Reads well with others

Understanding the rise of digital social reading

Carl Blyth, University of Texas at Austin

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Current e-reading devices allow multiple readers to read the same text together, annotate the text and to share their annotations with each other. The resulting practice is referred to as digital social reading. This new literacy practice violates many readers’ expectations of what it means to read based on a shared “print culture” (Baron, 2013). This poster frames digital social reading in terms of a growing “participatory culture” (Jenkins, 2009) in which practices that once were individual are quickly becoming social. The impact of digital social reading and other forms of digital literacy has recently become the center of academic controversy. On the one hand, literature specialists claim that it jeopardizes close reading skills long associated with traditional forms of academic literacy (Bauerlein, 2008). On the other hand, new media scholars argue that the real problem comes from equating reading with a narrowly defined and historically situated practice—the close reading of a printed text (Hayles, 2012). Proponents of the pedagogical affordances of digital literacy note that the question is no longer how to teach reading but rather, which kind of reading to teach? Close reading of printed texts, hyper reading of digital texts or machine reading of databases? Or, put differently, how should we teach the multiple reading skills now associated with digital literacies? In response to these questions, this poster analyzes some of the perceived pedagogical affordances of a web-based application for digital social reading called eComma (Blyth, 2014). An analysis of the use of eComma in four different classrooms suggests how L2 teachers are employing digital social reading as a “bridging activity” (Hayles, 2012; Thorne & Reinhardt, 2008) that partially resolves the reported clashes between print and digital cultures.

Carl Blyth

University of Texas at Austin

18 thoughts on “Reads well with others”

  1. Thanks for this great talk, Carl. I’m wondering if there are any particular aspects of rhetoric, style, or semiosis that you could imagine being central to the kind of bridging that you describe here? Put another way, are there particular digital literacy practices that might bridge into certain textual practices better than others?

  2. Good question. I think that the concept of “interrogating the text” (a phrase that I have stolen from Per Urlaub) is an important rhetorical move in this environment. Asking good questions serves as a bridge for both print and oral texts. In other words, interrogating the text (or interrogating the interpreter) is a textual practice that is worthwhile for all kinds of texts.

  3. I found this talk really interesting and followed up some of your links. eComma sounds like an interesting venture and it’s nice that you shared actual student comments. My question concerns your claim about “lightening the cognitive load” by sharing different reading tasks among a group of readers/learners. I can see that this is likely to be the case WHILE reading, as different learners complete different parts of the task, but what about the end product – isn’t it more difficult to make sense of the text with all the annotations and discussions attached? Or is eComma intended as support for process only? (And on a lighter note, did you ever have a word with Kevin?)

    1. Hi Shona. I was speaking about lightening the cognitive load while reading–that was my primary focus in this talk. Thinking of reading instruction as a “during reading” activity. You are right that the end product of social reading and collaborative annotation is a heavily annotated text. It is a bit like reading a NYTimes editorial that and the hundreds of comments that become impossible to read. So, the NYTimes editors go through and pick the best commentaries so you don’t have to read them all. That is the problem of lots of social pedagogies and the Internet in general–it creates an information glut. Even so, I think that if handled properly, social reading can give rise to a really coherent class commentary that ties together diverse interpretations. But that is another talk! What to do with the product of social reading.

  4. I found reading this poster very interesting.I think that social reading is a collaborative reading process that can help put variant ideas together as a whole.It helps stick together the different types of reading with the opportunity to bridge gaps in reading skills.The ecomma example is a good example of this.

  5. Hi Carl. Thanks for your response. I am also wrestling with the issue of what to do with digital artefacts produced by pre-service teachers in collaborative blogs and spaces like Padlet. But I like the idea of social reading. Since you are a key figure in OER, I’m assuming eComma is open access? 🙂

    1. Of course, it is open! It is not only open access, it is open source. The source code (in Drupal) is open to any programmer who wishes to adapt it. You can find details by going to the eComma website. There are links to the eComma Drupal code that has been vetted and approved by the Drupal community for sharing.

      Languages are open systems and educational systems should be open too!

  6. Early in your presentation, you stated that digital literacy and print literacy both still hold an important place in the learning of today. From the attributes we assign to digital readers versus those of print readers, it would seem that these are two separate processes that require different skills and which have different consequences/advantages. In your final thoughts you propose a bridging between these two processes. My question is whether you think this metaphorical bridge will be a shared pathway with access to both literacy strategies (print and digital) or whether a new bridge will be constructed (a third framework) to take advantage of both the print reading cognitive skills and the digital social reading cognitive skills? Thank you.
    Casey Richardson
    2nd year MAESL candidate
    University of Arizona

    1. I’ve learned to avoid binary choices–either/or thinking. It seems to me that for many people, “Print” and “Digital” are two opposed frames of reference. The multiliteracies movement is about merging those frames, creating new blends. So, yes, I think that the different kinds of cognitive skills correlated to different types of reading will come to be associated with different forms of media. In fact, my main point was that social reading as practiced in some classrooms has already given rise to a third space where literary texts are being read in three, complementary ways: print, hyper and machine.

    1. If you visit the eComma website, you will find a list of tools for social reading. eComma is the only Drupal tool. There are others that are easier to access and implement. Google Docs, for instance, can be used as a platform to promote social literacy/reading. Of course, it is best used for collaborative writing, but can be adapted. Check out the link:

  7. Thank you for this informative poster! In reflecting on social reading, I was wondering if you could comment on advantages and disadvantages re: how readers sequence their interaction with text and others when doing social reading? I say this from both a pedagogical and personal perspective, since I imagine simultaneous interaction with text and others could interfere with creating one’s relationship with / own perspective of the text, making a close read useful followed by social interaction. However, this could simply reflect my own preferences as shaped by the online world (read the article, then engage with the comments and discussion), and there certainly could be advantages to formulating analysis in relation to others in the process of text digestion. How do you suggest students engage, and do you see certain benefits for one approach versus the other?

    1. This is a huge question. Personally, I find social reading a bit disorienting. For most of my reading, i prefer to be by myself. But I have been socialized to read alone and then discuss my interpretation in a post-hoc fashion. So, it depends on the person and their reading preferences. It also depends on the text. I have had the most success using eComma with relatively short but dense texts that require unpacking. I like using it in an associative manner for conducting a first reading of poetry. On the eComma website, there are four case studies of how this particular tool has been used in different classrooms. Check it out:

      You will see that how the social reading case studies are all quite different. So, the question of affordances/limitations depends on the contextual variables: text type, student, goal of lesson, curriculum, etc. Social reading and collaborative annotation are so new that it is hard to generalize about which kinds of pedagogical treatments work best. This is a new research field crying out for empirical study.

  8. One thing that I find useful about using digital social readings is the fact that it helps to catch different point that one might miss when reading alone. As mentioned in this presentation, it sometimes makes the workload lighter as well by assigning specific tasks to every group member.

  9. One thing that I find useful about using digital social readings is the fact that it helps to catch different points that one might miss when reading alone. As mentioned in this presentation, it sometimes makes the workload lighter as well by assigning specific tasks to every group member.

  10. It is always uplifting to see a solution to a potential problem as opposed to the doomsday reports that are often disseminated in the media and the news. Thank you for showing us concrete examples about how social reading can work in the L2 classroom! I had my first experience with social reading on LiveMargin this past week. While I was skeptical about the process (won’t it be distracting having everyone’s comments everywhere? wouldn’t it be more useful to print it out and highlight it on my own?) after trying it out I absolutely loved it. I was more engaged with the text because I was able to communicate my thoughts about it as I went along.
    I wonder, where do you see the future of social reading going next? There is a lot of talk about virtual reality being the next frontier, could you see that contributing somehow to Digital Literacies?

    1. Hi Clare. I’m glad that you found this poster useful. I agree that virtual reality/augmented reality will play an important role in the future of Digital Literacies. Although, I admit, virtual realities is not my focus and not my primarily interest. I feel that the main effect of the digital age is to amplify print practices by giving more people access. Thus, practices that were once individual are becoming a group enterprise. And small groups practices are becoming large group practices. So, personally, I think that is the “frontier” because we still know little about how to function in this new “social” reality.

  11. I also just began using social reading as a student, and I hadn’t yet considered the ways in which I could connect it with other websites– for instance, when you mentioned that some students looked up words they didn’t understand while reading. It seems like this is an extension of what many students are already doing for fun– reading something like a Buzzfeed list and commenting with their opinions, then engaging with people they have probably never met to share or debate ideas. That might seem trivial, but they are actually developing skills that can now be applied to their classes. I suppose I’m just repeating what you said more eloquently, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes! Thanks for the presentation.

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