Books fall open, you fall in

Posted by Leslie Miller on April 28, 2016

The author's daughter shares a story on her iPad.Like many educators who are also mothers, I dreamed of reading to my children every night before bed.  I saw myself reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, gently tucking them in, and watching them drift off to join Aslan in Narnia.  I managed to fulfill that dream when they were small and loved picture books.  Yet somewhere around the time my eldest wanted a more challenging reading experience than The Very Quiet Cricket, I realized nightly reading was a road block.  What with homework and nightly routines, I just couldn’t do it!

Smartphone apps

So, I turned to my smartphone.  I found two apps I really liked.  One was the for-pay site which, like so many Amazon products, offers a wide range of books to choose from for adults and children.  The other site I chose was which allowed us to connect through our local library card to a wealth of free audiobooks, e-books and movies.

I downloaded Beverly Cleary’s collection of Henry and Ribsy to my phone. One particularly hot afternoon in the car, when my brood was fighting and my internal temperature was starting to rise, I turned it on.  Magic happened!  They listened. In fact, when we got home, we sat in the driveway listening because they did not want the story to stop. They were like camels crossing the desert to an oasis.  They drank deeply.  I knew we were on the right track.

As research has taught us, listening to adult readers builds in a child the value of becoming a successful reader.  It allows children to learn how to read at a natural pace and grows the enjoyment of listening to spoken words of a story.  If we think of oral comprehension as the foundation of the development of reading and vocabulary, then it is easy to see how listening and reading comprehension are interlinked.

Matthew Effects

In the primary grades a student’s maximum level of reading comprehension is predicated on the child’s level of listening comprehension.  Students exposed to stories with increased vocabulary will inevitably have a greater depth of knowledge and more developed academic vocabulary.  Keith Stanovich has described the so-called “Matthew effects” in reading—the wider the variety of reading, the more cumulative the child’s vocabulary and early acquisition of reading skills become, while the child not exposed to the cognitive exercise of tiered vocabulary can have gaps in her schema and will likely become a poor reader.

The beauty of online stories is that no longer am I the gatekeeper of reading more complex text.  At any time, my daughters can pick up a tablet, pop on their headphones and listen to stories unfold. The tablet becomes more than a screen to watch a movie or play a game; it becomes a way to connect with the library. With the current additions to, children can enjoy hearing the story read aloud while following the text on screen.  While reviewing one particular Star Wars story, I noted how the inclusion of John William’s theme music, the rich voice of the narrator and high interest text invited the reader to become enthusiastic for the story.   Our smart devices become living books that unlock the reader’s imagination.

“Books Fall Open

Books fall open,
you fall in,
delighted where,
you’ve never been.
Hear voices
not once heard before,
Reach world through world,
through door on door.
Find unexpected
keys to things,
locked up beyond
True books will venture,
Dare you out,
Whisper secrets,
Maybe shout,
across the gloom,
to you in need
Who hanker for
a book to read.”

David T.W. McCord


Print books are still da bomb!

Posted by Lisa Marie Gonzales on June 16, 2015

With the expansion of technology and the social media world accessible to our youngest of generations, it’s no wonder Kindles, Nooks, and iBooks are growing in popularity. In our household, iPads have been the norm for years. But like the emerging trends of the 13–17 year olds in households and schools, our nine-year-old twins prefer…you guessed it…print books!

Girl on couch reading a book.

Recent statistics report that, despite being tech savvy, the 13-17 age group aren’t big e-book consumers. While 20% of teens report purchasing e-books, 25% of 30–44 year olds and 23% of 18–29 year olds buy digital copies.1 While younger readers are open to e-books as a format, the age group continues to express a preference for print that may seem to be at odds with their perceived level of digital savvy.

Are my twingles any different than their older counterparts? It’s doubtful. Several factors play a role in the preference of teens toward print publications, and they are similar to what my mini-me’s have in play.

First of all, their mother still prefers print, be it the traditional get-your-fingers-a-bit-dirty newspaper each morning, the paperback novel that welcomes a dog-ear, or the ability to share a book with a sibling, a friend, a parent. Or maybe it’s the giddy role model I provide when, traipsing around the country, I find a used bookstore full of treasures!

Secondly, the word of mouth power of print books or magazines is much greater than their electronic counterparts, as I recently witnessed with a group of little girls after a football tailgate party. “Oh, I loved that book,” exclaimed one of seven, when looking at a paperback copy of one of the recent Goddess Girls books strewn on a bedroom floor. “Me too!” exclaimed another. My twins watched, and I couldn’t help but ask, “Have you read one?” I would have been stunned if my dirty pant-kneed tomboys had said yes, as the others, clearly girlie girls, headed toward the makeup and music. Yet two days later, having picked up one copy at a used bookstore and coerced one of my daughters to read “just the first fifty pages,” the Little Blonde One admitted the rest were going on her list to Santa.

Finally, my daughters aren’t very visible on social media like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or blogs unless I’m closely supervising their use on my accounts. However, the teens out there benefit from the bandwagon effect that social media can create around reading resources, especially series. If an author can gather a following with just a couple of books, sales of more are soon to follow.

Guess a screen can’t replace everything.


1“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover: Tech-Savvy Teens Remain Fans of Print Books.” Newswire. Nielsen, 9 Dec. 2014. Web. 16 June 2015. <>.




OCR, Meet Common Core

Posted by Jack Jarvis on September 8, 2013

Smart phone scanning text for OCRAs we move into Common Core, a new emphasis is upon us in the form of text-related instruction. Thankfully, the days of teaching isolated skills are being replaced by deep examination of complex text.

You might think we would have the necessary techniques and strategies already ensconced in our teaching repertoires, but the uncomfortable truth is to the contrary. This is not surprising, considering the weighting of comprehension questions on the standardized tests that have driven all our instructional decisions during the last decade. While comprehension of what one reads would seem to be the only “standard” that counts when it comes to skills that get you through college or into the workplace, we now find many students who can score in the basic or even proficient levels in reading while missing half or more of the reading comprehension items on the test!  Ultimately, the deficiency shows up in middle school or high school, where the inability to really understand what you are decoding dooms many students to lag behind or drop out.

Are we on the same page?

In Common Core reading comprehension instruction, directing students towards examples of text in books on their individual desks isn’t satisfactory.  How can you ensure all students are looking at the same page, let alone the same paragraph you are teaching from? All a teacher really knows is the kids are looking down—and then probably at a smart phone!

The crucial need to be addressed will be finding a way for elementary and secondary schoolteachers to display rich examples of complex text on their presentation screens for all to see at once.     Where will this text come from? Some textbook publishers already allow copying and pasting of their text; Harcourt Science and Holt Social Studies are two examples. The Houghton-Mifflin Medallions eBooks do not allow that access.  And many great examples will be found in hard copy texts that are not online.

OCR to the rescue!

One solution that is, amazingly, little known in K-12 education is optical character recognition software (OCR). OCR takes a scanned picture of text and recognizes the characters as text, converting them to “regions” where the text can then be pasted into PowerPoint or other applications and manipulated, highlighted, et cetera.

To me, the best product for this task is Omni Page Pro, the industry standard since OCR was first developed. I have used Omni Page Pro extensively as both an administrator and teacher for ten years and am amazed at how few educators are even aware of this application.

There are other similar products, including Presto! OCR, which received the second highest marks in a recent review. Microsoft OneNote also has some ability to perform OCR, but in a limited fashion. When Omni Pro was virtually the only game in town it was expensive, but the price has come down by almost 75%. Now, there is not much price difference between it and competing products.

Understanding and mastering this technology will prove extremely valuable as applied to Common Core.  Yes, there are issues of copyright that are involved and one must be diligent and abide by local acceptable use policies.  But by being familiar with fair use and exercising care and good judgment, there are a lot of useful pieces of text in many hard copy books that would be great for Common Core instruction.  The chore is getting them up front and center, and OCR does the trick.

Learn more about OCR tools.


What we don’t know will hurt us.

Posted by Jack Jarvis on January 3, 2011

hhos    i wasn’t rofl

Next time you read a 6th grader’s written assignment, don’t be surprised if you see unfamiliar acronyms popping up and a lack of proper grammar and basic punctuation.  The student may simply be stuck in “texting mode.”  Examples: hhos (Ha Ha only serious, as in “funny with an element of truth”) and rofl (rolling on the floor laughing).

We recently observed this incursion of text messaging shorthand into Standard English when students in our advanced computer group switched to the web-based version of their Holt Social Studies textbooks.  In reviewing  online assignments completed by these  students, I was shocked to see what appeared to be bone-headed errors in their written responses to social studies questions: first words of sentences lacking capitalization, ends of sentences missing periods, proper nouns without capitals.  Yet, these kids were proficient or above on last year’s CST.  What was going on?

The answer? These students are avid texters. They live to text. They don’t talk on the phone; they text. They don’t email; they text.  And the practice is now permeating their school writing—brb, culatr, omg, lol.  Not a capital to be found.  Abbreviations abound.  It would be safe to bet that time they spend texting and reading text messages surpasses the time they read and write in school.

We may be unwittingly aggravating the situation.  For awhile now, I’ve noticed teachers inadvertently limiting their students’ reading time by doing most of it for them.  At my site, we recently argued about how much reading a 6th grade teacher should do for the students.  In order to settle the argument, we asked those same proficient students what they thought. Their response? Yes, they can read the text themselves. Yes, the teacher “does it a lot,” said one student,  “and it takes a lot of time. ” “They should let us do it,” her classmate added.

We discovered another interesting fact in working with this bright group. When the students created PowerPoint presentations to summarize what they’d read in their online textbook, the same errors did not exist.  I asked a group of four students to explain.  Their reply? “We may have to present this to other kids and they’ll think we’re dumb.” Aha! A ray of hope.

The staff and I  certainly learned some useful lessons:

  • These kids actually want to read more on their own.
  • They text more than they read or write in school.
  • They sometimes slip into texting habits, but they’ll use better English when they know their work may be seen by a wider audience.

But perhaps the most important lesson we learned was the value of talking to them about their own learning more frequently.   As educators, what we don’t know about our students will hurt us!


Is It Reading?

Posted by Skip Johnson on February 10, 2009

It gets dark outside on a rainy December evening as twelve-year old Edgar sits in his family’s living room and waits for Mom to come home from work.  Dad won’t return until well after midnight from his job as a baggage handler at the airport.

Usually, Edgar would pass such time playing video games or watching television—conveniently forgetting homework and assigned chores.  This evening, however, Jim Dale tunes Edgar into Dicken’s A Christmas Carol via an  iPod Nano. Dale, a professional actor, presents this classic tale in a dramatic and engaging manner that captures Edgar’s attention for over an hour.  His little brother, Raul, sits opposite in an easy chair listening to Frog and Toad wonderfully read by author Arnold Lobel.  Neither boy hears Mom enter the house.  Sensing her presence, they look up, wave with a smile, and continue listening and reading.

On return to school the next morning, Raul enters his classroom, accesses his personal account on Scholastic Reading Counts, and takes a comprehension quiz.  He scores 100%.  Two days later, after finishing A Christmas Carol, Edgar  misses just one question on his 20-question quiz.

Thirty-nine of the 241 students at El Crystal School are enrolled in the Audiobook Program—which we call eCAP. Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) scores for most are rising.  Enthusiasm and motivation for reading amongst this small group has  changed profoundly since the introduction of the iPod and the audiobooks.  Edgar is the star as his SRI has gained more than 170 points!

However, is this really reading? Are the students encoding and decoding words? Are they missing some intellectual exercise that influences their thinking and reasoning skills?  Frankly, I do not know.  What I do know is that since we introduced this program in October 2008,  each student in the eCAP Program has doubled his or her reading goal for the year, and we are only halfway to June.

To Read or Not to Read, a 2007 report from the National Endowment for the Arts, details the decline of reading amongst all demographic groups with the steepest drop among young adults in the last 10 to 20 years. The sharp decline in reading is accompanied by negative social, cultural, and economic implications.   The report notes that “Children who start reading for pleasure at an early age are exposed to exponentially higher numbers of new words—and a greater opportunity to develop literacy skills—than children denied early reading experiences.”  Frequent reading is an essential ingredient for building a sophisticated vocabulary.

Hopefully, our eCAP participants are being exposed to new vocabulary words.  To ensure that our eCAP readers focus upon vocabulary we are developing a series of podcasts for each story dealing with its specific vocabulary. We have also purchased a number of commercial study guides for many of the audiobooks.

Is there support for audiobooks in articles and research?One significant and supportive article is Plato Revisited: Learning Through Listening in the Digitial World written by David Rose and Bridget Dalton.  Basically, they explore the scientific difference between hearing and listening and build a strong case for the use of audiobooks with more than just blind and dyslexic students. Jim Trelease, the author of Read Aloud Handbook, advocates using audiobooks.  In her article “As Good as Reading,” Pamela Varley adamantly defends and advocates the use of audiobooks by children.

Recently, the foundation that sponsored our initial eCAP program has offered to supply each student with an iPod and to buy more books!  Should we accept this offer? Will we be ruining the habits of good readers?

So far, I’ve told them we need some time to consider the implications.  Your thoughts, please?