Can an app help foster good reading habits?

‘Subtext’ app can help personalize reading lessons for K-12 students

reading-skillsWhen I taught literature, I often found myself trying to break free from the “teacher triangle” class discussion, where a question is initiated by the teacher, answered by a student, and then bounced to another student for more detail or a different opinion. In this model, I became the reluctant valve through which every part of the conversation had to flow.

I wanted my class discussions to be more organic and authentic, with students debating genuine differences of opinion with one another. Yes, their limited background knowledge or vocabulary frustrated their understanding of the text. However, I didn’t always do a good enough job scaffolding their experience so they could build these understandings and connections. Furthermore, my lessons weren’t always designed to encourage the types of conversations I wanted to see.

Because I understand these challenges, I was thrilled last year when our sixth grade English teacher began to experiment with Subtext, an eReader app for the iPad. Unlike other eReaders, Subtext was designed specifically for the K-12 classroom.

(Next page: Personalizing student learning)

Tools to personalize understanding

Like any eReader, Subtext incorporates an integrated dictionary. I have always felt this feature alone should be enough to justify the value of an eReader, because many students will give up on a text when their limited vocabulary causes them to lose the meaning of a key passage.

Like other eReaders, Subtext also supports the ability to annotate the text with marginal notes and bookmarks. Students can tag certain passages with keywords, which can be searched for later, so they can trace a theme or a character’s development throughout a novel. When it comes time to write an essay about that theme or character, these searchable tags come in handy.

In addition, Subtext makes it easy to select a phrase or passage and perform a Google search on it. When reading The Lions of Little Rock last spring, our sixth graders were able to tap on the phrase “Little Rock Nine” and immediately learn its significance.

Subtext begins to separate itself from other eReaders with its teacher tools. The teacher dashboard allows a teacher to view the reading progress of her entire class. She can see what page each student is on, the average amount of time each student is taking to read a page, and how many words a student looked up in the online dictionary. This information allows her to accurately match books to her students’ reading levels.

A teacher can mark starting and ending points of an assignment, and she can build questions and tags within an assignment. For example, if she wants students to focus on foreshadowing, she can ask them to use a foreshadowing tag she created to demonstrate their understanding of the concept.

Collaboration is key

Subtext is designed around class collaboration. Students can embed questions in the text for their classmates. They can add polls to see how their peers feel about certain characters. They can choose to keep their highlights, annotations, and tags private, or they can opt to share them with the group.

My favorite feature is the ability to post a question and mask all responses until the question is answered. This means that if I’m a student, I can’t see how my classmates answered a question until I submit my own answer. This tool ensures that a teacher is seeing each student’s best original thinking, rather than 18 paraphrased versions of the best two or three answers.

While Subtext provides a structure and tools to improve student understanding and discussions about literature, simply replacing paper books with Subtext will not magically transform the students’ reading experience. A teacher must carefully design activities to ensure that the tool’s strengths are leveraged and that student comments and conversations are meaningful.

For example, teachers need to find ways to bridge the gap between class and Subtext discussions. By using class discussions well, teachers can “prime the discussion pump” to ensure that online conversations are authentic. Teachers also might scan what was said in Subtext before class to find ways to spark good face-to-face discussion.

When used thoughtfully, Subtext provides the tools to differentiate the reading experience and improve engagement for all students.

Trevor Shaw has worked as an ed-tech leader, speaker, writer, consultant, and classroom teacher for over 20 years. He is currently the director of technology at the Dwight-Englewood School and can be reached at @shawt, +TrevorShaw, and

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