Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Reading text on iPads can offer benefits to students AND educators

For those that do not know, I am an English teacher. I love and praise books.  I love the feel of the binding and paper. I love the smell of books. I like marking up the margins and revisiting my thoughts when I re-read my favorite books.

I have long believed that text read on a device just cannot match the benefits of a physical book. However, technology advances. It progresses. It improves. I change my thinking.

Just for perspective, let me share something I think of often. I can hear the echoes of farmers from long ago saying, "I love the feel of the reigns in my hand. The tug and pull of horses as they drag the plow through the field. The smell of the horses working. I cannot imagine that machinery will ever fully replace that." Horses still have their role, but we are also stunned today when we see a farmer using them as their primary tool for plowing fields.

Today our students have the ability to engage with text in a wide variety of ways on their iPads -- ways that many of us do not utilize, understand, or appreciate. However, it doesn't make these methods for reading text insufficient or bad.  It is simply different. And in being different we get some benefits and some challenges we will need to take advantage of and address as educators.

Different digital reading tools have different features, but let's take a look at one tool, Raz-Kids, which we offer in Waukesha to see how text read in a digital platform can be better utilized while having kids engage meaningfully with text.

Reading in Raz-Kids

Thanks to my recent work with Lisa Lawrenz, I have had an opportunity to dig more deeply into Raz-Kids, a platform for students to read text digitally.  Raz-Kids is wildly popular with students, and some teachers really like offering it to students, but some educators have outlined concerns. Below are a few of the most commonly held concerns that have been shared with me personally:


  • Some students race through the text in Raz-Kids without actually reading (motivated by earning stars at the end of the text)
  • Students can simply listen to text rather than engage in the exercise of actively reading the text
  • Students are not reading text at their appropriate reading level
  • Students are easily distracted while on the iPad; this is less likely to happen with a physical book
That is a hefty list of big issues. The part of me that loves physical books thinks, "These are issues I know how to deal with (or that do not exist) when kids just read physical books." However, my belief that technology offers solutions to these challenges leads me to dig deeper. So let's take some of these on and see how the technology behind Raz-Kids might deal with them.

Racing Through Text to Earn Stars

According to the Raz-Kids website, "Students earn stars for practice, completion, or success with different activities. Stars are used to purchase fun items to personalize the Raz Rocket and to create a customized robot using the Robot Builder.

Looking at the chart at right, we can see that students earn points for lots of things. While earning stars can definitely be motivational to encourage the behavior we want (more reading), 50 points for completing a book is also an incentive for some students to race through a book to earn the points (without a focus on developing the skill of reading). This is the root of the concern related to use of Raz-Kids.

However, Raz-Kids offers two pieces to allow teachers to manage this for the students who have turned reading in Raz-Kids into a point-earning game.

Using the "Reports" drawer in Raz-Kids gives teachers an at-a-glance view of each student's use and progress in Raz-Kids. A teacher can than click on a student's name and be given a comprehensive look at what the student has been up to in the platform.  Here is a sample of one student's Raz-Kids report.

Let's look at the information and possible warning signs for a teacher in this example. 

This student has earned 660 stars. However, in the recent alerts section we see a student that has failed the past 8 quiz questions at the end of the book. Looking further in reports (not shown here), this student has only logged in one time in the past two weeks. While there is no direct indication of a student off task, there is enough information for the teacher to prompt a follow-up conference to discuss what is going on.  Additionally, the teacher can look into the questions the students answered incorrectly and determine if the student needs additional supports or small group instruction around developing their vocabulary.

This alone does not resolve the issue of the student racing through, though. As the teacher, I would make a part of my talk with the student a decision to toggle off the "Raz Rocket" and "Robot Builder" options. Until the student slows down and does better on their quizzes (set a goal with the student that you can track), they will not be able to build out their rocket or robot.

Collectively this is information and a tool set that allows me to be informed through data about a specific student, to act, to make changes, and to follow up with data on an individual student in the future.  

Try doing that with text on paper. It is not nearly as succinct.

Listening to Books versus Reading

Listening to text being read to you is important. It is an excellent practice and it is wonderful to have a tool that provides that support for students.

However, if you are learning to read, you must engage in the act of reading to become a better reader. If you know how to read, you must engage in the act of reading to become a better reader. There is no substitution for the act of reading. Just as I cannot only listen to a workout video to get in shape, I cannot only listen to a book to become a better reader.

One concern regarding Raz-Kids is that some students are ONLY listening to books. The great news is that Raz-Kids provides trackable data for each student. It can help teachers to determine who these students are, when they listened versus read, and whether they followed up and read the book independently.  Let's look at a sample of one student's reading activity below.



We can see that this student tends to listen far more often than read. In fact, we see that the student has taken a Quiz without ever reading one of the books.  However, on 2/20 we see that the student made a change in habit. Here the student read the book after listening. That is a sign of a change in habit. And while we do not have enough information from this to see if this was student or teacher directed, we can explore the ways we could use this data in our next conference with the student.

We put this data in front of the student and ask exploratory questions. 
  • "Why do you prefer to listen rather than reading in Raz-Kids?"  
  • "Are you actively exercising the reading skills you  when you listen to a book? What does that look like?" 
While we cannot turn off the audio books for a student in Raz-Kids (I checked with the company to confirm this), we can do two key things: 1) track the data and talk with students about it and 2) change the levels at which students are required to listen to books to LevelUp!

If that last point was new to you, you should know this. Students can level up in their reading level (or teachers can assign them to a new level). To level up on their own, they have to read the books in the level AND listen to the books. However, if that is not ideal for students at higher levels (or any level) this is something that the teacher can change on their Roster --> Settings page in Raz-Kids.

Students Not Reading Text at Appropriate Level

By this point, you know where we are going to go Raz-Kids to track this data. We will start in the Reports section to see what level of books students are reading.  This becomes a data point for a conversation with the student.  Additionally, though, teachers can re-assign the appropriate level for the student.  Above is a  screen shot showing the option to change the reading level for an individual student. 

And what does changing this level mean for the student? While the student can still access books at a variety of levels in the Reading Room, the books available to the student in the Level Up! room of Raz-Kids changes. And this can become an instruction for students and a point to review when conferencing with students.

And if you want to reduce access to specific leveled books for some students in the Reading Room -- well, you can do that, too.  Under the Roster tab, click the Raz-Kids tab and select a few students. You can now lock specific levels of books down so students who are habitually reading books that are not suitable to them no longer have access.

This is the digital equivalent of helping students to shop for books that are at their appropriate reading level.

Distraction While Reading

If your concern is that it is easy for students to be easily distracted while reading on a device, then you apparently are not a daydreamer, as I am. Device or not, I get lost in my own thought while reading sometimes. That's part of the magic of reading.  However, there is unproductive distraction on digital devices, especially for those who are struggling readers. This is something we may be able to deal with.

This is where I will introduce my teaching assistant friend, Apple Classroom. If you have students who are consistently off-task with their reading when using digital books, banning the iPads is not your only option.  Employing the use of Apple Classroom gives teachers a window into certain students' iPads right from the comfort of your small instructional group. As you transition to your new group, take a look down at your teacher iPad and see. Are those few students in the app you want them to be in? Are they progressing? While this isn't an article about how to use Apple Classroom, knowing that this is a tool that can help you to say with confidence what students are doing on their iPad is the point.

And the beauty of Apple Classroom is that it isn't tied to a specific app. It can be used for ANY app used in the classroom, including other apps where students are engaging with text in a digital platform (iBooks, Safari, EPIC, OverDrive, etc.).


Final Thought

While I love books and feel comfortable in them, the reality is that most of the text I encounter daily is digital. I have to employ a different set of skills to read, annotate, share, and stay focused on digital text. Using and comprehending this text directly impacts my job, my communication with others, my social relationships, and my life. 

Learning to read and comprehend text in a digital platform is critical. Providing opportunities for students to engage with text meaningfully in these platforms is essential to their long-term success -- especially in the age of information and abundant technology.

I still love books and I share that love of books with students and my own children. You should, too! Let's just avoid doing so while excluding other essential ways students will need to engage with much of the text and key ideas in their lives.