Subtext might be the digital reading resource of your dreams. With its simple interface and powerful features, this app lets you import any website text, text-based PDF, or ebook text and customize it for use in the classroom. Teachers can download a text they plan to teach and then share it with their students through a private group. Within the digital text, teachers can highlight any text and add a comment, a link to a video or website, a multiple-choice question, a true/false question, or a poll. After annotating the text with these features, teachers can use the app's built-in teacher dashboard to share a book with their students and track their students' progress through the pages of the text. From the student perspective in the app, students may also annotate the text and view annotations from their teacher and other students. When a user inserts an annotation, his or her picture appears in the right margin, emphasizing the social element of this app and its concentration on reading as a shared and collaborative experience. It's hard not to overuse the phrase "built-in" with this app, since there’s such a wealth of opportunities for importing, accessing, and manipulating text. Many books are available directly through the app, and most are free. Other books are available through Google Books and local public libraries; Subtext helpfully guides the user to books from each source. Subtext also has a built-in Web browser that makes it easy to browse any website to search for texts to import.
One of the few negative features of Subtext is that the pricing for certain books can be unclear. While a book might be listed on the Subtext "featured shelf" as free, some books turned out to cost $3 or more upon further drill-down into Google Books.
Overall, Subtext is a terrific tool for learning. The in-text annotations demand the reader’s attention to critical reading: Seeing a teacher’s or a classmate’s face in the margin alerts the student to read closely and to search for the greater meaning embedded in the text at hand. This app offers new possibilities for the old-school method of highlighting text and then scrawling in the margins: Now, students can hone the same skills without running out of room on a paper page. Teachers might use their in-text questions and polls to gauge student interest and understanding as they read; they might insert comments that preview later essay topics or help students consider major plot points. Students might use tags to highlight different literary devices and then refer back to those tags for an essay or a class discussion.
The built-in text-to-speech feature is a nice accessibility tool and might be a boon to many readers, though its voice can be a little halting. The app's Featured Shelves include free books for grade school, middle school, and high school, and Common Core books for the same levels, further emphasizing the developer’s commitment to CCSS alignment. It's impressive to see the books available here: Many of the most widely read books in schools are represented, and it seems that nearly anything you'd like students to read is available somehow.
While the cost of some digital books might make adopting this app impractical for some texts and some teachers, there are some great opportunities here for students to hone their critical-reading skills in an engaging social context. Perhaps the best thing about Subtext is how customizable it is. Some teachers might use it to transition to a totally paperless classroom where all texts live on the iPad and all annotations are completed digitally; other teachers might choose to have just one kind of reading available to students through the app, like short stories, selected articles, or poems. Regardless, one feature should be non-negotiable for classroom use: Teachers should require students to use the commenting features. These social elements are what make Subtext a great companion to a real classroom: Students hone their critical-reading skills by commenting on their teacher’s and classmates’ entries, asking questions, and offering their own insights.
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