Authentic Student Collaboration Through Social Reading

One of my favorite Web2.0 phenomenon is something called Social Reading. [I describe it as uptexting but we’ll stick with what the real academics call it.] Analogous to Collaborative Writing — think of when our students collaborate in authoring text on a Google Doc — Social Reading involves the act of collaboratively reading and responding to texts. Readers highlight and annotate text, providing reactions, insights and revelations. Interactions may be synchronous and/or asynchronous.

The interactions that Social Reading tools facilitate can be deep and powerful. By providing added meaning to texts, students are engaging in a task that can itself be more meaningful than traditional reading assignments. In the current climate of so-called data-driven teacher evaluation, Social Reading also offers teachers a way to track student growth in high level soft skills (like collaboration, analysis, synthesis and creativity) that are valued by employers but invisible on transcripts and untested by standardized assessments.

Some tools that are available include Subtext, Ponder and, my favorite to use, Genius. Each has its advantages:


Image cred:

While I’ve had only limited interactions with Subtext, I do know that it plays nice with several other tools you may already be using, like Edmodo. Richard Byrne has a post that dives deeper into Subtext if you want to learn more.


Image cred:

Ponder has a lot of great features, especially for 1:1 classroom environments and schools with strict online privacy policies. One feature that I really like is that in addition to allowing readers to respond to highlighted text with their own comments, it provides packaged responses (such as “good point,” “huh?” and “making me think.”) that can help scaffold Social Reading tasks for students of varying abilities. The data suite is also quite impressive as it allows teachers to collect some cool data around student growth in important areas like synthesis and analysis. With the handy Chrome plugin, Ponder also makes it easy for students to annotate most pages on the web, not just those the teacher creates for the class. Ponder has a great intro video on their landing page that illustrates these and other features.


Image cred:

Genius was born a few years ago as Rap Genius. It was a way for enthusiasts to verify rap lyrics in a sort of wiki format. As it grew, so did the types of annotations. Users went beyond validating what the songs said and dove deeper, sharing interpretations of what the words meant. Annotations included links to outside sources, definitions, pictures (such as the one that helped me understand what Beyoncé is singing about when she says “cigars on ice”) and videos. Texts being annotated also spread beyond rap to include other music genres and mediums. Poetry Genius, History Genius and News Genius popped up. Early this year, the site re-branded simply as, with the broad ambition to Annotate the world.

Like Ponder, Genius offers a browser plug-in that allows users to annotate most web pages without having to copy the text (potentially violating copyright) and upload it to the Genius site. It also provides data points in the form of Genius IQ that can be tracked over time. If you email Genius to let them know you are an educator, they will loop you into some additional features and functionality that can improve your experience.

One reason that I like Genius so much is the authentic audience that it offers. Students’ annotations aren’t just for their classmates and teachers but for any other users to see, up-vote (or down-vote), and respond. It’s one thing for someone they know to up-vote students’ annotations but I’ve seen a whole other level of pride and sense of accomplishment when a complete stranger validates their work.

It’s important to note that there is no one right way for students to engage in Social Reading. For some, a more passive approach could be the most effective engagement. For example, many students this Fall will begin reading The Odyssey and struggle to understand what it means. Some teachers will opt to use Social Reading as a way to replace worksheets and more meaningfully assess students’ comprehension. Others will use texts that have already been annotated as a replacement for the textbook version. These annotated texts will help provide clarity, meaning and context, ultimately making this difficult read more accessible for young readers.

Another powerful way to leverage Social Reading with Genius is to team up with classes at other schools in order to uptext a reading that has not yet been fully annotated. You can also find (as well as share your own!) what texts are being annotated by other classes on this page that shares projects being tackled by dozens of schools and colleges.

Finally, all of three of these tools (and others that surely exist or soon will) offer teachers and students a valuable communication device to share with parents, colleges and employers. Student’s annotations can be displayed as a part of their portfolios, serving as powerful artifacts that are the evidence of a child’s learning. Teachers can share these during parent conferences and parents frustrated by their students’ responses to “What did you do at school today?” can click to access a more detailed narrative than, “Nothing.”

Social Reading is still in its infancy and I am excited to see its impact on teaching and learning as it matures!