Reading and Writing for Internet Teaching

Martin Dougiamas, June 1999



The reading and writing of text can be taken for granted as an educational tool on the Internet. It is ubiquitous as a means of communication, but there are different ways it can be applied to promote learning, and it can be difficult for a teacher to focus on what sort of thinking they are trying to stimulate in their students. This paper concentrates on the practical application of educational theories of reading and writing, particularly in science education, in order to help the practitioner using the Internet for education. We begin by taking a look at a number of theories about reading and writing, in the context of using them in an Internet environment. Then we’ll examine an experimental technology, Moodle, that was constructed to implement many of these theories and supports online ‘classrooms’ that use text in a number of ways.


In this decade where the Internet is spreading rapidly, text has often been used as a way to ‘deliver’ University-level education to distant students. I see this frequently in the distance education and online course at the University where I am employed. Even where text is used, attention is often directed towards creating large textbook-like slabs of information to be absorbed throughout a term, and responded to in the form of an exam or essay at the end of the term. Exciting developments in educational technologies are often seen as presenting content using more media, such as animation, video, and virtual reality, to deliver experiences closer to “real lectures”.

While these have their place, I think a focus on ‘content delivery’ has two unfortunate side effects. Firstly, they tend to put effective education beyond the reach of students and teachers who cannot afford the participation requirements of increasingly complicated equipment media, such as higher bandwidth, faster computers and content production skills. Secondly, and more worryingly, these approaches can promote a traditional idea of education as the transfer of information from teacher to student, as if knowledge itself can be packaged and delivered. Theories related to constructivism, have shown that this traditional view of teaching can lead to ineffective learning (Dougiamas, 1998). Constructivists recognise that effective learning involves more than just passive absorption of material, and that reflexive, interactive engagement with subject materials, teachers and other students is essential to construct meaningful understandings (Tobin, 1993; Gergen, 1995).

In this sense the activity of writing is a very important part of learning on the Internet, particularly when combined with reading. Together these can form a number of types of written discourse through which meaning can be created and shared. The theories underlying these statements and their application to the Internet are outlined in the next sections, on reading and writing to learn.

Reading to learn

When seeking to use textual resources in education, Glynn and Muth (1994, p1062) recommend that they be used in ways that are “meaningful, conceptually integrated, and active” as “passive, isolated rote learning is boring, easily forgotten and inapplicable”. To learn concepts effectively, students need a combination of reading activities and reading strategies that support active process-oriented learning (Norris & Phillips, 1994; Pressley, Borkowski & Schneider, 1990; cited in Glynn and Muth, 1994).

Reading activities for learning science can involve reading from a range of different texts relating to the same concepts, including news, magazines, trade texts, prose, biographies and even science fiction, then evaluating them by comparison with each other or with prior knowledge (Glynn and Muth, 1994). Critical evaluation while reading is an especially important part of developing scientific literacy (Glynn and Muth, 1994), particularly in an environment such as the Internet where information is plentiful, diverse, and easy to get. Texts that may at first appear to be authoritative may only be “borrowing the trappings of scientific language as a language of prestige and power” (Halliday, 1990, cited in Parker, 1992). The development of critical literacy in students and their ability to treat a text as more than an objective statement of “truths” is therefore an important part of an educator’s role.

Approaches to help students develop scientific literacy include: the increased use of everyday language in scientific texts (Parker, 1992); development of an awareness of text structure (Young et al, 1991, cited in Parker, 1992); comparing different sources and opinions (Glynn and Muth, 1994); reading accounts of science process, in addition to published results (Glynn and Muth, 1994); and examining the context of a text (the cultural assumptions of the author, reader and it’s mode of delivery). An advantage of the Internet is that many of these approaches are easier to do than with other media, and so may be more likely to be used by students. Firstly, the structure and links between texts is often made explicitly, using hypertext. Secondly, multiple viewpoints are more easily available using search engines. Thirdly, the context of any given information might be researched by looking at the site it came from, following the hypertext links of other information that it references or that reference it, investigating the personal information of the person who produced it, reading the stored comments and reviews other people have made of it, and even the statistics of how many people have read it. However, a disadvantage of this is that the sheer volume and flexibility of information world-wide means that it is very easy to become lost or be side-tracked. To deal with distraction and help focus on learning, students need to develop reading strategies.

Reading strategies help students remain concious of their own reading activity, so that they can facilitate their own construction of knowledge. Glynn and Muth (1994) explain this skill as metacognition, which involves setting goals and identifying likely strategies to achieve them, then constantly revising these while reading (Yore et al, 1993, cited in Glynn and Muth, 1994). Other comprehension skills include word recognition, lexical analysis (retrieving word meanings), semantic and syntactic analysis (parsing), integration (of sentences), inference (predictions), identification of text relations (patterns), summarisation (gist) and elaboration (connecting new and existing information) (Just & Carpenter, 1987 cited in Glynn and Muth, 1994). These process and comprehension skills are routinely performed by practicing professionals, but can take some time to develop. A number of formal reading strategies have been developed by reading educators as series of steps to facilitate student comprehension and memory of concepts from texts. One of the most enduring of these is SQ4R (Thomas and Robinson, 1972, cited in Glynn and Muth, 1994, p1063) which has been shown to be very effective in improving students’ immediate and delayed recall of text: 

  • Survey: Preview the text, using headings as guidelines
  • Question: Form questions about the text content
  • Read: Read the text, using questions as guides
  • Reflect: Consider what has been read, relating content to prior knowledge
  • Recite: Answer questions posed, relating questions to headings
  • Review: Organise text information, rereading difficult content

Although the components of the list need not be used in this specific order, they are each important comprehension skills in learning from text, and Internet-based learning can benefit from paying attention to their use.

Writing to learn

Comparisons of classes with and without writing components have confirmed that students who wrote to learn retained concepts better than students who did not write as part of their course (Robertson and Miller, 1988, in LeGere, 1991). Writing can stimulate the development of links between concepts (Glynn and Muth, 1994). Newell, in a 1986 study (cited in Rivard, 1994) concluded that analytic essay writing encouraged learners to integrate new information with relevant prior knowledge. Another tool -concept maps – are diagrams that make links between concept words explicit using lines that represent relationships. Novak (1996) found them to be useful in a variety of applications, including facilitation of meaningful learning, design of instructional materials, identification of misconceptions or alternative conceptions, evaluation of learning, facilitation of cooperative learning, and encouragement of teachers and learners to understand the constructed nature of knowledge. Less graphical but more common forms of the concept map are the hierarchical outline (indented listings) and menus (lists where each item leads to another list). These are common tools in many word processors and on web sites, and they help to create and reorganise structure between concepts and communicate that structure to others.

The use of word processors pervades almost all writing on the Internet. Modern word processors contain a wide variety of tools that help with layout and construction of all types of texts. In using them, authors can look at the text they have just written, and rewrite, reorganise, and redraft it with very little effort. Redrafting is viewed as a valuable way to clarify the writer’s developing pupose and understanding (Connor et al, 1994). A feedback loop is set up where what is just written inspires reflection, which inspires rewriting until satisfied. Tobin (1993) discusses in the context of constructivism how a teacher’s metaphors of instruction are similarly revised over time. With a word processor, we are “thinking on the screen”, in partnership with technology. In doing so, we can develop our own knowledge in a lasting way. However, Salomon, Perkins and Globerson (1991) note that to realise the long term cognitive effects of such a partnership (what they call “cognitive residue”), it needs to take place within appropriate surrounds that foster mindfulness. These include the technology, activity, goal, setting, teacher’s role and the classroom culture – each of which can dramatically influence the type of learning within a student. An example is the use of word processors only to correct spellling, versus using one to reorganise and redraft whole documents. This suggests that guidance and feedback from an educator is important when writing is used for learning.

To be successful, writing tasks must be authentic. They should have a real audience and try to communicate to that audience (Glynn and Muth, 1994). Writing activities, even in subjects like mathematics, can include journal writing, explanatory essays, newspaper accounts, journal articles, bulletin board messages and email to mailing lists. In the case of a journal, the audience may simply be the writer at a later date, or perhaps a teacher. Through the process of writing a journal, a person can be encouraged to express and reflect on their feelings, knowledge and beliefs about their subject, and consequently grow in each of these dimensions (Borasi and Rose, 1989). Review and reflection on a journal over a time of change can promote the development of skills in metacognition (Glynn and Muth, 1994). Journals can also provide a new form of dialogue between the teacher and each student, allowing for more individualised instruction and a supportive classroom atmosphere (Borasi and Rose, 1989)

Appropriate writing activities can give students access to their own thinking processes (Countryman, 1985 in LeGere, 1991) and can be a powerful aid to learning (Nahrgang and Petersen, 1986 in LeGere, 1991). By bringing writing skills and process skills such as metacognition, idea construction, idea relation, text production and revision to bear on an activity, students construct new understandings that have the advantage of being meaningful and applicable (Glynn and Muth, 1994). Writing activities can be powerful tools for discovering, organising, summarising and communicating knowledge. It is often at the very point of writing that an idea is given form (LeGere, 1991). Writing can also encourage greater precision than speaking (LeGere, 1991). However, writing does not necessarily improve with practice – it should be a “frequent, guided experience” (Moore, 1994, p291). As you will see in the next section, this focus on guided writing activities is a central component to Moodle.



To apply these ideas to Internet-based classrooms, I have been developing a new web system called Moodle (Dougiamas, 1999). Teachers will be able to use this system to easily create online courses for any subject. This system implements structured forms of reading and writing activities in a way that promotes their frequent and guided use throughout a course (Moore, 1994), with the intention of maximising the benefits of reading and writing for learning.

The Concept Map

Each Moodle-based course uses a framework of core resources, written by the teacher to guide the activities of participants. The content framework is arranged as a concept map (Novak, 1996) in a collapsible hierarchical structure, where each item is a link to an activity that covers a single concept (see Fig 1) This structure is similar to that of an outliner mode in a word processor (eg Microsoft Word), a file manager (eg Microsoft Windows) or indeed the table of contents in most textbooks.



Figure 1: an example of a Moodle course – “Internet Overview”

The development of this “tree structure”, or concept map, is useful in two ways:

  1. Writing the framework for students to use can help the teacher develop the curriculum of the course, as well as deepening their own understanding of the subject. This is consistent with Novak (1996). The tree of concepts can easily be rearranged at any time using buttons embedded in the web page. This ease is intended to help the teacher develop it continually in response to changing understanding and feedback from students (Tobin, 1993).
  2. Reading and using the tree is an active process for the student. To start with the entire tree is folded shut, and specific items are “opened up” by the reader to reveal progressively deeper sub-groupings of concepts. The active participation in navigating the content is intended to encourage comprehension skills such as inference, patterns, summarisation and elaboration (Just & Carpenter, 1987 cited in Glynn and Muth, 1994). It also explicitly encourages the first step of the SQ4R reading strategy, that of surveying a text, using headings as guidelines (Thomas and Robinson, 1972, cited in Glynn and Muth, 1994, p1063).


Student Activities

Each page “covers” a single concept, and is structured as an activity that each student needs to complete. The activity consists of one reading activity and one writing activity that responds to the reading.

The reading activity supports active process-oriented learning (Norris & Phillips, 1994; Pressley, Borkowski & Schneider, 1990; cited in Glynn and Muth, 1994) This content is mostly text, but being HTML, can include images, links and other multimedia, if necessary. It is commonly a guided tour or comparison of other resources on the Internet, or a simple definition, an argument, or story. Guided tours of Internet resources, consisting of text interspersed with links, can help promote scientific literacy by contrasting and comparing various texts (Glynn and Muth, 1994) and providing specific contexts within which to read them. This guidance from the teacher can extend to explictly promoting the Question and Read steps of the SQ4R reading strategy (Just & Carpenter, 1987 cited in Glynn and Muth, 1994), as well as simply helping to define a smaller range of resources on the Internet for students to focus on.
The written response promotes construction of links between concepts in the student (Robertson and Miller, 1988, in LeGere, 1991) and guided construction of new understandings (Glynn and Muth, 1994). The writing activity can be any one of a at least five types, and is chosen by the teacher from a list when editing each page.

The types of activity include:

1. Writing an answer to a question

The student writes directly onto the web page, into a form text field. For the student, this text will stay there for the duration of the course, but will not be editable again. Each student will see their own text embedded on the page, and not that of other students. This activity is similar to a test, or a survey, or might be used to capture an opinion at the beginning of the course to compare with one at the end, aiding the development of metacognitive skills (Glynn and Muth, 1994). The exact activity is directed by the teacher. It might require a summary of a text, restricted to a limited number of words, which promotes development of idea relation and revision (Glynn and Muth, 1994). It might require an answer to an open-ended question such as “From this, I learned…” (LeGere, 1991). In this case, the student is required to confront their own learning and organise their thoughts (Johnson 1983, cited in LeGere, 1991.

Teachers, when looking at the page, don’t see the text field. Instead, they see a button that displays the texts from all students, on one page. In this way they can easily read the responses from the whole class and learn of misunderstandings, problems, or trends in the class (Tobin, 1993). This may prompt the teacher to rewrite parts of the course.

2. Writing a reflective response into a journal

This is similar to the previous activity, except the text remains editable throughout the duration of the class. When prompted by the content, the student has a space on the page to reflectively write about their reaction to the content. Doing so can help them to form their understanding of the topic (LeGere, 1991), and to give feedback to the teacher. Reflection on a text also explicitly promotes the reflection skill of SQ4R (Thomas and Robinson, 1972, cited in Glynn and Muth, 1994, p1063) The permanence of the text in that page can be useful to the student when reading it later to compare the change of their own understanding over time (Borasi and Rose, 1989). To help this, all journal entries in the course can be displayed for a student on a single page, by pressing a button. These texts remain private between the individual and the teacher, to encourage authenticity (Glynn and Muth, 1994) that might not be present in comments visible to peers.

As before, the teacher can view all responses to this page on one page to gain a cross-section of the class. They may be assessed, by checking boxes next to each one. The writing of the content for these questions can be especially useful for the teacher to focus on outcomes.

3. Answering multiple choice questions

In this case, the student answers a multiple choice question by clicking a button. If the teacher has specified a “right” answer, then the system provides immediate feedback, otherwise it simply stores the response.

The teacher can choose to make it re-editable or not. For results, a bar graph is produced, listing names of students next to each answer, again encouraging the teacher to reflect on the state of the class.

4. Constructing and discussing an opinion

In response to a question within the content, the student is asked to construct a statement of their opinion on a topic, to be read by their class. The text is sent to a bulletin board (discussion area) where it forms the basis of threaded discussion among the class. In each thread, students may alternate in the roles of actively teaching and learning with their peers, promoting active engagement with the concepts (Glynn and Muth, 1994). Threaded discussions visually indicate the links between separate postings in a conversation, for reading, which forms a type of concept map (Novak, 1996). This makes the relationships between texts more explicit. Everything is recorded and labelled, and participation can be assessed either informally in a glance, or formally by assigning marks to each posting. The teacher can provide instructions or participate to help guide the nature of the discourse that is expected (Moore, 1994, p291).

When a student knows they are writing for a peer audience in an authentic task, reponsibility may be felt by each student to write the initial statement as well as possible (Glynn and Muth, 1994). This may involve some redrafting (Connor et al, 1994), some research (Glynn and Muth, 1994) and a consideration of the audience (Glynn and Muth, 1994). The discussion can be used to stimulate a number of different styles of debate or information sharing which can facilitate learning. Discussions may center on comparing different opinions of texts, for example, to help the participants refine their own opinions (Glynn and Muth, 1994). Participants also have an opportunity to “test” statements or frame questions. This active social engagement with a topic encourages more effective learning, as the discussion texts are co-constructed (Gergen, 1995).

5. Co-constructing a document

This activity is similar to the discussion board above, except in this case the groups may be smaller than the whole class, and the discussions can be more structured. For example, three students may be given the task to create a web page for a specific purpose. The discussion board becomes a place to pass the growing document around, comment on it, add to it, delete from it, vote on changes and so on, until a consensus is reached and the document published as a group web page on Moodle. This process is intended to stimulate metacognitive learning by frequent revision of the document (Connor et al, 1994), the need to accommodate multiple opinions, and by the collaboration with peers (Gergen, 1995).

6. Other options can be added.

As other types of response arise, they can easily be added to the system in a modular way, allowing the software to adapt to the needs of the courses it implements and the development of the teacher. In this way the construction of the system itself is revisable and promotes constructivist ideals (Tobin, 1993).

The Teacher’s Role

Navigating the course and adding or changing texts throughout the course is done directly and easily, using buttons embedded in the web pages. The content is typed in a simple built-in word processor. As the teacher works within the course environment, the ease of use helps the content to evolve. This ease, when combined with constant interaction with the class through writing, provides a dynamic set of written evidence upon which the teacher can reflect, analyse, learn, and make adjustments that make sense to them. Tobin (1993) talks about this as an important part of a constructivist perspective:

What emerges as having important implications for teacher education is the range of objects for reflection. […] Reflecting in this manner enables teachers to modify their visions of what the curriculum would be like and compare what is happening in their classes to the vision of what they would like to happen. (Tobin, 1993, p 225)
During a typical Moodle course, the teacher’s activities will include:

  • Monitoring the results of individual activities across the class
  • Monitoring and actively stimulating discussions
  • Supporting students who ask for help
  • Engaging in discussion with individual students based on formative assessments
  • Rewriting and extending content based on feedback from students

The highly-structured nature of concepts within a Moodle course helps to manage these activities within a common framework. The framework means that the large amount of texts generated during a course are somewhat self-organising, which allows the teacher more time to engage in reflection of course progress, and to focus on effective discourse with students.

Written Discourse

The content and the activities initiate a lot of written discourse between students and the teacher, both private and public, promoting text production that is both meaningful and active (Glynn and Muth, 1994). There are disadvantages and advantages of conducting so much discourse this way, and a teacher needs to remember to provide guidance in order to promote effective learning (Moore, 1994, p291). The obvious difference with textual discourse is the medium of reading and writing, rather than speaking, listening, moving and watching. The main advantage of Internet-based discourse is the reduced dependence for participants to be in the same place at the same time. Another advantage is that contextual factors such as physical appearance, body language, accent and emotion do not distract from the text, giving greater equity among communicators. However, a disadvantage is that losing these “side-channels” of communication can also increase the probability that ambiguous text will be misunderstood. Discourse in Moodle, as anywhere else, is very much improved by increasing the context as much as possible, by explicitly providing cues as to the cultures and orientation of the writer and the reader. These can be developed by:

  • having occasional real-life meetings, to develop a better mental image of the writer.
  • stating relevant inferences and assumptions as much as possible.
  • having long discussions so that multiple reflective viewpoints are presented from each side, fostering better understanding (Glynn and Muth, 1994)
  • using “emoticons”, also known as “smileys”, to indicate emotion with small text-pictures. For example, after a joke you might use a smile 🙂 but if something is shocking you might use this: =8-o

Another disadvantage of education on the Internet is that it is more difficult to control the level of participation in online discourse than it might be in real life. In Internet discussions, authors are more at liberty to choose a level of participation on a spectrum between passive, “lurking” (not writing, just reading), to the most forceful, “spamming” (indiscriminate and possibly inappropriate writing). To some extent this can be helped in a class situation by ensuring some level of authenticity is present in writing activities, either by connecting writing activities to real audiences for real purposes (Glynn and Muth, 1994) or by connecting assessment to each activity.

Lastly, a discussion using messaging is not limited by time: reading and writing of text usually takes more time than a spoken discussion. The advantages of this are that the reader is more at leisure to reflect on the things they read and write, allowing more revision and development of the ideas, which generally results in higher quality discourse. As another benefit, this also makes it easier for slow readers and writers to partake, which helps open up education to more students. However, written discourse may disadvantage those without access to the Internet, or those without enough time to spend reading and writing many messages.

Learning to Moodle

The making of Moodle has been a long and ongoing process that includes an interrelated combination of:

  • using and reflecting on the use of many types of other internet systems, particularly their educational applications
  • writing and reflecting on computer texts (code) that implements ideas
  • using the system in real online courses and reflecting on the experience

The activity of writing (constructing) the system helps me learn more about it, which enables me to ‘see further’ and continue to revise and redraft the construction (Connor et al, 1994). A recursive and symbiotic relationship has developed between the Moodle system and myself. The same view may be applied to any constructed evidence of knowledge, and particularly to text-based constructions where ideas and the relationships between them are made so explicitly (Glynn and Muth, 1994). For example, this can apply to essays as much as it does to computer software code. Salomon, Perkins and Globerson (1991) discuss these ideas more fully, in particular how a partnership with technology in a guided activity can have positive effects on long-term learning beyond the use of the technology. As the teacher and developer in this environment I believe I’m already seeing some evidence of this – it remains to be seen how successfully it applies to a large class of students. The first class will be run in a few weeks.

In the near future, the development of the Moodle code will move to an “Open Source” community model. In this model, the computer code will be freely accessible from the Internet to anyone who wants to read and use it, with the proviso that any derivative code they write must be released back to the same community. In this way the construction of Moodle itself can become a socially shared construction (Gergen, 1995), honed and grown by the interaction of many learners. This model is already being successfully applied to many large software projects.


Reading and writing can be a powerful way to learn, if conducted in an environment that supports it. Both reading and writing are skills that can be developed. Reading well requires critical literacy, metacognition, and reading strategy while writing can be a powerful way to develop knowledge in the writer while constructing texts for others.

An Internet environment that fosters reading and writing can encourage the participant to be a reflective, active learner, by prompting written responses of various kinds. By mixing constructivist classroom approaches with reading and writing there are potentially many powerful benefits to be realised for both students and teachers. Moodle is a continuing experiment to try and implement these ideas in online ‘classrooms’, and so far appears to have promise. Further research is underway.


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