March 24, 2016

Reading as a Social Act

Category: Digital Citizenship
young girl reading book while standing in front of other books

It’s commonly acknowledged that writing is a social act. What does it mean to write online? When we write in the digital age, we are writing to share and to connect. But, what about the act of reading? I open this reflection by quoting myself from a prior DML post:

These days, the role of the reader is much like the role of the learner (in a 21st century digitized context). I see a kind of inherent transformation in both of these roles. Reading used to be a more solitary act, bound to a private and somewhat intimate domain. (Imagine being curled up for some time with a good book…add a fireplace and a big comfy chair). The act of reading in the analog world has always been about reception and private mindscapes. But, today….we are presented with a new sense of reading, which necessarily includes a step into an open interactive world, a step marked by vivid agency and choice. In many ways, I see today’s learner positioned like that new kind of reader. Twenty-first century readers and learners must grapple with an open networked world of possibilities, they must exercise their own agency, effectively, in order to determine their own course of meaning.

As a professor of literature and reading, I hear a regular lament from colleagues that students are just not reading these days. There is genuine anxiety over whether the skill and art of close reading is being lost to the digital sound-bite race for our attention. From this perspective, reading has become equative with slowing down and stepping away. And, in a problematic sense, this understanding has lead to reading being relegated to an act of purposeful (yet temporary) disengagement with the rest of the world. I want to push back on this thorny equation, and point to tools that help us transform what it can mean to read in this day and age. For reading, too, can be a social act. Through digital annotation, we can expand our understanding of what is possible when we read (together).  

A new tool to facilitate the act of shared reading is — an open platform for discussion on the web. It leverages annotation to enable sentence-level critique and multimodal note-taking on any text found on the Internet. Digital annotation invites communities of readers into an extended (and asynchronous) close reading conversation. Whether you are teaching web literacy and having students read, write, and participate on the Internet, or you are simply teaching a traditional text like a poem or article that just happens to be online, you can use to collaboratively annotate class readings. The reading network does not have to be limited to a closed community. proclaims “annotate with anyone, anywhere.” The terms of how to expand your reading community are up to you. The helpful teacher resource guide provides a set of resources from tutorials to sample assignments that can help educators get started. Jeremy Dean, Director of Education at, has written a great blog that unpacks a variety of pedagogical uses for group annotation on the web. In addition, Howard Rheingold spoke with Jeremy Dean recently about the educational uses of online annotation for this blog.

These days, many educators are thinking about how to engage their students in the coming election.  Now, more than ever, we strive to pave a pathway to thoughtful civic discourse and productive engagement.  I see digital annotation playing a particular role in the reboot of the large scale youth participation project sponsored by the National Writing Project and Google during the 2008 election. In 2008 over 10,000 young people from across 800 schools took up the challenge of identifying, researching, and writing publicly about issues that mattered to them, their families, and their communities. With support from teachers and mentors, the resulting websites, news coverage, and publications brought the voices of young people into the public discourse and invited young people around the country to write letters to the future president about their concerns, hopes, and perspectives.  In this election cycle, students can read and annotate collectively.  You can catch a glimpse of how digital annotation might engine this kind of participation by referring to recent examples of some public annotation projects including the National Writing Project’s “Letters to the Next President.”

By extending the discursive space of our classrooms, we may facilitate engaged reading practices. A collaborative reading environment seems to me a fair foundation for dynamic and thoughtful interaction, which, in turn, holds the potential to mirror the kind of rich and complex dialogue we aspire to in a working democracy.   

Banner image credit: Brett Levy