Tech Specialists Can Teach Reading, Too

How I used technology to engage and enrich close reading with a small group.

August 31, 2015
Rae Ann Smith
Technology coordinator
Hempfield School District
Landisville, PA
CATEGORIES In the Classroom

I don’t teach reading to kids on a daily basis like I did as a classroom teacher, so when I was gearing up to tutor a small group of fifth-graders after school in preparation for the upcoming state assessments, I was slightly intimidated -- and excited -- by the task before me.

The big question was how I, a technology specialist, could use my knowledge of digital tools to help my group perform better on the reading portion of the test. A colleague suggested I focus on non-fiction texts, so I explored the current best practices being used. Close reading kept popping up, and it appealed to me. I’d used it all through college to understand complex reading assignments and didn’t even know I was doing it! All I knew was that highlighting in my textbook and jotting notes along the margins helped me to make sense out of the words on the page. I thought it would help my tutoring group, too -- but with a new twist! We were going to mark up digital text using iPads.

I needed an app that included highlighting and annotations, but it also had to be free. 

Finding a good app for the students to use was more difficult than I expected. I had wrongly presumed that we could use either iBooks or the Kindle app. However, neither of these apps were flexible enough to do what I needed with the PDF document of my choice (I found my resources at LearnZillion). I needed an app that included highlighting and annotations, but it also had to be free. Adobe Reader looked like a good fit, so it was time to put it to the test.

The workflow looked like this: Students used an iPad to log on to Schoology and then downloaded the non-fiction text file to their device. As we discussed the piece, students located supporting evidence in response to focus questions, annotating and color-coding as they went. Finally, they uploaded their files back to Schoology for me to review.

Not surprisingly, the students took to digital highlighting with ease, discovering shortcuts that allowed them to work more quickly. The technology faded into the background as they focused on their task. It went so well that I invited the principal to observe during our second tutoring session. She knew my students better than I and commented to me later on how engaged they were while they worked. When she asked them what they thought about using the iPads to highlight, they enthusiastically told her that it was helping them understand the text better because it was so easy to add notes and highlight in different colors, which was useful as they went back to locate information. It wasn't just fun to use different colors. It meant something to these kids.

I understood my students better with each highlight, comment, or annotation that they made. 

So, why was the digital close reading practice such a big deal? It wasn't simply the highlighting. An array of resources -- definitions, background information, and even images -- were literally at their fingertips to aid them as they read. I expected the activities to do the job, but they were more successful than I ever imagined. Just as importantly, I understood my students better with each highlight, comment, or annotation that they made. I felt as if I could actually see them thinking and could therefore offer truly meaningful feedback to them.

As my district prepares to hand each fourth-grader an iPad in the upcoming school year, I feel like this experience has equipped me to support teachers and students in this endeavor. Not because it is the example of how these devices can be used to help students learn, but because it is one such example, where many more are waiting to be explored. I can't wait to see what's next.

Photo "Student_iPad_School - 141" by Brad Flickinger. Used under a CC BY 2.0 license.