Sunday, November 8, 2009

Comprehension & web content: main ideas & prediction

When working with text, it can be helpful to try to ascertain the main ideas before reading the selection.  I remember getting some practice with SQ3R back in the day (yeah, I just totally aged myself), but that particular strategy can be tough to pull off with a web resource.  While there are other tools for helping frame a reading passage, I really like and

This was taken from an article about the 30 million word gap
This was taken from an article about the 30 million word gap.

Wordlehelps to create a visual word cloud from either pasted text, an RSS feed, or a Delicious account.   In this example, I copied all of the text from an article to see which words were repeated.  This can be a great way for kids to see main ideas before reading -- and it can help those students generate questions that they think will be answered in the selection.  Or, if you are reading prose, copy & paste the text into Wordle to see a graphic representation of repeated words.

This is also a great tool to use for analysis of speeches, bias, writing style, word choice, etc.

Taken from the 30 Million Word gapThe other tool that accomplishes something similar is TagCrowd.  While separates TagCrowd from Wordle is that it will show you a word count, you can use other languages, and you can enter a URL as opposed to copying & pasting.  It doesn't have the aesthetic choices that Wordle offers, but the other functions make this an attractive tool.

These both have some incredible possibilities for use with students.  If you are working on a writing assignment, try having the students paste in their own text to see if they need to work on word choice.  Or, analyze major speeches from political figures.  Or, compare soliloquies from a Shakespeare play.   Or, have students respond electronically to a prompt (like a blog post, for example) and paste all of the responses to see common ideas or themes.

Regardless, these both provide a nice way to use non-linguistic representation of linguistic sources.  It's also a good way for students to see if there are unfamiliar words used heavily in a selection.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Web Layouts - Impact on Reading Comprehension?

cc image courtesy of Herzogbr
cc image courtesy of Herzogbr

How different is reading on the web vs. reading in hard copy? Shouldn't we able to use similar strategies to help readers with web and non-web text? You'd think so, and yet, there seems to be a marked difference from the way students deal with reading a web page vs. reading a textbook page.

For me, this leads to more questions:
  1. if similar reading strategies are used, what is it about the web that makes it unique for the reader?

  2. what electronic tools exist that can help with those "similar strategies"?

Question 2 will be tackled in subsequent posts, but for now, think about question 1. One thing we really need to explore is layout.

When is the last time you were on Facebook? How about a Google search? Purchasing something on Amazon? Or, how about wikipedia? In each of those web settings (social networking, searching, e-commerce, and research), you will notice something consistent about the use of margins: unimportant stuff is on the outside of the page (e.g. "sponsored links," ads, or other superfluous text).

When is the last time you checked out a typical textbook page? Whether it's for social studies, science, or a language course, what do you notice about the margins? Important stuff is on the outside of the page (e.g. definitions, graphs, and background information).

What does this mean for our readers and their comprehension? For kids growing up with web-based content, they are programmed to ignore what's on the outside of the page. That has significant implications for reading comprehension.

If you are a teacher and you utilize web sources as well as textbook sources, be sure you are cognizant of how layout impacts comprehension and be sure you make your students cognizant as well. If you never use web content (which means you aren't reading this anyway), be sensitive to the fact that our students do, and that practice may have repercussions on understanding printed content.

I am not-so-patiently awaiting a time when textbooks don't figure into our budgets, classrooms, or backpacks at all. Until we get there, though, we owe it to our students to help them discern the difference between printed text and electronic text.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Comprehension & web-based content: finding accessible text

One issue that we encounter as teachers is finding material that actually suits our reading audience.  Even more challenging is finding different levels of accessible text for differentiation within the classroom.  What if the reading levels of your students vary quite a bit within 1 class?

One option is to try to figure out what the reading level actually is.  This is pretty complicated -- the most accurate results are probably found by checking with reading specialists & librarians.  However, what if you are using web-based content?  There are a couple of free web-based services that will help you determine the reading level.
taken from
taken from

EditCentral has a box to paste in text and it will run the selection through an algorithm to determine the readability scale.  This site  uses the Flesch-Kincaid scale and the Gunning fog index, as well as some others.   Some nice features are that it color codes the results of the different reading scales and it also underlines words that might be considered complex or difficult.

taken from
taken from

If you just need to quickly check the readability scale of a particular website, you can paste the URL into this website's readability test, and it will run the page through its algorithm to figure out the reading level.  This free service also tabulates how many words & sentences are in the page, as well as counting how many words have 1, 2, 3, or 4 syllables.  There are explanations for what the different reading indexes reveal.

What's interesting about this site is that it is designed for web page designers.  This is supposed to help webmasters see if the content of their site or page is too difficult for the "average" reader.

Finally, if your district has a subscription to Nettrekker (like we are fortunate enough to have in CCSD), you can do a search for a subject in nettrekker, and it will give you a readability scale for the different sites that match your search.  Honestly, I don't find the readability numbers in nettrekker very intuitive (it's on a 1 - 5 scale), but it is based on a combination of many different readability indexes.  Here's a quick overview:  a "5" means grades 11-13, a "4" equates to grades 9-10, and a "3" should indicate appropriate reading for grades 7 - 8.

Any literacy or reading specialist will tell you to use these types of tests with caution.  Obviously, a mathematical formula can't account for much more than syllables, word count, and number of sentences.  However, if you just need a filter to make sure that a resource you've found isn't over the heads of your students, these services can be pretty  helpful.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Comprehension & web-based content: annotation tools

One thing our students do on a very regular basis is read on the web.   Teachers at our school have spent time helping kids annotate printed text, and now there are some pretty cool tools to help kids annotate web-based text.  If annotating is a strategy you use with students, the three free tools below are worth checking out.

SharedCopy is a free tool that you can use on the web to highlight and add sticky notes.  You do need to create an account first if you want to save what you've annotated, but it is email-based, meaning that our students can create an account based on their school email (makes it easier for us to troubleshoot).

You can install the SharedCopy button onto the browser's toolbar (see your technology support person if you need help), and it currently works with Safari, Firefox, & Explorer.  Clicking on that button will bring up a small window with various tools you can use to mark up a web page.   What's great for students is that they can access their "stored" pages from anywhere and can email their teachers their work.  Because SharedCopy basically takes a snapshot of the page, this is a great option for using with subscription databases.

Another good highlighter/sticky tool is AwesomeHighlighter.  While this is only available as a toolbar button for Firefox, you can always go to the AW web page and paste in a URL for highlighting.  One of the things AwesomeHighligher has going for it is the ability to color code.  You can choose from 4 different highlighter colors, which is something that SharedCopy currently doesn't do (you can only use yellow).  Like SharedCopy, you'll need an account if you want to save your highlighted pages, but this one is also email-based.

Finally, if you want your students to be working in groups, sharing web pages, and annotating those pages (in addition to highlighting), is well worth your time.  It has a lot of features, so it takes  a bit more front-end work than the aforementioned tools, but it also has a lot of potential.  Not only can you highlight and share page annotations, but you can collect them in one place and have online discussions.  Teachers can create an educator account (& student accounts via upload), but accounts are required (email-based).

So how does this relate to comprehension?  When working with web-based reading, we can guide our students in not only highlighting but also adding sticky notes to explain their choices or adding sticky notes with questions that they have as readers.  They can then share that with the world, if they want, and see what others have annotated.  These 3 (free) tools can help our students learn how to work with electronic text in ways similar to printed text.