Jul 25 2013

5 Tools for Reading Digital Text

Becoming a master of electronic media requires a new kind of literacy.

With text no longer relegated exclusively to the pages between the cover of a book or a magazine, the shift from paper to digital texts has brought on a whole new form of literacy. This upheaval in how we read brings with it new opportunities for learning as well as new challenges.

Experts refer to this phenomenon as transliteracy. In a study published in the peer-reviewed journal First Monday, Dr. Sue Thomas and colleagues defined transliteracy as “the ability to read, write and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.”

The authors do not pit print against digital as preferred forms of reading, but instead advocate a unifying ecology of all literacies. You can find the full study here.

It’s likely you followed that link. While that seems like a good thing (more information), it also may have interrupted your flow while reading this post.

Hyperlinks, videos and interactive graphics are often embedded within digital text, and while the goal with these added tools is to help enhance our understanding, we should be aware of how multilayered text can also have the opposite effect. In many ways, we must relearn how to be a reader in the 21st century.

While the format has changed, the purpose of reading has not. Readers seek to be informed, to be entertained and to understand. To do this, readers need to be able to dig deeply into the text and tease out what the author is trying to convey.

Using the annotation strategy (marking up the text with highlights and thoughts written in the margins) is a good way to make sense of any complex text we read, and software developers have long recognized this.

The first step to transliteracy is finding a set of reliable tools to navigate digital texts. The following five technology tools can help readers on their path to becoming better readers of digital text.


The title for this tool describes it well. You find an interesting article or post online, save it via a web clipper and then read it in a very paperlike format. The background has an off-white hue, similar to real paper. Although hyperlinks and images are still available, all advertisements and side distractions are stripped away. You can also export this information to your favorite eReader. I use this a lot for organizing articles to write about later.


This tool has been referred to as the Swiss Army knife of apps. You can read PDFs, annotate and highlight text, and send revised documents to others via email. GoodReader provides a simple and pleasant reading experience on tablets. I have shown intermediate-level teachers how GoodReader can be used to model close reading for their students using a mobile device projected on a whiteboard. The ability to import and export files through web storage tools, such as Google Drive and Dropbox, is also available.


If a picture is worth a thousand words, this application is the key to unlocking an image’s treasure chest of value. Skitch is perfect for understanding what an image is saying. Users can take a photo of anything and then mark it up with arrows, shapes and text. While Evernote markets Skitch for this purpose, it also has annotation capabilities for PDFs (Premium version only, around $45 a year). If Goodreader is too complex for younger kids to navigate, Skitch allows any school-age student to highlight important words and share his or her thinking in the margins. Afterward, the marked-up file can be saved in Evernote or shared it via email and social media.


I worked with a high school English teacher this year in a connected-educator course. One of her biggest challenges was motivating students to read the complex texts she was assigning. The problem wasn’t access (they all have smartphones), so we discussed Diigo. This web tool allows the reader to annotate digital texts and then save them in an online library. The highlights, comments and tags show up under the article’s link. Users can create several libraries based on topics of interest. Also, anyone can be granted access to add to these online repositories. This teacher believed that Diigo could help create a community of readers because her students could collaboratively develop these libraries, with the purpose of helping everyone understand the texts.


When I find something I want to read on Twitter via the app Tweetbot, I slide a little button to the right (follow the arrow) to remove all the advertisements.


As you can see below, all of the other distractions are removed. My focus is now limited to just the text.


This is actually powered by Readability. It is similar to Instapaper, in that you can also save articles to read later. Although I prefer Instapaper’s format, Readability has helped me be a better reader while navigating social media.

What digital reading tools do you prefer? Please share in the Comments section.


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