Peter Fogarty on how Amazon Kindles spurred him to create his Free Guided Reading website for schools
In a world where everything is possible on the Internet – and for free – it came as a shock to find there was no well organised, free, levelled book scheme for children. That’s astonishing when you think of the millions of books out there that must have taken thousands of man hours to prepare for children’s enjoyment.
That's why I developed www.Free-Guided-Reading.com, which brings all the classical children’s novels (which are free to download and read on any e-reader) into a single location, sorted by reading age.
To make it even simpler, the books are also sorted by month. So by simply opening up the site and choosing, for example, Year 4, provides a list of books a typical Year 4 child might like to read. Each month the books get progressively harder, providing a constant challenge. In addition, as the books are sorted purely on how hard they are to read, there is a tremendous diversity of genres in every month, so there is something for every child’s taste.
As I live and teach in Romania, getting access to free or cheap books has always been a substantial challenge. That’s why, when Amazon’s Kindle e-readers appeared, I bought 12 for my pupils at the Little London School in Bucharest and created the The Kindle and Free Reading Scheme Project.
Kindles are now regularly used from Year 3 upwards
The Kindles are used in Little London School from Grade 2 onwards. They were initially used by the first graders and, to be honest, while there were some who coped well, it was too much technology, too soon for many of them and so we decided that allowing it to become an older student’s resource was a much better idea. They are now used regularly with Years 3 to 6. This was an excellent way forward for the school as, with the introduction of e-books, there was an awakening of interest in using the school's interactive whiteboards more often, both with and without the Kindles.
We quickly discovered that the Kindles are so much more than another e-book reader. I have downloaded and stored hundreds of children’s books on my set of Kindles, and we have made really good use of the Amazon Archive feature. While licensing allows only six Kindles to hold a certain book at a certain time, any books which were bought or downloaded for free from Amazon, can be deleted and re-downloaded at any time.
This means that they remain flexible and can be used as differentiated reading groups. There is a slight downside in that the Kindles used in schools should have their own account, rather than as an add-on to a teacher’s personal Amazon account (if the teacher was to download some more adult novels, the children would be able to see them in the archives!).
Our Kindles have also been tried out as complete replacements for different text books (tip – if you do save a work project in a .pdf format from Word, you should make sure all the fonts are set to about 20 point to make them easy to read on the smaller screen). The joy of using a text book in .pdf format is that it limits the students' ability to change all the font sizes so everyone knows what page to look for the answers on. It also let the students develop at different speeds as some students progressed faster through the exercises and reached the more challenging materials quicker than others.
3G wireless has been useful for mobility and research
The 3G features of the Kindles have their own benefits and should be experimented with in different subjects. Instead of getting a whole class to go to the main ICT lab, the internet can be brought directly to the students. The advantage of this is that the research they read cannot be simply cut and pasted into their work, it needs to be handwritten, and so, hopefully, the notes are shorter, more concise and the student starts to learn more about the topic. My students found this to be a highly motivating exercise, and did produce high-quality work in these lessons.
The 3G feature allows the Kindles to be used on field trips. If you are going to a local site, an art museum or other educational event, the students will be able to type in the location and read about the history or geography of the place, while standing directly in the site of the action. The 3G feature allows, if the school permits it, students to send a simple book review or the most interesting pieces of the text directly to the school – or a specially set up School Kindle Facebook account – where it can be shared by others.
The final bonus of using a Kindle over a book is the built-in dictionary. The students are able to read a slightly more challenging text than normal and each time they find a word they do not know, they can move the cursor to the word and instantly find an explanation, though they do need to learn that the first definition offered may not always be the right one (they need to hit the return key for more definitions and the back key to get back to the novel).
As an avid Thomas Hardy reader, I am always impresses to discover that the Kindle is more than able to find and explain to me words that were last generally used a few hundred years ago – the teacher can of course choose between a British and an American dictionary (make sure you have checked which one by going to the Kindle menu).
Schools have to manage what goes on the Kindles
Kindles are instantly popular with children, many of whom might be otherwise averse to picking up books, but few technologies can be parachuted directly into classrooms for instant successful adoption. Management of the devices for an education context is crucial. My first reaction to Kindles was to search for practical help and support on the internet.
I had already scoured the net for free and cheap reading material matched to age. I had stumbled across one site which did give, albeit in a very confusing manner, the reading ages of different books, but in no particular order. I then found another full of free children books, but no reading ages. So I simply pulled all the information together from both these sites, and ordered them from the easiest to the most challenging book and created my own website, www.free-guided-reading.com.
As it developed, I discovered more overlooked and forgotten websites brimming with books which a teacher could freely access and use with their interactive whiteboards or on a class computer. I also developed it as a simple colour code – using the colours of the rainbow, from red (good for Grade 1) through to violet (Grade 7).
Lots of these free public domain books had only ever been downloaded 10 or 15 times in the entire time they had been on offer on the sites. In addition, by offering links to two different websites, I was able to make sure that if one link died, I had a spare that readers could still access.
I also ensured that the students had the largest possible range of different file types to choose from, as I am more interested in promoting free e-book reading, where a child reading a book at school can carry on at home on whatever device they have to hand, rather than limiting them to any particular system and confining their ‘digital’ reading to school time.
That was the background that convinced me of the need to set up an online book system. Then came the second, equally exciting strand of the vision. I finally found a really forward thinking, highly progressive private school, the Little London School in Bucharest (www.littlelondon.ro) which shared my dream of finding ways to make English books more easily accessible in Romania.
While this started off small, with only four Kindles, within weeks the school recognised that a Kindle per child in a class of 12 was a wonderful way forward. After an initial investment, it now means that for any free book I download for any class from Grade 1 to Grade 6, I can provide them with complete class sets of books, books which never rip, wear out or are lost. In addition, as the Amazon Kindles can use standard text files (.pdf), I can also use a huge number of worksheets directly off the internet on the Kindles, with the children writing their answers in their own notebooks and so massively reducing the amount of photocopying I need to do in a class.
The Kindles – especially if used with the Project Gutenberg site (http://www.gutenberg.org/) – allow children to read lots of the classics. While the Kindles can ‘read’ text out loud as children read – in a less than ideal way – you can often download an audio version of the story from the Project Gutenberg site. By also making sure you have downloaded the required Kindle reading software on to your school computers, you can project a copy of your book directly on to a screen via a digital projector so that the students not only have a copy in their hands, but can listen to it and also watch it on a shared screen to support further work and discussion.
Two other educational websites have been created to help teachers and parents. The first is Anysubjects.com (www.anysubjects.com). This is a directory of helpful Kindle websites which I built as a forerunner to the Kindle project. This site focuses on sites and information which can be easily read using a Kindle browser, which makes using the Internet via a Kindle a much more friendly event. It can also help demonstrate just how versatile a Kindle can be as it also shows you how to sign into Facebook, check your emails, look up the weather, read the news and find somewhere nearby to eat. It even tells you when the next bus will arrive in various US states – a feature that makes me, sitting in Bucharest, smile.
The second is my Freeeducation.co.uk website of free resources which offers teachers a complete report writing software pack – all the comments and the comment writing engine they need, and all for free. I spent a long time rewriting all the comments made by the UK Government into a simple click-and-choose software pack. For each subject in primary you simply put in a child's name, sex and then choose the appropriate statements for the child then cut and paste the final paragraph back into your school's normal report writing package.
'I am fascinated by ways to get around the obstacles to using them in schools'
As a teacher who uses Kindles for teaching, I am fascinated by ways to get around the obstacles to using them in schools. Romania is a country where getting class sets of books is very expensive and difficult so the Kindles are perfect.
A teacher has to take responsibility for ensuring they work well for their needs. I run mine by switching off all the internet connections, and making sure the students switch them off (rather than simply put them on standby). That way the Kindles just last, last and last. I would recommend anyone to try one. I am thinking of even investing a the super big Kindle (The DX) to replace the front of the class big book – but this could just be me wishful thinking.
Should Kindles go home with the children? This is a big question. It depends who is paying for them – even though we have only 12, they are treated like gold dust, always counted in and out. We only let them be used by older children and if you let them go home will they get lost or broken? Will inappropriate material get downloaded on to them? And how would teachers add new books if they are not with learners at the end of the day or in their free periods? On the other hand, if the parents were to directly pay for them (their prices have recently come down), the Kindles would become part of the everyday reading activies of the children. They would discover how amazing this technology is – and how it is much more than just another e-reader.
There are many ways to deal with Kindle licence issues. The first option is to do it the Amazon way which, unfortunately for schools, has been designed for consumers and entails buying a few books and manage the Kindles on different Amazon accounts. This can become a major distraction as a single book can only be downloaded to a maximum of six devices per Amazon account. Management therefore becomes complicated and difficult.
'My own solution is simple. I don't use Amazon for providing the books'
An appealing alternative is to look around at other book suppliers who offer Kindle books without a limit for free use. My own solution is very simple. I don't use Amazon for providing the books. If you go to SmashWords.com, they will let you download as many free Kindle books as you like, written by modern writers. When I do use Amazon, go via www.ereaderiq.com/free/ as this lists all the currently free books available on Amazon for the Kindle. The lists change daily but a school can easily and rapidly build up an entire child-friendly online library.
As you can only download six copies of any book there are two solutions. Either – as I do – put coloured stickers on the back of the Kindles so I know reds are the lower readers, yellows middle readers etc, to differentiate the Kindles. Or, more of a pain, a teachers could have two Kindle accounts, so that they can then download two sets of books.
At Little London School children can't bring in their own Kindles or take mine away as we really don't want to put pressure on parents to buy more electronic equipment. That’s why I consistently encourage children to use the same books on their iPads, other e-readers and their computers.
I have to say that I love Amazon’s customer service for its hardware. Our local shop in Bucharest refused to replace one of the school Kindles which developed a screen fault after three days. Amazon paid for the courier service and gave me a full refund via their American branch – incredible service.
I love my set of Kindles and each year we plan to slowly expand the number we have as more and more teachers explore using them in both English and Romanian lessons. They can be used in the .pdf format to massively reduce the amount of photocopying you need to do – a substantial benefit. In addition, the books can be stored pretty much forever on them, so with a bit of careful organising you can keep all the class sets of books there for each and every year.
My own two-year-old uses my Kindle regularly as I have found lots of different picture books relating to cars and spotting wild animals in pictures – so it is usable by any age and colour does not appear to be an issue.
The time will come when e-books are likely to be the base for most of a child's reading time, a bit like the slate being replaced by paper. I feel it is time to explore the use of Amazon Kindles in the classroom. Their prices have come down, they are rugged and reliable and the number of free books you can use with them has risen rapidly over the past few years. It is a simple solution for any teacher or school looking to find class sets of books and not wanting to spend the money on each set of 'real' books.
The Kindle can also be a simple way of sharing the books you have with parents – especially if you use the free sites. You can just give them links to download the books for themselves – directly onto their iPads, computers or other Kindles.
As the Kindles store up to 6,000 books, that is a lot of reading material. The Kindles can also allow students a chance to complete appropriate research online without needing to go to the ICT suite and develop meaningful research and note-taking skills as they do not allow simple cutting and pasting of details.
Peter Fogarty is a senior English teacher at the Little London School of Bucharest. He has 12 years of teaching experience and was an early user of the internet to share educational resources (www.timetoteach.co.uk) as well as introducing digital projectors into a number of schools before the UK government provision.
Little London School in Bucharest
UK Kindle Users Forum
Kindle eBooks on Amazon
Editor's note: Amazon was contacted on numerous occasions by this website for advice on licensing for schools using Kindles to accompany this article. Requests to its press office and its Twitter account elicited no replies.