If we do not teach three-dimensional reading and writing in schools, we are cheating our students out of learning critical twenty-first-century skills.

Writing History

Throughout much of history, written language has been two-dimensional: across and down a page. Fundamentally, that has been due to the physical nature of putting thoughts onto cave walls, clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, and modern-day paper. The mind, alternatively, thinks by association: one idea links to another idea in a complex, interconnected web of thoughts. Humans have had to tame those thoughts in their writing.

Realizing the incongruence of thought and writing, In 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote the article, “As We May Think,” in which he proposes a future device, a Memex, that would store information and link it together based on associations. In 1963, Ted Nelson coined the term hypertext and introduced it in a 1965 college lecture, explaining the potential ability of computers to represent information by association rather than linearly.

When the internet first provided people with global access to information, the format tended to be that of articles or collections of texts. Soon, lists of links appeared in a column to the left or right, or at the top or bottom, which allowed the reader to follow a line of spontaneous thought related to the content. Next, the links migrated into the text itself, as is the case in this blog post.

Think about how you are reading this post. Do you read all the way through first, and then return to click on links? Do you click on the links that interest you as you read? Once in a linked text, do you follow other links in that text before returning to the original text? Do you ever fail to read the original text through to the end because you’ve become lost in links?

Given that students might become lost in an endless search for web-based information on topics, webquests emerged as a way to engage students in inquiry while preselecting web-based resources for them to use. However, three-dimensional reading is a twenty-first-century skill. We owe it to students to teach them how to follow a line of web-based inquiry in which they follow appropriate links, gather information, and find their way back, always keeping in mind their original purpose.

We build reading skills through writing. A great way to begin is to have students use a word processor to write “hyperlinking narratives:”

  1. Start by writing a composition on a topic and include an ending signal, such as “End of Composition.”
  2. Read the composition through the lens of the reader, asking yourself, “What words or phrases might raise questions for my reader and prompt the need for more information?” Highlight those words and pages.
  3. Add pages as needed after the composition ending signal for each of the words or phrases, and add more information, images, and links out to the Web for each (expansion section).
  4. For each word or phrase expanded upon in the expansion section, create a “bookmark” to be able to link to the section, and then return to the composition to create links from the words or phrases to the corresponding bookmarks.

Students will begin to learn the web-like structure of twenty-first-century writing, hyperlinking narratives. I first published the use of that phrase in a 2001 article on Temple University’s website called “Hyperlinking Narrative: An Idea Whose Time Has Come.” The article has since been retired, and it seems this idea still has not come of age.

It’s time to build three-dimensional reading and writing into the curriculum and into ELA standards.