There is much evidence to acknowledge that literacy today is not the same as literacy yesterday. Emerging literacies and new ways of reading, along with our interpretation of what actually makes a text, means that educators need to address new ways of engaging learners when it comes to reading. Kress (2003) suggests that transformations in digital technologies have forced teachers to rethink what literacy means (Bormann & Lowe, 2010), and Patrick Carman, author of the popular "Skeleton Creek" and "Trackers" series (Scholastic) suggests that technology can “enrich fictional narrative and engage young readers” (School Library Journal, 2011). When it comes to encouraging children to read, Carman says that, "we need to get smart about tech" (School Library Journal, 2011) and e-readers could be just the solution to re-engage digital learners.
What are e-readers?
E-readers are electronic devices upon which books can be downloaded and read. They are light, mobile, and can store a great deal of books on one device. A variety of devices are available to use as e-readers (see Fig. 1) and most are skeumorphic in terms of how the books appear in terms of size and appearance. iPads seem a ready solution as they are widely owned and used by learners. Indeed, a variety of e-books and e-book apps can be used on iPads, but a dedicated reading device, like a Kindle, avoids the potentially distracting nature of multimodal features [such as] animations, sounds, etc. (Burrell & Trushell, 1997; Matthew, 1996 in Larson, 2010). Kindles offer a solution for re-engaging learners with just reading, avoiding potential distractions from notifications, emails and other apps.
According to Borman and Lowe (2010), digital text has been around for a long time. However, they suggest that the Kindle offers, for the first time, a device which is a dedicated mobile reading platform providing all the virtues of digital text in a simple hand-held device. For readers there are several features, which provide access to a wide range of reading material and increased enjoyment (Bormann & Lowe, 2010). Produced, sold and managed by Amazon (Amazon.com, 2013), the Kindle first became available in Australia in October 2009 (Bormann & Lowe, 2010). It is now available in a variety of formats, including the Kindle Fire, a colour device that operates along the lines of an iPad with the same back-lit display thought to be less kind to eyes when it comes to reading. This paper focuses on the Kindle Paperwhite, Amazon’s newest device (Amazon.com, 2013). A dedicated reading device, the Kindle Paperwhite utilises electrophoretic ink - or e-ink - patented in 1996 by Joseph Jacobson and Barrett Comisky of MIT (Espacenet Patent Search), thought to mimic real print and be kinder on the eyes for sustained periods of reading.
How can the Kindle Paperwhite (Amazon.com, 2013) help support and re-engage Generation M in reading? Speaking at a conference entitled, "Libraries Matter: The Future of Reading in 2020", Stephen Abram, the president of Strategic Partnerships and Markets at Cale Cengage, suggested that "it's about the reading and the knowledge and not about whether it's got a binding or not" (School Library Journal, 2011). However, the latest trends in literacy and technology identified e-readers as a way in which librarians can add more value to their communities (School Library Journal, 2011), and recent studies of e-book reading and response behaviors suggested that e-book reading may support comprehension and strengthen both aesthetic and efferent reader response (Larson, 2010).
Larson (2010) conducted a study on two learners in a Midwestern United States K–12 district. Two Grade 2 learners with different linguistic backgrounds and abilities where chosen to be observed reading the same book on a Kindle. Data sources included “field notes and interviews with participating students, their classroom teacher, and their respective parents. In addition, students’ digital notes, or markups, were also collected for careful examination and analysis for emerging reader response themes and patterns” (Larson, 2010). In summary, Larson (2010) concluded that the use of digital reading devices with second-grade students:
promotes new literacies practices and extends connections between readers and text as engagement with and manipulation of text is made possible through electronic tools and features. The Kindle tools invited [the learners] to engage with the text and put the reader in greater control than when reading printed text (Larson, 2010)
Supporting New Literacies
Kindle Paperwhite offers a variety of tools that can “support the comprehension process” (Larson, 2010). Font size can be adjusted to suit the needs of the individual, and a “text-to-speech feature” can be activated to help navigate through more difficult passages or to sound out new words. A built-in dictionary can be accessed simply by touching the word on the screen; words looked up in the dictionary are automatically added to Vocabulary Builder to “expand knowledge and reinforce retention”. Learners can “swipe through their vocabulary words, quiz themselves with flashcards, and instantly see those words in context “(Amazon.com, 2013).
Highlighted passages and meaningful quotes can be shared on Facebook and Twitter (Amazon.com, 2013), via wireless connectivity, satiating the desire of Generation M to be creators and contributors. Equally, Kindle owners can not only export their notes and highlights as a text file, which are easily transferable to a computer, they can also browse and copy/paste from them via kindle.amazon.com (Bradford, 2012). Commonly highlighted passages or quotes from the Kindle community can also be accessed (Amazon.com, 2013), whilst Kindle’s X-Ray function goes a step further by offering in-depth information about characters, settings, and historical information related to the title at hand (Bradford, 2012). To help learners of other languages, Kindle Paperwhite allows users to tap any word or highlight a section to instantly translate into other languages, including Spanish, Japanese, and more via Bing Translator (Amazon.com, 2013).
More features to aid comprehension and take the Kindle Paperwhite beyond the average e-reader are in the pipeline. A link to Goodreads (Goodreads Inc., 2013) will allow users to join over 20 million other readers and see what friends are reading, share highlights, and rate the books they read (Amazon.com, 2013). Potentially, this aids in creating a culture of digital readers. Amazon’s Kindle FreeTime (Amazon.com, 2013) will allow educators to create personalised profiles for learners, and give them access to titles from personal collections. A gamification element rewards learners with achievement badges that keep track of their personal reading accomplishments. In addition, FreeTime will generate a progress report that keeps parents updated on total time spent reading, number of words looked up, badges earned, and books read (Amazon.com, 2013).
Pros and Cons
In many International schools and across many countries, learners are poorly served by bookshops and libraries; book orders come from overseas, take a long time to arrive, and can be problematic. In terms of cost, Kindles are an investment worth making, as a Kindle Paperwhite costs US$119 and many Kindle titles are cheaper than print ,whilst many are even free; over a million titles are priced at US$4.99 or less and over 1,700,000 titles are US$9.99 or less (Amazon.com, 2013). Textbooks bought through Kindle typically cost 50% less than print versions, and 80% less if rented from Amazon (Amazon.com, 2013). Amazon also offers a library for borrowing books instead of purchasing them, and in terms of ease of access, Amazon delivers books for free, via wireless in fewer than 60 seconds with no computer required (Amazon.com, 2013).
On personal devices, each title purchased can only be shared across six devices (include iPhones, iPads, Laptops etc). This is fine for personal use and would work also for small, shared reading groups. For a class of 24 learners, four accounts would be needed to share one title to all devices. Who manages this account and how purchasing is organised would be another area schools would have to negotiate. Some schools use class sets, where the teacher is in control of the accounts, others are controlled by the school librarian, and teachers submit requests via them (Shannon O’Dwyer, 2013). Recently however, Kindle introduced Whispercast (Amazon.com, 2013), a free self-service system that allows schools to “centrally manage a Kindle reading program” (Amazon.com, 2013). Citing Lotta C. Larson’s year-long study to determine whether the use of Kindle positively impacts literacy development in primary students, Amazon state that the study found that students who received Kindles “improved their vocabulary development” (Amazon.com, 2013). Whispercast has been set up to directly counter restrictions and difficulties concerning distribution, and allows the distribution of books to “Kindles or any device with the free Kindle app, including iPad, Android phones and tablets, PCs, and Macs” (Amazon.com, 2013). The fact that there is a dedicated Kindle for School section on Amazon along with the Whispercast management tool means that schools and technology companies alike are recognising the positive impact e-readers can have on their learners. Whispercast also allows schools to manage access learners can have via the Kindle, further minimising any potential distractions. It does not stop data mining however – a potential hazard of Kindle use.
In ‘Ebooks, ereaders and the questions they kindle’, Elizabeth Friese (2012) suggests that Amazon may be using highlighted notes and annotations to collect information about our reading habits, and that there is “no way for us to control what Amazon does with this information”. Equally, she noticed that many e-reading apps are narrated by female voices, which perpetuates the higher involvement of girls with reading than boys. Freise (2012) suggests that “just as we know that more diversity in literacy mentors makes a difference, we wondered if considering vocal diversity in selecting apps would enrich the experiences of students as they learn from these new technologies”. Whilst she acknowledges that “for many reasons, e-reading offers exciting benefits” she urges that “we have to think about what we might be giving up in addition to the new possibilities it opens up” (Friese, 2012).
In classrooms today, learners are living in a time where technology is increasing at a rapid pace (Sternberg, Kaplan & Borck, 2007 in Bormann & Lowe, 2010). Reading however, remains an essential skill and, whilst learners are exposed to more text more often through constant exposure to the Internet, text messages and emails, educators notice that sustained reading of longer texts appears to be on the decline (Felske, 2013). Little research exists on the effect of e-readers on engagement or literacy improvements but what there is, suggest that is does engage learners and meet them where they are. Educators who have used Kindle in the classroom state that, “non-readers are more engaged” whilst “avid readers like 'carrying' lots of books around” (Melanie Spencer, 2013). In a reading initiative to ‘Get London Reading’ in April 2013, Barnes and Noble (Amazon’s rivals) gave away 1000 Nook e-reading devices (Kindle’s rival) to 300 London schools. Assistant headteacher Andrea Rowlandson, whose school was involved in the programme, stated that:
Children find eReaders motivating, especially reluctant readers, and they also like the way you can enlarge the print and look up the meaning of words. They love that you can get books instantly. (Cohen, 2013)Larson’s study (2010) showed that the learners, their parents, and the classroom teacher revealed notable changes in reading dispositions and personas. According to one mother, “reading on the Kindle made [her daughter] excited about reading and the experience “gave her confidence in herself” (Larson, 2010). One of the learners in the study explained that she preferred reading on the Kindle “because you can take notes in it, but you can’t take notes in a regular book” (Larson, 2010). In conclusion, Larson (2010) states that, “digital readers clearly provided new opportunities and extended possibilities for individual engagement with and interpretation of the text”.
Educators need to expand the types of text students are exposed to and engaged with at school in order to bridge the gap between the reading they do at home and the reading they do at school (Larson, 2010). One way of doing this is to turn our attention to electronic books or e-books. A first step toward integrating new literacies into existing reading programs often involves redefining the notion of what constitutes text, as teachers seek alternative text sources including digital texts and electronic books (Booth, 2006; Kucer, 2005 in Larson, 2010). Larson (2010) suggests that e-books have the potential to unveil an array of new teaching and learning possibilities as traditional and new literacy skills are integrated in meaningful ways. E-readers offer a solution in managing “the transition from a print to digital-based classroom” (School Library Journal, 2011) and could potentially bridge the gap between ‘old’ and ‘new’ school ways of learning.
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