Case study analysed and written by Alison Cattani, Research Assistant and Graduate Student in the Faculty of Education, University of Ottawa
This case study features the important insights of one grade 5 teacher from Northern Ontario who teaches in a French-language public school. Although she considers the level of her class in digital literacies to be satisfactory overall, she points to the urgent need for instruction and activities that support her students’ online reading skill development. At the age of 10, her students are already learning to navigate the web, but this teacher wonders whether we are supporting them enough. For children, online reading is complex. Once the right keywords have been typed in the search bar, it remains to sort the countless results skimmed by the search engine – students then need to identify relevant, trustworthy information sources at their own level — and additionally, they need to do this in French, which presents an additional layer of complexity. For these learners, who belong to a Francophone minority community in northern Ontario this teacher explains that even when they are able to find information in French, the content is often produced outside Ontario, in Quebec or in France, meaning that it includes words, expressions and even a cultural orientation that does not align with their lived experience. To meet these students’ needs, this teacher suggests there is a need to create a research platform for our young Franco-Ontarians in order to allow them to learn to navigate and read content, in complete safety, that is appropriate and adapted to their context and learning needs.
The participant teaches grade 5 in a francophone school in northern Ontario. There are 19 students in her class. Generally, each student has had access to a range of digital tools for completing a range of literacies activities. Students use a range of digital tools in their regular classroom. They use laptops, conduct online research and have learned to code. According to the teacher, all students seem to have a satisfactory level in digital literacies, but they do have unique learning needs.
This teacher recounts some of the online reading challenges her students experience. The French-language resources available for her students is a particular concern. Indeed, browsing a search engine is not always easy for a 5th grader, especially when it comes to sorting through the millions of results on the Google search engine results page. Resources need to be accessible, relevant and at the student’s reading level in French and also in the French of the learner’s choice.
The teacher interviewed is critical of the lack of digital resources adapted to Franco-Ontarian users which could actually support the development of their reading skills online. This is the most urgent need for her (4 on a scale of 1 to 5). As the content is largely produced in France or in Quebec, it is “often quite difficult for students to understand the context of the news [because] of unfamiliar words.” In addition, the amount of information generated by search engines can make some students “confused”, forcing the teacher to carry out research beforehand and pre-sort some websites in order to guide her students and their research less frustrating. Nevertheless, it should be noted that this approach constitutes an additional workload for the teacher and does not make an optimum contribution to the development of the students’ research skills – and still, it remains essential for their progress. The teacher also worries about online safety, which, she admits, limits student autonomy in her classroom practice.
She suggest that students in school would benefit from a platform or a search engine suitable for youth: a kind of “Google Kids” where all the resources disseminated are approved as safe and relevant for elementary school projects for example. The teacher also suggests that need for Franco-Ontarian digital resources that could be aligned with the curriculum of the Ontario Ministry of Education and integrated into the official documents. She also suggested that socio-cultural organizations like TFO could develop supplementary resources for a wide set of purposes that could further enhance access to texts that would support online reading and research skill development.
Regarding digital inequalities, the teacher identified digital skill development as her students’ most urgent need (3 on a scale of 1 to 5). She expressed particular concern for students with learning disabilities and/or other special learning needs. According to the participant, it is “important to offer tools to help pupils in difficulty to use the internet” and to show that the opportunities to develop these skills should not be limited to certain individuals, that digital literacies instructional methods should benefit everyone. She sees the need for programs that could help students with reading difficulties to identify more/less trustworthy information, and to summarize key ideas. The implementation of such tools would allow teachers to lead each student to success. More generally, the teacher interviewed insists on the need to educate all students to knowingly use the Internet in order to ensure their own safety on the web.