Cutting to the Common Core: The Positive Side of the Digital Divide

Judith Zorfass and Tracy Gray recommend using digital text to differentiate reading instruction

Why Use Digital Text?
Imagine this challenge: Mr. Reed’s class of 30 students includes a mix of learners with diverse abilities and needs. Some students are reading at grade level; those reading above grade level want to be challenged; the struggling readers need help with vocabulary and comprehension; and the English language learners have trouble connecting their first language and knowledge to the new concepts presented in the class. In addition, four students have identified learning disabilities. How can one, dedicated teacher differentiate and personalize instruction in ways that help every student to succeed?

Does this situation sound familiar? Do your students have diverse abilities and needs? Are you wondering how you can differentiate instruction for your students? We suggest that you explore the various features and functions found in digital text, also called etext.

What Digital Text Offers
There are five clear benefits to using digital text to support the reading process. In addition to letting students hear the text read aloud, this feature offers the ability to mark text, enhance the content, annotate the text, and use embedded agents and tutors. What does all this mean?

Marking Text. Students can modify or mark up electronic versions of text in different ways, depending on the purpose of reading and the reader’s preference. They can use functions to highlight or underline text, change the background or font colors, and/or modify the font by increasing or decreasing the size of the text, bolding the text or adding italics.

Interacting with the text in this way allows students to:
• focus on specific words, phrases, or paragraphs
• identify key ideas and concepts
• easily locate information upon repeat readings

In addition, the instructor can use the marking text feature to make the text more accessible to a reader having trouble discriminating or viewing certain text portions.
Marking the text in any of these ways can support a student’s close reading, defined as careful and purposeful reading and rereading. According to the English Language Arts (ELA) Common Core State Anchor Standards (e.g., CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1), close reading means that students are able to explicitly state what is in the text. Close reading is critical — not only for literature, but especially for informational text.

Enhancing the Content. While they are reading online, students can click on links embedded in the text. By opening these well-placed links, they can access additional information that may take various forms, including:
• images, pictures, charts, and graphs
• audio descriptions
• written explanations of concepts
• definitions
• synonyms and antonyms

The opportunity to go beyond the text as it is presented can enhance the reading experience. The expanded information encourages students to tap into prior knowledge, develop deeper understanding of concepts, increase their vocabularies, and connect ideas.

Annotating the Text. Students can annotate the text by taking notes, inserting audio or written comments, and inserting arrows and other graphics to document or capture ideas. When utilizing these supportive features, students can apply their critical thinking skills to distill and understand key ideas contained in the text. Annotating the text supports many evidence-based reading strategies, such as summarizing, self-questioning, and visualizing.

Using Embedded Agents and Tutors. Embedded agents and tutors are prompts, designed to ask the reader questions, offer hints, explain rules, suggest next steps, and provide reminders of strategies to use. These agents either pop up on the screen or are accessed by user choice. The agents can be human or nonhuman, animated or static, written or spoken.

Differentiation in Action
Ms. Bailey’s Class

In Ms. Bailey’s sixth-grade class, students have been working on crafting summaries of informational texts. Today, the students are reading and rereading a short section from their online social studies text. Their learning task is to gather relevant information in preparation for writing a summary tomorrow.

The ELA Common Core State Standards guide Ms. Bailey’s overall curriculum decisions. Today’s lesson aligns to CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.6.2 (, which states that “students should determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.”

Ms. Bailey uses differentiated instruction to meet the needs of her students, building on ideas generated by collaborating with her colleagues. She has several English language learners, students on individualized education programs, struggling readers, typical learners, and those students who are gifted. She implements evidence-based practices to reach all students, by providing direct instruction, modeling and giving students multiple opportunities to practice.

As we enter her classroom, Ms. Bailey warmly welcomes us and offers to serve as our tour guide. She wants us to see and understand what the students are doing as they work individually and in small groups.

As we head towards the first group of students, Ms. Bailey points out a chart displayed on her interactive whiteboard. It’s a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” about tactics related to summarizing. She introduced the chart to begin the unit as a support for providing direct instruction on summarizing. Later, when she modeled the writing of a summary, she referred back to the chart again. Because she wants students to use the chart as a guide, she explains, “I posted it on the class website and emailed it to every student to include in their e-reading portfolios.”

Summarizing Tactics
Do’s and Don’ts

• Always state the main idea of the text or reading.
• Include only the most critical information.
• Use your own words.
• Try to keep the same order of the original information.
• Include information that supports the main idea.
• Do not copy from the resource text and just change a few words.
• Do not switch the order and just change a few words.
• Do not include unnecessary details.
• Do not change the original ideas of the author.

We pause near the first group, where each student is using a laptop computer. Because these students need scaffolding, Ms. Bailey has divided the learning experience into discrete parts, and now gives students the assistance they need to complete the assignment. She explains that she provided a printed set of questions to guide their close reading. She also points out that as students read silently they are marking text to find information in response to her questions. Some choose to highlight, some to color code, and others to make the font bold. How they decide to mark the text is not relevant. What is important, however, is that the students discuss the items they have marked. The peer interaction around the marked text, guided by the questions, is the meaning-making part of the lesson. This will prepare students to write summaries tomorrow.

A student, wearing headphones, is working individually on a laptop. As we approach, he pauses to explain what he’s doing. “I’m listening to the text being read aloud.” He shows us how, whenever he sees an icon indicating an embedded tutor, he pauses. His virtual tutor might suggest that he reread a critical section of the text, which is automatically highlighted. Or the tutor might prompt the student to check the meaning of an underlined word. “I like when the link opens to a dictionary definition and shows me an image. The picture really helps.”

We stop to chat with one more group of four students who are each using a tablet. One student explains that they are annotating the text. They are first marking relevant text and then paraphrasing key ideas and supporting details in electronic note cards. One student volunteers to read aloud the notes he took on the first two pages. When he finishes, another student chimes in, “My notes are slightly different. Here, listen to this.” Before we move on, Ms. Bailey asks the students to compare their notes so they can hear differing interpretations. She also wants them to explain to each other why they selected certain details as being pertinent.

Thanking Ms. Bailey as we pack up to leave, she summarizes what we saw in her class. She explains, “Every one of my students is required to write a summary. However, they are all following different routes to ensure success.” She elaborates by describing how, depending on each student’s needs, she or he has access to different levels of support, provided by the use of digital text, the teaching strategy, and the collaboration among peers.

Free Resources
A case study about differentiated instruction using digital text, such as the one about Ms. Bailey, can be very instructive. It offers ideas for reflection and encourages comparison with one’s own teaching. Twenty more case studies, called Lessons in Action, can be found at PowerUp WHAT WORKS (

PowerUp WHAT WORKS is a free, online learning platform that guides educators and professional-development facilitators. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. In addition to Lessons in Action, it puts a wealth of evidence-based resources, materials, and tools at a user’s fingertips. Unlike other websites available to educators, it links evidence-based practices and technology, aligned to the Common Core State Standards. The focus is on improving outcomes for struggling students, including those with disabilities. It can become a teacher’s go-to website for differentiating instruction with technology.

PowerUp offers resources in multiple formats: explanations, blogs, slide shows, videos, case studies, and links to articles and resources. These can easily serve as the basis for a user’s own self-guided learning. Additionally, those designing and conducting virtual, live, or blended professional development can utilize the Professional Development Facilitator Guide and accompanying support materials to make maximal use of PowerUp. Just as PowerUp guides differentiated instruction in the classroom, it fosters differentiated professional learning for educators who want to leverage technology to enhance teaching and learning.

Judith Zorfass, Ed.D., Education Development Center, Waltham, Massachusetts, is currently the co-principal investigator of the Center for Technology Implementation’s PowerUp WHAT WORKS project. Since 1986, she has directed more than 25 federal and foundation-funded projects at the Education Development Center. These projects have focused on improving the literacy development of students with disabilities, integrating technology tools into the curriculum, and technology implementation. She has conducted research studies, developed curriculum, designed professional development, and contributed to the design of websites. She has been a frequent presenter at national conferences, written numerous journal articles and book chapters, and is the author of Teaching Middle School Students to Be Active Researchers, published by ASCD.

Tracy Gray, PhD, American Institutes for Research, Washington, DC, is a managing director at the American Institutes for Research, where she directs the Center for Technology Implementation’s PowerUp WHAT WORKS project and the Center for Technology and Disability. Previously, Dr. Gray led the National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) and the Center for Implementing Technology in Education (CITEd). Dr. Gray is a nationally recognized expert in education and digital learning who has led numerous initiatives in the U.S. and abroad that examine the impact of technology on educational achievement. She is the co-author with Heidi Silver-Pacuilla of Breakthrough Teaching and Learning: How educational and assistive technologies are driving innovation, (2011) and “What is Driving Innovative and Assistive Technology Solutions in Autism Services?” in the Handbook of Learning Technologies for People with Autism Spectrum and Related Disorders (2013).