Literacy Moves: Online reading with Explorer magazine

by Jim Bentley, fifth-grade teacher, National Geographic Fellow and Explorer.

“Hey! It’s moving!” a student called out.

“Which page?” asked an elbow partner.

With a flurry of mouse clicks, my fifth graders were frenetically exploring their first online version of Explorer magazine. Some were vocal, excitedly sharing with partners the cool features they found on their screens, like a looping video of a lizard scurrying on a rock. Others were silent, studying thermal images of a cat’s footprints or letting their eyes roam the text. 

The geography of the classroom was a patchwork of silence and talking, isolation and collaboration—and that was the goal. Just moments before, students had been given directions: “You have two minutes to explore the article ‘Warm Up, Cool Down’ in the September 2019 issue of the magazine [Adventurer edition for grades 5-6, Lexile 520L-950L]. You can preview this on your own or share with an elbow partner what you notice or wonder. Go!” 

Teaching students to read online versus on paper requires different strategies. That’s why I love using both the print and online versions of Explorer magazine with my students.

Online Reading: Strategy Shares

I have to remind myself to think like a fifth grader when approaching online text. If I treat an online story as equivalent to its paper counterpart, I’m going to become frustrated when I see students distractedly scrolling or clicking on interactive features or opening new tabs to “Google something” that popped into their heads. But if I embrace student curiosity and excitement with a simple strategy, I can help focus students and deepen their online reading experience. 

Strategy 1: Give students a chance to get their “wiggles” out.

When introducing an online text that’s richly populated with images, interactives, or other features, set a timer for two minutes and invite students to explore an online text by scrolling around and clicking on what they see. Curiosity is one of the cornerstone attitudes contained within the National Geographic Learning Framework and navigating “diverse media and formats” is a Common Core Anchor Standard in reading. If your students are curious, excited, or distracted by all the features in an online text, view that as an asset rather than a deficit. One thing I love about the online Explorer magazine are the interactives like this sorting activity for endotherms and ectotherms or this interactive photo slider contrasting a thermal image with a photograph.

A good next step to refocus students and prepare to read online comes in the form of another teaching move. 

Strategy 2: Use protocols to focus students and formatively assess their prior knowledge.

The Notice and Wonder Protocol is well suited to implement with online text. First, ask students to individually explore a text and actively notice what’s in the text (bold words, captions, topic sentences, phrases, subheads)or the text features (images, video, sidebars, colors, design elements within an article). 

Next, give students a T-chart, or ask them to make one on paper, and individually jot down what they notice on one side and what they wonder on the other. After that, students should form groups of two or three and share what they noticed. Finally, come back together as a whole class and share out. The teacher can scribe a list of notices and wonderings to focus students’ attention and help establish a purpose for reading. The protocol can be shortened or adapted to fit different-aged students and it’s a nice, low-stakes, beginning protocol to use frequently.

A protocol is a good chance for a teacher to listen closely to what students share. You may be surprised to learn what students already know, don’t know, or misperceptions they might have. 

Funny story: When I copied the Notice and Wonder T-chart, the copy machine shifted it diagonally so the T-chart was skewed. Several students’ hands shot up when they received their copy. “Mr. Bentley? Why’s this paper crooked?” Giggles and smiles rippled throughout the room. 

“So you noticed something about this chart?” I replied. “It’s crooked. What do you wonder now that you see it’s crooked?” 

A brief discussion followed with students theorizing why it might be crooked. Their thoughts were creative, and we all had a good laugh when I revealed it was a simple copying mistake. But I guarantee next year when I first introduce the Notice and Wonder Protocol, I’ll copy the paper exactly the same way! 

Photo by Jim Bentley.

As we prepared to read the “Warm Up, Cool Down” article in the September 2019 issue of Explorer magazine, one of my students noticed a looping thermal image video clip of a person walking barefoot, leaving glowing footprints behind them. He wondered why the footprints were glowing. This let me know he had not seen the caption of the video or the adjacent picture of a cat leaving glowing footprints. The cat photo had at the top of it a color bar showing cooler temperatures as dark blue and warmer temperatures as bright yellow. You can check out this video on how to implement the Notice and Wonder Protocol

You may consider trying a closely related protocol from Harvard’s Project Zero Visible Thinking Routines called the See, Think, Wonder Protocol. It emphasizes the difference between making observations (“What I see …”) and forming interpretations (“What I think …”) before tapping into a student’s sense of curiosity to wonder and make new connections to a piece of text (“What I wonder …). You can check out this video on how you might try to implement this strategy in your classroom. 

Curiosity—it’s important to embrace and encourage it in our students. The online edition of Explorer magazine elevates students’ interactions with big ideas by harnessing images, videos, and interactive features. And teaching students how to navigate through and engage with all these features is an important element of literacy in a 21st-century classroom. In my next post, I’ll share some of the literacy moves I use with the paper version of Explorer magazine. 

Full-year subscriptions of Explorer magazine are available until October 15. Spring subscriptions are available until November 15. The deadline for digital subscriptions is January 15. More information is available at ExplorerMag.org.

This article is part one of a three part series.

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