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Using Digital Books in the Classroom

By Mary Blow on April 26, 2012
  • Grades: 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

OK, I admit it. I have been dragging my feet with eBooks. Hey, I am an English teacher. I love the smell of the pages in a new book. I like physically turning the pages. And yes, I am one of those people who defaces a book, writing my thoughts and notes in the margins and even going so far as to flag page after page with sticky notes. However, as passionate as I am about reading hardcopy books, I am finding an appreciation for digital books, too.



eReader Devices and Apps

I have an iPad and a Kindle Fire; however, I learned that you don’t need a mobile device or an eReader to use the eReader apps. Most eReader apps are compatible with PCs and Macs. I installed my favorite eReader apps on my iPad and my computers. This allows me to access my libraries on all my mobile and stationary devices.

There are a plethora of eReaders to choose from, so you want to select an application that fits your classroom goals. TopTenReviews published a matrix comparing the most popular eReaders. I found that iPad is compatible with most eReader apps, including my favorites, Storia,  Kindle, and iBook. Each offers unique classroom capabilities that meet my educational goals.

Many eReader apps allow you to register more than one device to your account, which means that more than one student can read a book at a time. Amazon allows up to six devices to be registered at once: Kindles, Android devices, iPads, iPhones, PCs, and Macs. Storia, which is compatible with the PC and the iPad, allows you to do the same. I am excited that Scholastic will be releasing an Android version of Storia in the near future because it's supported by the mobile devices that many of my students own. Read on to see how I use the different eReader apps in my classroom.


eReader Apps and the SMART Board

Student Annotating Text on SMART BoardYou can connect an iPad 2 or higher to a SMART Board or projector with a VGA adapter. iPads don’t allow for interaction with the SMART Board. They simply project the image on the board.  You manipulate the eBook using the touch screen on the iPad. To be honest, I prefer downloading the eReader apps to the computer connected to my SMART Board because the eReader app is enhanced by SMART Board interactive components like the floating toolbar and pens. In addition, you can capture screen shots of your notes for future reference.


Outside Reading

What do you do when your students purchase eBooks for their outside reading book? You join the party. Nothing motivates middle school students more than teaching a teacher how to use a new eReader device. Our students are required to have an outside reading book at all times. Some of my students bring their own devices (BYOD). They do not have access to our network with their personal devices, so I don’t have to worry about Internet security settings. As long as they come to school with their books preloaded, they are able to use their eReader in the classroom. If they choose to purchase our class book in digital format, I am OK with their using their own device. It motivates reluctant readers to read. Why would I want to extinguish the flame I worked so hard to kindle?

I have to admit, despite my passion for flipping through the pages and basking in the aroma of new books, I enjoy sharing the passion for reading eBooks with my students, and I like traveling with my reading library packed neatly into my purse. My students have access to my Kindle Fire and iPad in the classroom, so they all experience reading digital books.


Literature eCircles

Storia Interactive Activity: Out of the Dust by Karen HesseAlthough Storia, Scholastic’s new eReader app, is designed for parents, it is a wonderful app for educators, too. Teachers can create digital literature circles or reading groups. The app provides the option to create bookshelves, which are assigned to reading groups or individual students who need modified assignments. The online application tracks the number of minutes the students spend reading, the number of pages they read, and which words they looked up using the integrated dictionary. The data is used to track student progress. The books marked with a lightning bolt are enhanced eBooks that contain interactive student activities based on the book.

I recently purchased Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse using the Storia app so I could project the book on my SMART Board, modeling how to read narrative verse, paying particular attention to phrasing and punctuation. After students read "The Dust Bowl: The Land, the People" (Scope, March 12, 2012), they read a hardcopy excerpt from Out of the Dust, engaged in group discussions, and annotated the text. The picture to the right shows one of the online activities for this book, projected on the SMART Board.


Assistive Technology

Meeting the needs of diverse learners is often challenging. By middle school, reading abilities span a wide range. The beauty of eBooks is that you can modify the sound and visual settings to assist students who have learning disabilities. Some eReader apps have text-to-text speech. Common Core says that students need to be exposed to complex text. You can scaffold to higher levels of complexity using eReaders. Students whose reading levels are well below grade level become frustrated, causing them to shut down. Listening to the first couple chapters while they read along helps them to develop fluency with the author’s sentence structure and helps with the pronunciation of unfamiliar words.

I unplug my students once they become more fluent with the text and let them read independently. The Kindle 3G offers this option for all books; however, Kindle Fire does not. Many of the titles for younger readers in the Storia library have text-to-speech capabilities. The chapter books do not. The app is free, so download it and get five free eBooks for your grade level to start your classroom e-library.

eReading apps also provide options for adjusting the font size, assisting students who are visually impaired. Every eReader app that I downloaded allows students to do this. Some, like Kindle Fire, allow you to permanently set the font size. Others, like Storia, allow you to zoom in and out as you read. It is also possible to adjust the lighting and increase or decrease the contrast between the font and the background, which is helpful for some students.


Summer Reading

How do you motivate students to engage in summer reading? Parents can use Storia to track their child’s progress. If they have more than one child, they can create a bookshelf for each child and assign summer reading books to each. They can track which book their child is reading and the number of minutes spent reading, and view the words they looked up using the interactive dictionary. The investment is well worth it because siblings can share the same eBook library years later. Invite students to participate in Scholastic’s Summer Challenge. They can win rewards for themselves and for their school.

Check out our summer reading Book Wizard list, “Best Middle School eBooks for Summer Reading.”


Teacher Resources Compatible With eReader Apps

Financial resources are dwindling in the school budget; however, you don’t need to fret about the costs of eBooks. Many online eBook libraries offer free classic literature that meets the complexity of text requirements outlined by the Common Core. I don’t have time to teach a lot of lengthy novels; however, I do like to pull excerpts and dig deep into the meaning of shorter passages. Some of the Common Core exemplar lessons pair excerpts from literature with poetry or nonfiction passages. The Internet is riddled with literary resources such as the Library of America’s Short Story of the Week, where you can download classic short stories and poetry in PDF format. PDFs are compatible with Kindles and iBooks, so you can open them using either eReader app.  

ManyBooks.net is another online library of literature, fiction and nonfiction, available in a variety of eReader formats. The app Pulse collects daily news headlines from many sites on the Internet. It is a great source of nonfiction passages to use in the classroom. For example, the articles on Syria and political oppression pair beautifully with an excerpt from Mockingjay, the third book in the Hunger Games series. After reading the news articles, students can read chapter seven of Mockingjay and discuss the similarities and the differences in how political oppression is depicted in fiction and nonfiction.

Or, if you are feeling creative, you can convert your own documents into eBooks. Many word processing applications, including Microsoft Word, allow you to save or export a document as a PDF. In Pages, simply choose to print it as a PDF document.

Recently, I discovered iBooks Author, a free publishing app by Apple. Since the high-stakes digital assessments, coming up for my students in 2014, are supposed to encompass interactive components, this is a gold mine. Last week, I created my first eBook with embedded interactive components: slide shows, video, sound, and quiz questions. Did I mention it was FREE? Any device or computer (PC or MAC) that has the iBook app can read the interactive eBook.

Why am I jumping through hoops to find ways to use eReaders in my classes? My job is not to prepare students for the 2012 digital world. My job is to ensure that my students are prepared for the 2019 digital world. So, I must scaffold exposure to reading digital text, transferring the skills utilized in reading hardcopy text to 21st century literacy. Hopefully, my efforts will help them be successful on the digital assessments—and with everything that follows.

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