“Wicked people never have time for reading. It’s one of the reasons for their wickedness.” – Lemony Snicket

Count_Olaf.png

Books give us the chance to explore, to experience and to expand the mind, all from the comfort of our favourite reading spots. As someone who still clings lovingly to paperbacks and shuns the advent of devices like the Kindle, Nook, and Kobo, I find the idea of doing lots of reading online or on a screen unattractive, to say the least, but here I must also out myself as a hypocrite, because I read all my journals and articles on my PC or iPod, and I often go online to read content in another language. With this inner discord at play, I thought it would be interesting to look at the concept of reading through technology when learning English.

At first, I struggled to get behind reading on an electronic device, that is until I realized just how wide the selection is online; whether it’s a text on the history of Borneo or the migratory behaviour of swallows, I can find it in an instant. This vast optionality, though certainly overwhelming, serves to cater to an extremely wide audience, allowing learners and teachers to pick and choose from a seemingly never-ending selection. Therein lies one of the major advantages of reading online.

As with all aspects of Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) or Mobile Assisted Language Learning (MALL), it’s important to integrate the technology in a way that justifies its use. Reading, in my opinion, is one of the areas where this may be hardest. We can read from paper just as we can from a screen. We can provide glosses through more traditional methods. We can provide dictionaries, though I’ll admit finding the meaning of words would take a lot longer!

There are things we can only do with technology, though, such as the inclusion of multimedia (video, audio, etc. and often all in one package). Collecting and storing vocabulary is easier with technology too. Consider, for instance, how mobile and online dictionaries allow words to be stored as flashcards. Dictionary.com has their own app for creating flashcards and has largely been positively reviewed. It does seem to unfortunately lack the function to shuffle the decks you create – an essential part of learning from word or flash cards (Nation, 2008). Anki, although not linked to a dictionary, bypasses this problem by working with spaced repetition à la Pimsleur.

Since I’m talking about reading in this post, I’d like to take a look at a couple of speed reading trainer apps. Acceleread, which I stumbled across on a blog post by David Read, who is director of the ELTC (The English Language Teaching Centre) at the University of Sheffield, is one of these. The other is Spreeder, which allows learners to gradually read texts faster and faster, but what are the differences exactly? How can we as teachers decide on which app or software to implement or recommend? After all, choosing the technology you wish to use can be one of the most difficult aspects of adding technology to the classroom. Here’s a breakdown of what both offer.

Shared features

  • Both iOS only. Not a surprise considering the dominance of Apple products, but incredibly annoying for Android users and others.
  • Both offer free and paid versions. We all like something for free and these apps provide that choice. Pay a small fee, however, and you can unlock extra features.
  • You can make use of scrolling text tools in both of these apps, as well as being able to alter the speed by changing the words per minute.
  • Font size, plus font and page colours can be changed, which is great to see as it’s inclusive of those with visual impairments that may need to alter the settings.

Acceleread

  • Works on the problem point of learners reading one or two words at a time by training to read words in groups. This could work well for lower level learners and those with a first language that reads right to left. It’s also essential training for become a more fluent reader in your second language.
  • Offers a “personal programme” by testing learners on their current reading abilities.
  • Texts can be taken from authentic material i.e. English-language novels like Dracula, Pride and Prejudice, and The Three Musketeers. Upgrading to the paid version opens up the choice. You can also add other so-called epub texts. A great place to start for these would be Project Gutenberg, which offers 50,000 books for free. Not an English teacher? No worries! You can even find some versions of texts in other languages, like the Finnish version of The Picture of Dorian Gray.
  • Though it’s a speed reading app, the inclusion of comprehension activities allows more general reading skills to be worked on.
  • Nice, simple and clean layout that’s easy to navigate.
  • Seems to have a built-in rewards system based around trophies. Great for learners who are a bit competitive and like to visually see their progress.
  • Comes with two free tools, which look great, but learners would definitley have to shell out for the best experience. From only £5-£10, depending on device, it’s definitely a better option financially than Spreeder, but the cost could still be an issue.

Spreeder

  • First thing you’re faced with is a log in page. Immediate turn off for me. I just want to have immediate access to the app. This is good, however, for learners with multiple devices who appreciate everything being saved in a cloud. To bypass this, you could perhaps use the online version which simply allows you to use the scrolling text function.
  • Spreeder appears to have a wider choice of material as it allows text to be copied from almost everywhere, not just epub material. There are workarounds for this, so that the same function is available on other platforms, but a merit to Spreeder all the same.
  • This app also has built in progress tracking, as well as training for various issues within reading. A number of these features are paid only though and it’s the ~£30 version that offers the full monty. For this reason, it feels more like software aimed at the EFL market in general, rather than at learners personally aiming to improve. Of course, Spreeder could be purchased to use within class, but with only 5 users covered in the above fee, the money could soon add up.

On the face of it, I think I would lean more towards Acceleread, but it depends on other factors, like the learners themselves, the financing, as well as technological resources. Have you ever used these apps or similar speed reading apps with learners? Which would you go for?


Nation, I. S. P. (2008). Teaching vocabulary: Strategies and techniques. Boston, MA: Heinle.

Image: “Count Olaf” from the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” book series, taken from Wikipedia.org. This is a wonderful book series that I am fond of and would highly recommend for learners of English. The author does this wonderful thing where he explicitly explains complicated words for the younger readers the books were aimed at without removing readers from the story.

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