Royal Happenings: An English teachers perspective on literacy in the 21st century

By Katie Thompson, 8th Grade English Teacher

I am often asked if Watertown-Mayer Middle School’s 1:1 iPad initiative has changed how I teach Language Arts. My first instinct is to say, “well, not really—reading is still reading, and writing is still writing, after all”.

As I reflect, however, on these statements, it occurs to me that I am wrong. Literacy for my eighth graders as natives of a digital culture looks different today than it did even 5 years ago. So here’s how the iPads have both created challenges and possibilities for the Language Arts classroom.


Challenges: One of the primary challenges for readers with 24/7 access to iPads is the effort it now takes to sustain focus on a single text for a long period of time. Consider the number of times we switch from Web site to Web site as we spend time online. We rarely pause to read an entire article from beginning to end; we find what we need and move on. For our students, it is a different kind of reading, a different kind of literacy.

Possibilities: Having said that, it is still important to encourage students to discipline themselves and their brains through sustained silent reading. One way the iPad enhances this practice is through the creation of iBooks. As an English teacher, I have been able to create iBooks that actually have interactive comprehension questions built in to the text (book), that allow students to monitor their own understanding at their own pace, increasing metacognition among all levels of readers.

Another way that iPads have benefited students with their reading comprehension is the ease with which I can now differentiate the readings that I assign. I can send five different texts at five different levels to five different groups of students. Sending texts at a student’s instructional or independent reading level helps them develop reading skills at their own pace, and I no longer worry about a text being too hard or too easy for my students. After all, meeting a struggling reader where he’s at is the first step in helping him move forward. And don’t worry, we still read those old-fashioned paperbacks too.


Challenges: Don’t get me started on the texting “lingo” used in formal academic assignments! Of course, our students’ writing skills have morphed as a result of their digital exposure. Challenging students to “code shift” between casual writing and formal writing is a new skill that needs to be taught again and again to ensure that our students are truly literate and workplace ready.

Possibilities: iPads give students the opportunity to write for a wide variety of audiences and for a wide variety of purposes. For example, in any given day an eighth grade student might send an informal e-mail to a friend, send a “professional” e-mail to a teacher, write for a group of peers in a shared Google Doc, and reply to a global audience on an online blog. We have the unique opportunity to teach our students the different protocol for managing these different writing formats, thereby making them more flexible and more eloquent communicators when they leave us as seniors. Having said all of that, a note to my students, “IDK” is NOT a response, it’s not even a word.

Media Literacy

Challenges: Being a literate consumer and creator of media is a crucial skill set that we want all of our students to have. It was once very difficult to truly help our students navigate and be critical of online information, as our own school’s technology was out of date only one year ago. Today, things look very different.

Possibilities: With access to the Internet in every classroom we can have our students interacting with media in real time in a controlled environment where we, as teachers, can help them to become critical consumers of the millions of messages they are confronted with every day. As a Language Arts teacher, I see it as an entirely new responsibility that I have—to keep kids smart and safe online. In fact, last year I was awarded a grant from the National Education Association to use our new iPad technology in a way that will focus on doing just that. Keeping our students safe is a priority for our entire building team.

I am not wearing rose-colored glasses when I write this piece. I am fully aware of the challenges for a Language Arts teacher in today’s digital world. We have a lot to learn and a long way to go. The bottom line, however, is that literacy is changing for our students. It is our job, and our moral responsibility to help them become proficient in reading, writing, and media literacy so that when they leave us for the world outside of Watertown-Mayer schools they are independent, productive members of our 21st century global community.