Two percent. Just 2% of code separates us from our Chimpanzee brethren. Yet that small difference has lead to humanities’ migration, the rise and fall of civilizations, and the creation of vast works of art.

Small differences matter.

Much like our genetic code online reading and traditional reading share many similarities. The differences, however, create a layer of complexity that mirror the vast chasm found in the cognitive abilities of chimpanzees and humans. Yes those students who have the prerequisite social practices to succeed in traditional academic reading tasks do outperform peers in online reading environments. Yet these shared cognitive skills and social practices do not explain all the differences in performance when we measure online reading comprehension.

via Pixabay

New and more complex skills and practices are required to read in online environments. This 2% (an analogy not actual data) represents the set of skills and practice that allow some learners to take online texts and reshape the meaning for future learning.

Michio Kaku in his book The Future of the Mind describes the difference between primate and human consciousness in terms of simulating the future. Kaku wrote (2014, chapter 7, 24:26):

Human consciousness involves the ability to create a model of the world and then simulate the model of the world in order to obtain a goal.

For Kaku intelligence should be a mark of how divergent thinking allows some to create more complex models and more frequent simulations of the future.

I see many parallels with definitions of online reading comprehension. When reading online more successful students do not simply assimilate information as traditional definitions comprehension would have us believe. Skilled online readers “manipulate and mold information to achieve a higher goal” (Kaku, 2014, chapter 7, 24:26). Based on my dissertation research and classroom observations I see three critical shifts: strategic text assembly, socially complex texts, and multimodal design.

Strategic Text Assembly

For the brief amount of time that book reigned in human history the reader did not have to build her own texts. An editor, publisher or author had the power of creating and shaping the texts we read. No more. Skilled online readers engage in strategic text assembly which I define as the ability to read for meaning while flexibly applying both navigation strategies and comprehension monitoring strategies.

Navigational Strategies

In my research navigational skills was a key difference between successful online readers and those who could not accomplish an inquiry task. The students who could manage multiple tabs, navigate search engines, and move between multiple sources did better. These are the easily quantifiable and teachable differences as we shift to reading online.

Comprehension Monitoring

Comprehension monitoring, or checking your own levels of understanding has always been recognized as an important skill for meaning making. Here online reading and traditional comprehension share much of the same DNA. Students who succeed in online environments skimmed more websites and spent more time engaged with sources when they judged them to be relevant.

I also noticed an intersection of background knowledge and working memory.A lack of background knolwedge did not phase skilled readers. This I documented in my work as very few students knew much about the domain of my inquiry tasks (American Revolution). I also noticed but did not have the data to fully support the thesis in my dissertation, that these skilled readers seemed to have a more robust working memory. They seemed to hold more information in their working memories that they could later mold into new meanings. They could quickly use the information they read and check it against their understanding of texts they visit in three or four clicks.

Socially Complex Texts

A believe the participatory nature of online texts requires a fundamental shift in how we define texts. Socially complex texts, concurrent arguments that unfold in print and social media with varying degrees of authority and amplification, now dominate our online reading environments. Basically socially complex texts are authored by opposing forces discussing an issue with equal passion and often mutual disdain. This requires a new set of reading skills to detect bait-clicking, astro turfing, and real grass root efforts. Accomplishing these goals requires readers to put a much larger emphasis on not only sourcing skills but also analytics.

Sourcing Skills

In my work, and in the research of those much smarter, we have established adolescent and adult readers do not attend to sources. I found very little evidence of readers evaluating websites. I asked students to identify authors, evaluate an author’s expertise, evaluate a publisher, evaluate bias, and evaluate sources within a source. Few students could identify an author let alone evaluate other markers of credibility.

We must teach students greater sourcing skills. We need them to engage in multiple source readings. More importantly we cannot decontextualize sourcing skills. A checklist approach, or a third step in some inquiry cycle will not work. Credibility judgements interweave through out the meaning making process and change based on the reading of tasks.


I have argued that analytics is the most important literacy skill that no one is teaching. At least not in the field of literacy. Definitely not at the K-12 level. Analytics involves so much more than click counting. By examining how an idea travels, the frequency of times readers and authors mention an idea, and tracing it back to its source all require analytics. These skills are even more critical when we begin to think about writing in multimodal spaces.

Multimodal Design

Design matters. Readers must understand how multimodal choices affect the meaning process. As part of our Teaching Internet Comprehension to Adolescents grant I worked with a seventh grade urban classroom in the Northeast. We discussed how design affects meaning making. We looked at three websites about Mumia Abu-Jamal, a Philadelphia man who contests his death row conviction of killing a police officer. The first text used an informational text structure and tried to inform the audience. The second two, one from Abu-Jamal supporters and one published by the police union took argumentative stances. We discussed and examined how the font and color choices impacted meaning and tone.

I can teach students to write argumentative essays in online environments but I could never account for the impact of design using pencil and paper.


Small differences in code matters. I have not done a full analysis but if I examined the wizard behind most webpages I am sure the majority of text is copy. The HTML and CSS probably account for a smllaer percentage. Yet just as our intelligence and consciousness is contained in just 2% of our DNA code, this small amount of code has changed reading and writing forever.

I am always on the hunt for new digital text and tools to support writing in the early childhood education classrooms. Then came across my twitter feed while I virtually lurked the #dml2014 conference.

As soon as I saw the beauty and simplicity I could not wait to try out the tool.

How Do I Do It?

Any student or teacher can use storyscape. You first have to request an account (the product is still in Beta). Then you click on create a story. From there you can choose from an ever expanding collection of featured artists. Each art set has a set of characters and backgrounds.

Next you draft your story (after careful pre-writing of course). You can select backgrounds and between characters. Add text to each page. The amount of editing tools are perfect for schools. All of the required tools are there but young users would never be overloaded.

The developers of, an MIT MediaLab project, have designed the books for mobile reading. Many of the characters have animations. When the mobile reader gets released (looks like an Android app) readers can activate the animations by shaking the screen or through sound. Exciting times.

 How do I teach with StoryScape?

Of course you can just encourage students to write. Give them free creative reigns and let the go play. Our students need this kind of writing time. You may however want to connect the writing to learning objective taught during a mini-lesson.

Some ideas could include:

  • Character Traits-Develop two characters with flat (very predictable) traits such as good and bad.
  • Static/Dynamic characters-Do characters change because of the conflict?
  • Problem and Solution-Conflict is at the center of plot.

To pilot Storyscape I had two goals. I wanted to reinforce words with r-controlled vowels and then I wanted cowrite a story that included characters, settings, problem and a solution.

I began by first creating a model text that used short a sounds.


Next I created a story with my two favorite students.

Here is our finished story


Some ideas for future development:

Storyscape is in beta so new features will roll out quickly. I would like to be able to highlight and change text within the box rather than making gloabl changes. I would have put all the words with r-controlled vowels in bold or another color. I would also like an embed so I could share finished stories on my blog or your classroom website.


I highly recommend for all levels of education. I think the app holds special promise for writing in the early childhood classroom.

I am just discovering the rich features of the site. I can not wait to start and play with all the tools to optimize my stories for mobile apps.

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When you read the recent reports about texts being read in the classroom you would conclude our students spend time lost in texts well below grade level.

Yet do we really suffer from a lack of complexity in what students read? The CCSS Appendix A cites a slew of research indicating a sliding scale of complexity. The Fordham Institute report, “Common Core In Schools: A First Look at Reading Assignments,” written by Timothy Shanahan and Ann Duffett add fuel to the fire by suggesting students should not turn to popular young adult fantasy novels. The authors suggest these texts are well below the grade bands suggested in Appendix A.

However,these curricular guidelines and critiques miss a very important text. The internet. In fact the Fordham report, which analyzed the texts being assigned in schools did not mention the word internet once. I find it hard to believe that not one student was asked to utilize the internet at all for any major assignment. In fact we know from recent Pew studies that the majority of students turn to the internet as their primary information source.

The Most Dominant and Complex Text

The internet by definition is the most complex text students will encounter. Let us ignore the additional complexities caused by searching for sources. We can suspend our knowledge about building your own texts through hyperlinks. Lets overlook the challenge of evaluating and synthesizing disparate texts. While all of these qualitative features greatly increase the complexity of internet based texts we could just examine the quantitative measures.

Using the Metametrics Lexile Analyzer I searched for websites that would fall in the suggested band for fourth grade. First I used Google advanced search just to find websites at the “basic level.” All of the websites I checked were well over the 6-8 band. I then checked teacher websites, teacher created webquests, and popular kids news magazines. Once again the Lexile scores fell well above grade level.

I found the search for internet resources  that fall within suggested lexile ranges for elementary quite difficult. Does that mean we should give up? Does that mean teachers should ignore the Internet in the early grades?

No. While much of the content at the elementary grade level could hide behind paywalls we still need to prepare our youngest students to read the most complex text. Here are a few tips:

Do not Create False Dichotomies

The CCSS, especially the writing standards, require students to integrate both print and digital sources. We should do so in the classroom as well. I just worry, based on the reports cited above the internet is being viewed as a tool to deliver texts and not as text that requires new tools.

Use Apss and Websites that provide Lexile Measures

New tools and apps have emerged that can provide guidance to teachers. Newsela,in partnership with major newspaper publishers provides links to multiple articles that can be adjusted by lexile range. Subtext, an iOS app, also will select texts at specific lexile scores.

Work to Create Open Ed Resources

The Professional Learning Networks I participate in have matured greatly in recent years. Maybe we should harness this power and move beyond the reflection, sharing, and discussion we engage in. Maybe it is time to become content creators instead of content pushers.

If we note a lack of Internet sources at the 450-945 range we could band together to make these sites available. Teachers across the country set yearly growth objectives. Why not include a self study of text complexity in those goals? Elementary teachers need far greater training in text structure, the teaching of academic vocabulary, and text complexity.

If we worked together to create open resources we would not only increase our own pedagogical and content knowledge but would fill a vast void in early elementary texts that has persisted since the birth of the internet.

Teach Online Reading Comprehension

This internet thing is going to be around for awhile. It will continue to transform our literacy practices. In fact I will say it again. We need to teach our youngest students to read our most complex text. Teachers can do this.

For example I often use Google Custom Search to make a personalized search engine. I will populate it with texts my students can use. I then throw in one or two distractor websites. This allows me to teach students about relevancy and reading search results.

I have also printed out search results and webpage so we can examine multiple cases of disparate text structure.

We can also utilize our librarians. They are one of the most important teachers schools have. By working in partnership we can design units that teach content while building internet inquiry skills.


I highly doubt our youngest students suffer from a lack of text complexity. My quick examination, and unscientific look, of the sites teachers assign during webquests actually show the opposite. Students, even when directed by teachers who sift through search results ahead of time, encounter texts well above the suggested grade bands. This of course ignores the additional layers of complexity caused by the act of internet inquiry itself.

I do not know if the same patterns hold true in the upper grades. I am sure someone has studies the lexile ranges of the most common assigned websites. I just know that by not even mentioning the internet in our discussion of texts assigned by teacher we ignore the greatest literacy challenge our students face.

Image: By Junior Melo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


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On Monday we held the second Literacy Research Association Netcast. We put together an amazing panel on Grpahic Novels

I, a novice in the world of Graphic Novels, was struck by a few salient points.

First there is a general misconception about the complexity of Graphic Novels. Many teacher erroneously believe that graphic novels step down from the complexity of texts. This belief the panelists argued is cuased by numerous novel adaptations that create the illusion of being less complex. When we examine the body of work that began as graphic novels and not as adaptions the layers of meaning captured both in and out of frame become clear.

The complexity in graphic novels involves three levels. The vocabulary of graphic novels often exceeds other grade level texts. Yet lexile scores use sentence length so they disfavor graphic novels. The second level of complexity involves the art. In fact expert comic book readers pay more attention to the art rather than words when compared to novice readers. The third level of complexity emerges at the intersection of art and words and in the spaces between panels

David Low, a panelist, coined the term graphile to describe this additional qualitative difference. The presenters agreed this where we need to mov in order to support teachers. We do not need to justify the use of graphic novels but understand the challenges of graphile complexities. We need to move past talking about modes in graphic novels but delve into how people use those modes for meaning making. Finally we need to develop a system to evaulate the quality of graphic novels so we can make recommendations to teachers.

Subtext is one of the most powerful tools to support meaning making with an iPad.


Anyone who has attended my recent professional development sessions knows I believe  in three ways to building reading comprehension: increasing background knowledge, text based talk, and text based analysis. Subtext acts as a tool to teach content within the disciplines by weaving text based discussion and closed reading together.

It is my favorite app to support readers.


When you install Subtext you have to sign in using Google or Edmodo ID. I spoke to a representative of Renaissance learning, who purchased Subtext and she let me know that an AR log on is coming soon as well as a desktop version for the app (hoping for Chrome extension…hint…hint).



From there you can add a new book, download the user guide or make a class.



When you want to add to the library you have a few choices. SubText used .epub files (no kindle or iBook folks). So you can add any ebook or possibly check out a title from the library.

Still the epub support is amazing. Many teachers commonly mistake that the the Common Core State Standards do not dictate any specific titles. They are wrong. In the literature bands of high school students must read Shakespeare and early American literature. Most of these tiles are in the open domain. If you visit Project Gutenberg you will find many of these classics for free.

No more buying books of Shakespeare and Twain. Instead roll the savings right back into your readers. No more banning the annotating of texts. Celebrate the mark up.



Subtext  also organizes an article of the week and their premium content by grade level bands using the ATOS readability scale. This is a powerful tool that can cut down on the amount of time teachers spend sifting for grade appropriate content.



You can also turn any website  or PDF into a subtext article. This is especially useful in the disciplines. Take English for example. Many schools want to increase the amount of non fiction in the classroom.

I do not suggest an add on, another unit in an already overloaded curriculum. Instead support the disciplinary literacies of English such as theme and characterization. Reading Mice and Men in the classroom? Why not focus on the analysis of theme through non fiction. Find sources that seek to answer if the American Dream is still possible and import those sources into Subtext.

(Note you can also add the Subtext bookmarklet to your browser).



Once you have chosen a source you just click on the button to add it your library.

Subtext 9


You get a clean stripped down text. Students can then highlight the text for a series of options. For example you can choose highlight.

Subtext 10

I love the highlighting section of subtext. It is what I have been waiting for years as our talk has focused on close reading. You see close reading is not an outcome. It is not something we measure with a rubric. Key ideas and details, craft and struce, integrating knowledge and ideas, these are outcomes. Closed reading, is how we get there.

For me this means text annotation, or what I call purposeful coding of text. Most students highlight by coloring (example above). Annotation takes a purpose. Subtext allows me to track the purposeful coding of my students.

Say for example I was coding for argumentation. I could select a color and a tag for: position statement, main arguments, claims, evidence, counter-claims, and transition words.

If my purpose was tracing the development of a central idea I could code for main ideas, evidence, and my inferences.

Subtext 11


After I tag the highlight a color coded paper clip appears (though as someone who is red-green color blind I would prefer greater contrasts in the palette).

Subtext 12


You also have other options for the highlight. You can discuss, copy, and google. If you highlight one word you get a defintion (though jettisoned was not in the subtext dictionary so I might suggest Google). The discussion features are very rich. This is where subtext builds in text based talk.

Subtext 14


The discussion is directly connected to an element within the text. As a reader or teacher you can decide who can see the comment. You can also mark the Spoiler alert button (a feature I love) and decide who can reply.

Subtext 16


You also have other discussion options such as true/false, multiple choice, and poll questions. These questions can appear in the text or at the end of the chapter. A very powerful tool. I have never understood chapter and unit tests with literature. No good reader I know sys, “That was a great book now I should sit down and answer some multiple choice questions.”

Disconnecting our assessments with the texts (a tleast in English) has always made little sense to me. It isn’t a discpling specific practice. A literary critic would not write a book review without the text. Being able to include our checks for understandings within the text helps to model good practice.

You can then share a text in your library with a class by creating a group.

Subtext 18 (1)


This is a powerful piece. You could have a group for your class. Maybe you do leveled books or allow for choice in genre or titles. Students can be organized by group. Maybe your school or district has a common read. Why not make one big group/

Subtext 18


You then title your group.

Subtext 20


You will then be emailed a code to share with students.


Subtext has everything I love. It takes good pedagogy, text based talk and analysis, and increases its efficacy and efficiency. I would recommend the app to anyone. I am not a premium member so I could not do a full review or tutorial. I am also interested in finding out more about the reports generated by the app. I think being able to quickly track students purposeful coding of text or have access to searchable discussions is probably the most powerful way to track student learning objectives around analytical reading.