse literacy throughout the PAR framework. As they do so, they are practicing using technology as a tool in their own learning. By the end of the course, they have also infused technology into their content lessons.

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A New Tool: Literacy Technology Today

An important challenge in my course is helping teachers use technology to learn, and then learn to apply it in their own teaching. Some teachers enter my course less than willing to embrace technology. Although we live in an age of technological literacy, many of my students did not grow up with it, and this lead to uneasiness. Yet, most everyday experiences in our world, including the world of our students, involve technology. Even if teachers may prefer to avoid or postpone using technology in their classrooms, doing so should simply not be considered an option.

In the past few decades, we have moved from the industrial age to the information age. An “industrial age mindset” (Frand, 2000, online document) simply does not help anymore. For me, an over-50 professor, the technology I grew up with was television, introduced into my household when I was 10 years old. Grasping the innovations possible through technology-based instruction was a challenge, and I moved into the information age of technology use on a daily basis over time (Frand) — and not always graciously! The industrial age mindset I had is still in place for many of the teachers with whom I work, those who have been teaching for many years and learned and are comfortable with a face-to-face, traditional approach to teaching and learning. For them, computers and other technological innovations offer a very new way to communicate. These teachers may possess limited skills in using technology, and are lacking perhaps even what others might consider the basics. For instance, one study indicated that of 30 teachers, “only a handful had experience with more than e-mail and a word-processing program” (Newman, 2000, p. 777).

Tom Batiuk’s comic strip Funky Winkerbean expresses the situation well. In a sequence of strips from September 2001, we learn that Linda Lopez has spent a part of her summer preparing all of her overhead transparencies for the school year. In the fall she discovers that the school has converted to computer-equipped classrooms and discarded the overhead projectors. Her transparencies are suddenly useless! To solve her dilemma, she tries to smuggle her own overhead projector into school, but, alas, her bulky raincoat alerts administrators. Finally, she resorts to a darkened classroom, a flashlight, and hand-held overhead transparencies.

Funky Winkerbean comic strip showing Linda with flashlight
© Batom, Inc. Reprinted with special permission of North America Syndicate.

In an age of information technology, the time Linda spent trying to salvage her transparencies might have been better used in scanning them into a photo program and inserting them into presentation software. Although some may argue that she is cleverly manipulating familiar technology, others are amused at her resistance to new ways. By the end of this Funky Winkerbean segment, Linda herself has become an advocate of information age technologies. That’s a good thing for Linda and for the teachers who are her real-life counterparts, as national and state standards increasingly require teachers to be proficient in technology.

The origin of the word technology implies its usefulness: It is derived from the Greek techne, which refers to the “clever manipulation of natural artifacts to reach a desired goal” (Dwight, 2001, p. 22). Technological literacy, then, is “the ability to use computers and other technology to improve learning, productivity and performance” (U.S. Department of Education, 1997, online document).

Today, technology standards are a reality in many countries. In the United States, the National Educational Technology Standards (NETS), developed by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), outline core technological competencies that teachers, as well as students and administrators, should meet. At least 31 American states now rely on, or have adapted, the NETS in developing state technology plans (Loschert, 2003). The use of technology in schools has increased exponentially. For example, Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-2001, a report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (Kleiner & Farris, 2002), notes that the percentage of schools with Internet access increased from 35% in 1994 to 99% in 2001.

In their Standards for the English Language Arts, the International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers of English (1996) set the following standard for students: “Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge” (standard 8). Setting this standard for students makes the assumption that teachers can instruct accordingly. However, while the information age marches on, many colleges of education continue to lack systematic instruction for pre- and in-service teachers about ways to use technology in their classrooms (Willis & Raines, 2001). A report from the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (2001, online document) indicates that the teacher’s role is changing, but current teacher education and training in methods of using technology in the classroom are insufficient.

Technology is here to stay, and we must realize that we need to use it effectively in content classrooms. The challenge for me is to show my students how seamlessly technology, along with literacy, can be used as a tool to create academically engaging content lessons. I consider myself a “first-wave adopter” or self-starter, as Hagner (2000, online document) classifies types of technology implementers among college faculty. This may be because of my philosophy that we need many ways to learn. Again, Abraham Maslow is my guide. So while I am a product of the industrial age, I am also intrigued by the “information-age mindset” (Frand, 2000). I chose to dive into the new age, to embrace technology and apply it in my courses.

Some of my students are like me, reared in a less technology-oriented age but eager to embrace the new. Some are definitely of the information age: They live with technology daily, expect it to be infused into their courses, and incorporate it into their own learning. Most, however, have been reluctant to learn in this new way; they are resistant to change and anxious about the steep learning curve they face because they lag behind the information-age learners and first-wave adopters. These students need a classroom environment in which they have opportunities to practice and solve problems with the new technology as they learn (Newman, 2000). They need to participate in a new form of literacy, described by Leu (2000) as deictic — that is, literacy constantly being redefined by “new technologies and continuously changing environments” (p. 745). But they must be guided gently into this new way. I endeavor to show teachers how to implement lessons that seamlessly integrate technology into instruction without overpowering the strategies and content to be learned.

In my state, Virginia, teachers are expected to demonstrate and infuse the Technology Standards for Instructional Personnel (TSIPs) into their teaching. These competencies are infused into my graduate course “Teaching Reading in the Content Areas.” Assignments in my course include developing activities shared in a Web-based environment, participating in threaded discussions, critiquing existing lesson plans, creating literature-based lesson plans, creating technology-anchored lessons, and creating portfolios.

On completion of the course, teachers usually rate themselves as more competent and able to apply the TSIPs in their instruction. Although these are self-ratings, they indicate that students feel more confident with technology when they have completed the course. Table 1 shows that, of the 222 students enrolled in 16 classes taught over a three-year period, 13% feel very proficient at the end of the course and 23% feel proficient. Furthermore, although ratings show that 17% of students felt weak at the start, only 1% did so at the end of the course.

Table 1
Graduate Students’ Perceived Degree of Proficiency with Virginia’s
Technology Standards for Instructional Personnel

  Very Proficient Proficient Average Weak
At course outset 14% 34% 35% 17%
At course conclusion 27% 57% 15% 1%

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An Instructional Framework for Reading and Writing to Learn

The first challenge I face in my course is reassuring my students that, although technology can be intimidating, they can master it. The students’ self-ratings on their perceived proficiency before and after the course show me that I am meeting that challenge. The next challenge is one that many content reading instructors face: a class comprising either practicing content teachers or students training to teach a content area, most of whom arrive resistant to the course. A typical comment I hear is “I’m only taking this course because I’m required to. How helpful can this course be to a math teacher, now really?”

PAR framework with each component illustrated as a hole on a golf courseThe real measure of success in helping teachers move from the industrial age to the information age is how they apply knowledge of technology to instructional decision making and planning. In my course, we start fairly traditionally by learning a framework that organizes instruction in a systematic manner. The goal is optimal learning. An instructional framework helps students and teachers think and learn actively. Herber (1978) proposed a framework that facilitates interaction among reading, writing, and discussion. More recently, Richardson and Morgan (2003) developed a version called PAR, for preparation, assistance, and reflection. Preparation happens before reading; guidance or assistance happens during reading; independence or reflection happens after reading.

Notice that PAR encourages learners to become engaged or connected by participating in activities before they read; it also helps them to create the intention to attend and acquire information during reading and thus enables good comprehension after they read. A focus for learning is very important to ensure that learning takes place.

In golf, “par” means the allotted number of strokes for hitting the golf ball into a particular hole on the course. The satisfaction of being on par at the golf course could be similar to the satisfaction a teacher receives in achieving the goals for the lesson, using the PAR framework.

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Examples of Preparation Activities in Technology-anchored Lessons

Preparation in the PAR framework is synonymous with what happens — or should happen — before learning. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright may have expressed the goal for preparation best: “You can either use an eraser on the blueprint or take a pickaxe to the foundation.” Some teachers think that they should not “waste time” finding out what knowledge students bring to a topic or what background they might need. But not taking this time beforehand can lead to failed lessons and limited learning. For instance, a student teacher working in an urban middle school in the United States was teaching a lesson about Martin Luther. She launched right into an excellent lecture — excellent in terms of content — and finished right before the bell rang. “Are there any questions?” she asked.

One student tentatively raised his hand to ask, “How come you didn’t use his last name?”

The students in her class were not prepared for the lecture; throughout, they thought that she was talking about Martin Luther King. If the teacher had only started with a preparation activity, she would have had better results. She might have simply asked, “What do know about the famous leader Martin Luther King? Let’s make a list. Now, I’m going to talk to you about a man named Martin Luther, for whom Martin Luther King was named. Then we can think about what seems to be alike and different about them.”

Preparation ensures that the teacher has students’ attention before introducing new content. It provides learners with the “big picture” of what they will be learning. Teachers need to know what their students already know, and then build that background knowledge and integrate it with the content to be learned. The following examples illustrate ways to build background for a topic so that students will understand what they are going to study and why.

Using the Web in an English Literature Class

To prepare her ninth-grade students to learn about the Harlem Renaissance, teacher Melanie Hudnall began by asking them to tell her what they already knew about the topic. She listed what they knew — which was relatively little — and followed up by having students visit relevant websites she had identified:

After visiting the sites, the students created many intriguing questions to guide their study of the topic in text material.

Melanie’s preparation lesson was similar to the KWL activity (Ogle, 1986). The first step was listing what students already knew (the K in KWL), and the second was guiding students to think about what they wanted to know. Both of these steps are part of preparation as they determine and build background. Melanie’s students remained engaged throughout the unit because they had “ownership” of the unit content. The tools they used to learn the content material were reading in an Internet environment and discussing which of their many questions they wanted to incorporate into the lessons.

An Elementary School Art Teacher Improvises

Katie Boltz, an itinerant elementary art teacher, had at most three computers in any classroom she used. Her young students were not yet able to work independently. But even with these limitations, she still found a way to apply computer technology. She took digital photos of the projects students in one class had completed. She then designed a PowerPoint presentation to use as a preparation activity to introduce students in another class to the project. Seeing what other children had been able to create gave the second group a better understanding of what was expected.

Katie also uses Kid Pix in her art lessons. To prepare students to use this software, she sets up a Kid Pix “art studio treasure hunt.” In small groups, the children visit the computer stations and try to find certain items within the program. Once they find each item they create a picture using the tools that they find.

Preparing the Way for a Science Lesson

A high school science teacher, David Eggerding, needed to prepare his students to read about the metric system and the importance of accurate measurement. He anticipated that his students would be less than enthusiastic about the topic, but he realized that he needed to prepare them so that they would engage in their own learning of this critical content.

To prepare for the lesson, students were given as a homework assignment visiting links to NASA press releases (from September 20, 1999, and September 30, 1999) about the loss of the Mars Climate Orbiter. In class, David then used Mars websites to show how critical the measurement system was to the maneuvers required to place the spacecraft in the proper orbit. According to investigators, the orbiter was lost because different teams of scientists used different units of measurement, with the result that the spacecraft was thrown off course and beyond tracking distance. David’s lesson then discussed the International System of Units (SI) for measurement in science and engineering (largely the metric system), and a mathematical technique called dimensional analysis.

His preparation activity, to visit the websites and read about the loss of the orbiter, set the stage for the subsequent lesson. The activity incorporated not only technology, but also reading about a real-life event that piqued students’ interest in studying the content material about measurement systems in science.

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Examples of Assistance Activities in Technology-anchored Lessons

“Assistance” in the PAR framework is synonymous with what happens — or should happen — during learning. It is the stage when students encounter the processes of learning, often described as the mental activity that goes on as one reads and thinks about content. While this is occurring, the learner may need assistance in understanding the material. Huey (1908/1968) and then Thorndike (1917) defined reading as a thinking process, implying that understanding involves not only recognizing letters and their combination into words, but also thinking about what those symbols mean.

Teachers need to employ strategies that will help students understand content material as they are reading it. New interest in how to teach reading comprehension has been generated by the recognition that comprehension is not a passive, receptive process but is active, constructive, and reader based. The reader needs to sort facts from implications, identify the organization of the material, and use picture clues and text aids to help with understanding. Constructivism, a term that refers to what happens as a reader processes text (Pearson & Stephens, 1994), is one of the most influential views of learning proposed during the last two decades. In a constructivist model, teachers are not transmitting knowledge to passive learners; instead, learners are building information with assistance from teachers (Weaver, 1994). The reader must actively construct meaning by relating new material to the known, using reasoning and developing concepts. The process is not only individual but also social, because “by articulating ideas and experience through writing, speaking, and/or visually representing, students deepen their thinking and construct and organize their understanding of new material” (Gill & Dupre, 1998, p. 95).

An excerpt from Robert O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (published in 1971 by Atheneum) suggests what goes on during the assistance stage. In this children’s novel, rats and mice are part of an experiment in developing super-intelligence and longevity. The animals learn how to read, and almost immediately discover the power of reading to learn. By learning to read, they learn how to escape their prison and how to set up a self-supporting community. The chapter entitled “A Lesson in Reading” describes how the rats became literate, and the first line in the next chapter, “In the Air Ducts,” is “By teaching us how to read, they taught us how to get away.” In the story, the scientists did not realize that they were providing assistance when they gave picture clues and practice with associated tasks. However, their assistance enabled the rats to learn and use their newfound knowledge to escape from their cages. We may not want our students to “escape,” but we want them to grow in knowledge and build on what they learn.

A Virtual Field Trip in a Primary Classroom

One example of a technology-anchored assistance lesson is a virtual field trip, which can guide students in understanding material by presenting it one step at a time to make reading and learning maneageable. Tammy Marsh Milby guided her 9- and 10-year-old third graders on a virtual field trip to investigate “The Wonder of Bald Eagles.” With her one classroom computer connected to a projector and the Internet, she and her students “traveled” to various sites where they saw bald eagles in action. After this “trip” — which included discussion and note-taking at each “location” — students developed a list of questions they wanted to answer, composed letters (using word-processing software) containing their questions, and sent their letters via e-mail to the local zoo. When they received responses, they created a database of information for other students to use. Creating the database also assisted student learning because reading was reinforced with writing. In all, the information about bald eagles was encountered four times: with Ms. Milby on the field trip, when letters were written, when information was received and read, and when information was entered into the database.

Symmetry and Tessellation for Middle School Mathematics

A middle school mathematics teacher, Bud Maher, designed a lesson to help his students in an eighth-grade math class understand the concepts of symmetry and tessellation. He created the following three-level guide (Herber, 1978; Richardson & Morgan, 2003) based on content at the Math Forum website project of Drexel University. In designing the guide, he used examples of tessellations from nature, art, and architecture, so his students could better understand geometry.

After visiting the first two websites [What Is a Tessellation? and The Four Types of Symmetry in the Plane], complete this study guide to check your own understanding of the material. If needed, go back to the sites and re-read to clear up any misunderstandings you might have. This step is very important, and will help you make sure you have understood the big ideas! (The third website, Historical and Geographic Connections, is a collection of images of tessellations organized geographically.)
  1. Check what the author said. Check three.
               The dictionary defines tessellations as formed by arranging small square tiles in a checkered or mosaic pattern.
               A regular tessellation is composed of regular, congruent polygons.
               Almost any regular polygon will tessellate infinitely.
               Semi-regular tessellations are composed of more than one type of polygon.
               Tessellations originated in Greek architecture in the second century A.D.

  2. What did the author mean? Check three.
               Regular and semi-regular tessellations can “tile” the plane infinitely only if the sum of the angles at each vertex totals 360 degrees.
               Only triangles, squares, and hexagons will create regular tessellations.
               Rotation and glide/reflection alter the pattern of symmetry in angles at the vertices.
               Translation is like sliding a shape or polygon in a straight line, and then flipping it over.
               For every reflection there must be a line of symmetry called a “mirror line.”

  3. What examples of tessellation can be found in our own lives? Check any.
               Tiles in our bathrooms and on our floors
               Shapes of flowers and leaves on plants
               Works of art
               Architectural design of buildings and houses
               The “Create your own tessellations” project my teacher is going to assign me next week.

In this lesson, students relied on the websites to help them “cement” content information. In small groups, they discussed their choices on the guide and referred to either text or website-based material to confirm their choices. Again, content about mathematics was the focal point of the lesson, but technology and literacy were tools that assisted the learning.

A High School Latin Lesson

A lesson to assist older students employed electronic resources, electronic discussion, and classroom activities. Corrie Hoyle, a high school Latin teacher, used a threaded discussion in teaching about the Roman holiday Saturnalia. The students had already read the basic facts: the years between which it was celebrated, the gods who were worshipped, and the time of year it was celebrated. They expanded their knowledge by becoming experts on a specific aspect of Saturnalia, such as decorations or entertainment. After checking the Internet and other resources, they posted the information they uncovered on an online discussion board. After reading and reacting to one another’s information, they applied what they had learned in preparing a Saturnalia celebration for the class. Students worked cooperatively to gain an intimate glimpse at Roman culture.

The nature of the Web search enabled each student to find a site or other material that suited his or her reading level. Furthermore, the activity of searching encouraged the students to practice scanning. Also, the activity encouraged a lot of reading and learning outside of class, because students found many interesting sites about the classical period and started reading about other Roman customs.

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Examples of Reflection Activities in Technology-anchored Lessons

The third step in the PAR instructional framework is reflection, which takes place after reading has been completed. Whereas the preparation phase of the lesson contributes to motivation and the assistance phase aids in building comprehension, the reflection phase helps students clarify thinking and focus understanding. It is also during reflection that students learn how to retain the reading material. Full understanding cannot occur until reflection occurs. Although the teacher may provide guidance through instructional support, each student’s role is crucial at this stage. The goal is to help them become autonomous learners, learners who can learn on their own (Hawkes & Schell, 1987).

There are also several important byproducts of this third phase. One is that it helps students think critically about what they have learned. This critical thinking is necessary if students are going to become mature readers. In addition, reflecting on reading helps students retain understanding for a longer period. The more we reflect on reading material or on the lesson at hand, the longer we will remember it and the more likely we will be to use the knowledge we retain. In this manner, knowledge is related in a meaningful way to what is already known so that it can become the basis for further learning. A third byproduct is that reflection provides a demonstration of one’s learning through some system of evaluation.

Teachers help students achieve this independence in learning by allowing them to take active, responsible roles as soon as possible. The following activities show how technology-based lessons can help students reflect on their learning.

A Poetry Lesson for Seven- and Eight-Year-Olds

Second-grade teacher Lori Schoenwiesner developed “Creating Poetry: An Interactive Project Using Word-processing Software and a Collection of Streamed Audio.” She based her lesson on Sara White’s Young Poets at Boyce (Boyce Elementary Publication, Boyce, VA, 1999), a collection of streamed audio recordings of poetry by second graders. Students published in Young Poets at Boyce also created videos showing them reading their work aloud with the expression they intended when they created their poems. Watching the video footage allowed Ms. Schoenwiesner’s students to hear and see the author-expert share the poem.

While Ms. Schoenwiesner’s students were creating their own poems, five were invited to visit a computer and listen to selections from the streamed audio collection, not only for inspiration and ideas, but also to appreciate poetry in its oral form. Specific, visual directions made the process much easier for these young students. Students used headsets to eliminate distractions. When all students had listened to the audio recordings and created their poems, they typed their final drafts on the computer. Thus, a second edition of Young Poets, in the form of a text-based collection, was published.

The first portion of this lesson provided assistance to students in learning about poetry and what their own product might look like. The second portion is a reflection activity because students used new technology skills to strengthen that knowledge. The students demonstrated their knowledge by applying what they knew, and created a product that could be evaluated.

The project increased student interest in the poetry unit and included auditory and visual learning, independent work, practice with word-processing skills, and interaction with other students. The teacher was creative in using the limited technology she had available in the classroom: only five computers, which were not Internet connected.

Learning Ancient History in the Early Grades

Kristen Howell Gregory, a second-grade teacher, created a history lesson called “Walk Like an Egyptian” on the topic of ancient Egypt. The students had already spent two weeks learning about ancient Egypt and had acquired knowledge about hieroglyphics, laws, calendars, monuments, and daily life. To close the unit, Ms. Gregory worked with a friend who teaches in Egypt to set up a pen-pal exchange. Ms. Gregory’s students wrote friendly letters via e-mail to their pen pals, in which they asked at least three questions about Egypt. The students selected their own questions, remembering that they needed to use the responses in their project. Ms. Gregory helped them to edit their letters before they e-mailed them. When replies were received, each child created a list of words about Egypt that they wanted to research.

As another technology tool, Ms. Gregory modeled the use of a search engine. She showed students how to type keywords and then narrow the search. Then students practiced using the search engine to find the items on their list. She also showed them how to use the encyclopedia loaded on the classroom computers. As the children found information, they printed and collected it in folders. During another class period in the computer lab, they read and printed responses from their Egyptian pen pals.

Once the students had collected all of the items on their list, they took their folders home to assemble their projects. Each student created either a poster, a book, a pamphlet, or a mobile. All of the information they collected and displayed had to be printed from the computer. The project included the following items:

Students gave oral presentations of their projects to the class, showing and explaining the pictures and e-mails. This lesson focused on the content, and capitalized on technological aids in conjunction with reading, writing, discussion, and presentation skills.

Learning About Graphs in Middle School

Brooke Vickers, a middle school mathematics teacher, created a reflection lesson that drew on content from the Internet to enhance understanding of graphs. As a lead-in to the lesson, her students accessed Thursday’s Classroom, a site that links NASA research and classroom activities, and searched for the article Meteor Mania! Ms. Vickers read the first paragraph and then asked students to read the other paragraphs for themselves. Next, using the activity sheet at the site, she asked students to write down their answer to the question, “How many meteors do you think will streak by your house during the Leonid meteor shower between moonset and sunrise on Saturday morning?” Guesses were written on the board and recorded in notebooks. For homework, students made a bar graph that displayed the information gathered in class. The graph was modeled after an example from the website.

This lesson helped students to reflect on the use of graphs by seeing math in an everyday application and applying knowledge in an interesting manner. Accessing the material through the Internet provided valuable practice in computer skills.

Young Adolescents Learn About Spanish Tenses

A middle school Spanish teacher, Stacy Siegfried, asked students to design a PowerPoint presentation about their lives, written in Spanish. To provide assistance, she created her own sample presentation (365 KB PowerPoint file) to demonstrate what should be included on each slide. The goal of the lesson was for students to demonstrate what they knew about the past and imperfect tenses. At the same time they were reflecting and demonstrating knowledge, they were also enhancing their skills with the software, developing writing skills, and learning how to organize information. In addition, because they had to present their shows, they used speaking skills as they demonstrated their knowledge (reflection) of the content.

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Putting It All Together: PAR Lessons Incorporating the PAR Framework

A complete unit or comprehensive lesson should include the three stages of PAR. The examples above featured one step (although the other stages were clearly integral), but it is difficult to isolate preparation from assistance from reflection, as they should flow into one unit. The next few examples show this natural flow of PAR.

Using Technology to Learn About Viruses

Marilyn Haskell developed a high school biology lesson that uses Inspiration software and PowerPoint to teach about viruses and provides an opportunity for modeling the use of technology. First, to prepare her students for the topic, she read aloud about Ebola, a rare virus first seen in humans in Sudan and Zaire. Then she led a class discussion that encouraged students to retrieve background knowledge, argue, and explain their thoughts.

At the assistance stage, students formed small groups of four to five and read a chapter in their biology textbook. Then Ms. Haskell provided further assistance with a “What Is a Virus?” PowerPoint presentation. The presentation reinforced and supplemented the textbook information, allowed the teacher to model technology competencies, and provided visual and auditory modes of learning that appeal to adolescents. An discussion followed, to stimulate critical thinking.

At the reflection stage, students were asked to prepare their own PowerPoint presentation, incorporating a Venn diagram and a concept map created with Inspiration. The Venn diagram compared viruses and organisms and helped students reflect as they completed a closed version for the PowerPoint presentation. The students also created a concept map on types of viral reproduction as a “test” of their knowledge.

Integrating Technology and Literature in a High School Health Lesson

To teach about ”Healthy Family Relationships” in grade 10, teacher Mark Brandenburger asked his students to discuss and review knowledge about abuse prevention and at-risk families. For the preparation stage, he read aloud to students from Michael Connelly’s City of Bones (Warner Books, 2002). Then students discussed the reading and identified components related to family relationships, health, or family crisis.

For the assistance stage, Mr. Brandenburger used Inspiration to draw a concept map of “Family Unit Types.” The students helped complete it with nuclear family, single-parent family, extended family, blended family, foster family, and adoptive family. The teacher then made another concept map of “Family Crisis Types.” The students helped complete it by suggesting runaways, child abuse, spousal abuse, and high-stress events (birth, death, marriage, divorce, job change, move). Students then turned to their textbook to find and define seven target vocabulary words. Students discussed the meaning of the word compromise as it relates to family relationships.

For the reflection stage, pairs of students created a 60-second radio or television public service announcement on a topic such as a child abuse hotline or a support group for runaways. The announcement had to include three terms from the vocabulary lesson. Students were encouraged to use the Internet to find real-life emergency numbers or support agencies to include in their announcement; the Virginia Department of Health,, and Prevent Child Abuse America were some examples. Next, each pair read, acted, or presented their announcement to classmates. Classmates provided positive feedback by responding to guiding questions such as “What did you like about it?” or “Why do you think this spot would be effective?” or “What audience might identify with this announcement?”

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Factors to Consider in Designing Content Lessons That Incorporate Technology

These examples of how some content teachers have begun the transition to the information age of technology-based lessons will suggest to readers some factors that can help them in designing similar lessons:

The words of one teacher-librarian come to mind are an appropriate conclusion:

My suspicion is that it’s much easier for students than it is for us.... I think the hypertext environment is easy for our kids. They are moving in and out, back and forth. Their facility with dimensional video games and graphic novels means hypertext is pretty basic. On a single page they may have to read from the bottom up, or from right to left, or from middle out. It is not linear reading, left to right, box to box. On top of following the words, they must follow the artistic action, which can also stretch from bottom to top, or right to left. As an old-fashioned left-to-right reader, I find that following the pictures and plot take much, much longer for me.

The information age is here so we must begin using the literacy and technology tools that we have in our content lessons, as often as possible.


Dwight, J. (2001). An epistemology of hypertexts. VSTE Journal, 15(2), 22-26.

Frand, J.L. (2000). The information-age mindset. Educause Rreview, 35(5), 15-24. Available (PDF document; retrieved July 2004):

Gill, S., & Dupre, K. (1998). Constructivism in reading education. The Reading Professor, 21(1), 91-108.

Hagner, P.R. (2000). Faculty engagement and support in the new learning environment. Educause Review, 35(5), 27-37. Available (PDF document; retrieved July 2004):

Hawkes, K.S., & Schell, L.M. (1987). Teacher-set prereading purposes and comprehension. Reading Horizons, 27, 164-169.

Herber, H. (1978). Teaching reading in the content areas. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Huey, E. (1908, 1968). The psychology and pedagogy of reading. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers of English. (1996). Standards for the English language arts. Newark, DE, and Urbana, IL: Authors.

Kleiner, A., & Farris, E. (2002, September). Internet Access in U.S. Public Schools and Classrooms: 1994-2001. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Available (retrieved July 2004):

Leu, D.J., Jr. (2000). Literacy and technology: Deictic consequences for literacy education in an information age. In M.L. Kamil, P.B., Mosenthal, P.D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research: Volume III (pp. 743-770). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Loschert, K. (2003). High-tech teaching. Tomorrow’s Teachers, 9, 2-5.

Newman, J.M. (2000, June). Following the yellow brick road. Phi Delta Kappan, 81(10), 774-779.

Ogle, D. (1986). KWL: A teaching model that develops active reading of expository text. The Reading Teacher, 39, 564-570.

Pearson, P.D., & Stephens, D. (1994). Learning about literacy: A 30-year journey. In R.B. Ruddell, M.R. Ruddell, & H. Singer, Theoretical models and processes of reading (4th ed., pp. 22-43). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee, Panel on Transforming Learning. (2001, February). Using information technology to transform the way we learn. Arlington, VA: National Coordination Office for Information Technology Research and Development. Available (PDF document; retrieved July 2004):

Richardson, J.S., & Morgan, R.F. (2003). Reading to learn in the content areas. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Smith, N.B. (1965). American reading instruction. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Thorndike, E.L. (1917). Reading as reasoning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 8, 323-332.

U.S. Department of Education. (1997). Technology literacy. In President Clinton’s call to action for American education in the 21st century. Washington, DC: Author. Available (retreived July 2004):

Vacca, R., & Vacca, J. (1999). Content area reading. New York: Longman.

Weaver, C. (1994). Reading processes and practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Willis, E.M., & Raines, P. (2001). Technology in secondary teacher education. THE Journal, 29(2), 54-64.

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About the Author

photo of Judy Richardson Judy Richardson (e-mail) has recently retired as a full professor from Virginia Commonwealth University School of Education in Richmond, VA, USA, where she is professor emeritus. During her career, she has specialized in reading in the content areas, English as a second language, and technology innovations in teaching. She taught for 36 years, in roles including classroom special education, high school English, English as a second language, and college faculty, and for the Department of Defense. She has published numerous articles and book chapters, as well as three books: Reading to Learn in the Content Areas, An English Teacher’s Survival Guide, and Read It Aloud!

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Citation: Richardson, J. (2004, July/August). Content area literacy lesssons go high tech. Reading Online, 8(1). Available:

Reading Online,
Posted July 2004
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