I was very fortunate to spend some valuable reading time every week during our third quarter with seven 5th grade students. Their language arts teacher, Andrea Hernandez, wanted to provide these students with a more personalized approach to close reading instruction. All seven students are excellent readers and we decided to challenge them with an unabridged classic, Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. Since these students are in our pilot 1:1 iPad classroom and because I’ve been looking for a reason to give it a try, I decided to immerse our little group in a digital reading experience of this classic novel via Subtext for iPad app.
Subtext is a product of Renaissance Learning company (yes, of Accelerated Reader software fame), designed as a “collaborative ereading experience for K12 classrooms.” I chose to use the free, basic version of the app, which provided us with enough functionality. Alternatively, for a fee, users can upgrade to the premium features, offering access to CCSS-aligned assignments, text-to-speech option, and access to leveled nonfiction and informational texts. The only premium feature I would have liked to try out is the ability to track student progress. But since my group consisted of only seven students, it probably would not have made a difference. The basic version provided us with enough adequate functionality to upgrade our novel study to a new form of a social reading experience.
The app offers access to a large collection of ebooks, some for a fee and some are free. Since our classic is available in the public domain, we all downloaded a free version of Around the World in 80 Days directly into the app. I then created a “5th Grade Reading” group, inviting all seven members to join. Instructors have the ability to “enable student restrictions”, effectively preventing students from navigating the Web and sharing notes. I am not sure what the point of such restrictions is in an ereading environment, so opted to not turn them on.
Mostly students read outside of our limited class time. To ensure students were reading more deeply and to assess understanding, I built discussion questions, multiple choice assessments, and polls directly into the text. These features allowed me to view and assess student responses prior to our next meeting in order to then focus on those parts of the text that needed clarification. As the teacher, I had the option to hide all responses until students submitted their answers.
Another value-added feature of Subtext is the ability to embed links to websites, images, or videos. To help build background knowledge, I linked to information about the author, the Suez canal, a map of the British colonies and another of colonial India, an image of a cow catcher mounted to the front of the old American locomotives, and more. Students also were able to embed links into their comments.
While reading, students highlighted words or entire passages and added notes. They then had the option to share the notes with the group. Simply tabbing a word pulled up a built-in dictionary, complete with audio pronunciation of the word and links to search both the Google search engine as well as Wikipedia.
The last feature we used is Subtext’s build-in link to Google Drive. Since our school uses Google Apps for Education, all our students have Gmail accounts and access to Google Drive. We shared a Google Doc of our schedule and this build-in link allowed us seamless access.
Would I use Subtext again? Yes! Using the app as a tool allowed students a different way of connecting with our text. Reading in groups is a social activity where students are learning with their peers. But using this digital tool elevated our small-group reading to a more inclusionary/participatory level by giving even those students who are usually not very vocal an equal voice. The lesson also demonstrates the power of liquid learning–most of the work was done outside of class. Also, the ability to build-in questions and to embed links facilitated active reading–although some students complained that the “the discussion questions…got in the way when there was a good part.” Most importantly, liquid resources like Subtext enable teachers to transcend the classroom and even school boundaries. Spending time together with a good book can include students across the room or literally across the world!