What we did
Shared reading of an English text with comments in Google Documents. Long story short: we were studying fairy tales in Grade 6 English. I found some online texts of Brothers Grimm and other fairy tales, pasted them into Google Docs, and told the students to add comments. The only instructions I gave the students were:
Highlight text and insert a comment (command+shift+M) when you see any:
words you don’t know
figurative language (symbols, simile, metaphor – “x is like y”, “x is y”)
anything you want to comment on
Why we did it
While I love reading alone, and try to encourage students to do it as much as possible, it can be hard to have fun doing it during class time. What I decided to try earlier this year was to make the act of reading itself a bit more interactive and social.
I guess this might be categorized under “Social Learning”. Social learning is a shift to “involving individuals in processes and practices within which knowledge, understanding, and ideas are produced by participants as social accomplishments.” (Lankshear and Knobel 2011, paraphrasing Brown and Adler, 2008)
Every time we looked at a section of the text together, we had a VERY large number of comments added in a very short amount of time. Some students focused on definitions of unknown words, some looked for shocking events or descriptions, and some found connections to other things they’d read. We quickly had so many comments that they couldn’t all appear on the screen at the same time. Students answered each others’ questions and had debates about certain events or terms. It all happened a lot faster than I could follow.
What I learned
I liked the way that this technique took a silent reading activity and made it interactive and social. It allowed us to read the same text together in class, but also let everyone tackle the same text at their own pace. I definitely got some insight into students’ different reading speeds and styles. Some students only commented on the first few paragraphs, while some raced ahead and read the ending first, or skipped around.
This approach also resulted in a document of students’ reactions to and interactions with the text which has possible future value to us as a class. For example, it easily lets the whole class see which words were difficult for which readers, and it would be easy to compile a glossary or list of hard words based on the students’ self-identified unknown words.
I also liked the way this allowed anyone to become a peer “expert” and help with definitions, etc. This peer teaching element might be a good activity for early finishers or those who are more confident with their understanding of the text, and it makes the whole process of reading a more social and collaborative act. Having this peer help available takes some of the pressure off individual readers to look up unknown words themselves, and having the whole class modeling asking for help in this way might help English language learners feel more confident when they don’t understand particular words.
I do think that this activity was distracting for some students, and in the future when we do something similar I’ll try to create some more structured guidelines for how to comment. A few people treated the comments like chat boxes and spent time writing greetings or jokes. Having all the students on the same document at the same time probably contributed to this, and I’d like to explore doing this commenting in smaller groups next time, making multiple copies of the document. Roles might also help address this – maybe one student should be the word definer, one should look for metaphors, etc.
It’s also definitely true that the act of linear, contemplative reading is disrupted by this method. Some students scrolled up and down throughout the document looking for entertainment, or got caught up in reading the others’ comments and ignoring the text itself.
I think the act of reading these fairy tales on paper, individually, still has a great deal of value for these students and will continue to be part of our study of them. However, for the specific purposes of:
- finding unknown words and defining them
- documenting our reactions to unusual, confusing or surprising parts of the text, and
- finding and analyzing literary devices or techniques within the text,
I think this type of commenting activity seems perfect. After incorporating a bit more structure in the commenting process, perhaps by splitting the class into reading groups so that everyone isn’t using the same document at the same time, I think this would be a really valuable process to go through with any electronically-available text, and I am looking forward to future experiments.