Monday, July 19, 2010

Great Tools for Reading the Web

One of the great concerns of literacy specialists and those pundits who write about Internet v. paper texts is  distracting fonts, links, animations, and images that make web pages difficult to navigate.  Teachers of elementary and low-scoring middle school students might use this as a reason to keep students from the net, or at least from independent searching.

It is true that many, perhaps most, web pages accessed by a student via Google do not stand up to the "use your pre-reading and navigate-the-text skills" challenge.  It is true that ubiquitous advertisements, links providing opportunities for collaboration, sidebars, hyperlinks and widgets do provide distraction.  It is true that a distracted young student who is just learning how to read for information might very well miss the information on the page.  It is also true that zooming the text size is not enough to make most pages accessible to those students with visual challenges.

There is a FREE solution - in fact, there are two: Readability and TidyRead.

Both of these are "bookmarklets" that work with both Firefox and Safari (I am in the educational Mac environment - but yes, they also work with Explorer, Opera, etc. on the PC).  This means that they are "installed" by simply dragging a "button" from the web page (images above, links to homepages also above) to your browser's bookmarks toolbar (grey image above). It could not be easier!  Those pesky and generally denied Admin permissions are not required.  This is something kids can do by themselves!

Why do it?  Because students who click either link will be able to actually read the important text on a web page, without distractions.  Go ahead and install one or both of them NOW - then continue reading.

  • Settings for Readability must be decided upon before installing the bookmarklet (top image).  This is not hard - there are only a few choices and they are modeled right on the install page - you know what you will be getting.  If a mistake is made (I set my margins too narrow the 1st time), the bookmarklet can be deleted (control-click it) and then reinstalled.  A bit annoying, and probably a step too far for most student.  It would be a good idea for the teacher to decide upon optimum settings and then include these in concise directions.
  • Settings for TidyRead appear when you activate the tool (bottom image). Settings can be saved so they become the default.  Any viewed TidyRead page can be reformatted on the fly, a nice touch.
  • TidyRead has more options than Readability: a variety of fonts and font sizes AND the all-important ability to make the background tan rather than white (tan background with sans serif text is most readable).
  • Readability has a neat little check box labeled Convert Hyperlinks to Footnotes, which does just what it says.  This is useful if you plan to print a web page for paper distribution.  It is also useful when teaching how to evaluate web sites.
  • TidyRead's reformatted page is an overlay - a window on top of the original (it can be closed by clicking the X - something students will need to be shown).  Readability's reformatted page has an arrow icon (return to the original) - something students will need to be shown.  Both are pretty intuitive.  
  • But when you are in a TidyRead overlay, you can not access the browser's "back arrow."  You can do so in a Readability window.  Many students will find this confusing.  So teach how to return to the original page.
  • Readability offers the option to email the reformatted page, which is great for collaborative research.
  • I find that TidyRead has trouble with some pages.  For example, it can not reformat this 21st Century Literacy page on persuasive images (the image downloads will not work).  Try it.  Readability does the job.
Both tools will maintain headings, images, and captions, which will make reading teachers and librarians happy (and it is also helpful to kid readers).

Both tools offer a print option.  It is a bit hidden in TidyRead; it is an icon in Readability.

Both tools maintain paragraphing, which is nice for teachers like myself who use web paragraphing as part of reading instruction (how many web paragraphs make a real paragraph?  how are they connected?  why are they in this order?).

Both tools eliminate most of the messy color-saturated stuff that makes printing pages a nightmare (and expensive).  It also makes copy/paste more user-friendly (although I hate copy/paste...).

I have both bookmarklets on my toolbars.  Some pages look better in Readability, which is my 1st option always.  Others format better in TidyRead.  My suggestion is that you install both in every browser you use (except for Chrome, which is not yet supported).  Instead of teaching kids how to ignore the distractions on web pages when doing research, insist that they click Readability and/or TidyRead

Last note: If you have an iPhone or other web smart phone, you should definitely use these tools!

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