This article on using Google Docs to teach reading instruction is Part 3 of Transforming Instruction Through Technology series.

teaching with technology Google Docs

Parris, Estrada, and Honigsfeld write that:

Creating a digital learning environment is not about using every digital tool or application available, it’s about choosing the right one to enhance instruction and provide ELs equity and accessibility within the classroom” (2016, Kindle Location 337-338).  

There are many apps and technology tools that teach reading comprehension, but I prefer using several of Google’s functions to do the job. Here’s why:

Using Tech to Interact with Texts

The interactions readers have with a text dictates the depth of comprehension.  

  1. Younger and Beginning ELs often interact the with text by figuring out vocabulary words.
  2. Developing ELs stop to think about what each sentence means.  
  3. Expanding ELs think about the meaning of entire paragraphs.  

Regardless of the type of interaction an EL has with the text, I want my students to demonstrate their interactions by writing annotations. Active, visible reading with written annotations helps them process information and assimilate it into their schema, which is when learning sticks (Ausubel,1968; Ausubel, Novak, & Hanesian, 1978).

Word-Level Interactions

Vocabulary is the gatekeeper to comprehension.  If an EL has developed academic language in their home language, harness it to aid reading a text in English.  

I teach ELs to use Google Translate to translate only a word that they don’t understand.  Translating a sentence often produces words used out of context and many hilarious song parodies. The same thing can go for translating a single word, but Google Translate usually provides several options.  The image below is a screenshot of the word choices Google Translate gives me when I translated “sudden” from English to Chinese.

using tech to help students learn

In practice, word-level translations are the easiest to incorporate. Below is an image of Leaf’s annotation of an article we read entitled “This Scientist Aims High to Save The World’s Largest Coral Reefs”. I copied the text onto a Google Doc, uploaded it to Google Classroom, which made a copy for each student, and the copy was automatically shared with me. Google Classroom = more free time.

As Leaf encountered the words “stretch” and “canceling”, he went to Google Translate to understand these words.  Leaf then pasted the translations into his Google Doc to remember the word when re-reading the text.  

teaching reading instruction with tech

Sentence-Level Interactions

Sometimes my ELs have to annotate a sequence of sentences to comprehend the text.  This occurs usually with ELs who have a more established level of English or younger ELs who struggle to hold several sentences together.

Often, complicated sentence structures will throw my ELs for a loop. They particularly struggle with sentences that contain dependent clauses followed by an independent one like the sentence in the example below.  This sentence structure causes a great deal of confusion for ELs who don’t realize that they can restructure the sentence to make it more comprehensible.

teaching reading instruction with tech

To understand these complicated sentences, I teach students to restructure the sentence by:

  • finding the noun (N), verb (V), and detail (D) and
  • rewriting a new sentence with only the NVD.  

Doing so becomes a brief summary of the sentence they struggled with.  In the same image above, Leaf ignores the “Decades ago” fragment and looks for the NVD.  When he finds it, he restructures the sentence to be “Everybody (N) used to smoke (V) inside (D)”, and the “many years ago reflects the “Decades ago”. He then writes it in his Google Doc to help him if he needs to re-read. Because this whole process is annotated visually, I can now easily assess his level of understanding.

I used to have students write these annotations on a printed text, such as in a notebook, but I wasn’t able to easily see their work at-a-glance.  With the sharing function of Google Drive, I can now quickly check in on their progress anywhere I have a Wifi connection.

While yes, it’s annoying to annotate every sentence, for ELs who struggle to read academic texts, it’s necessary because it forces them to process one sentence before going to the next.  Reading is not comprehending a handful of isolated sentences. It’s about comprehending how that one sentence leads to the next.  Reading with tech helps ELs internalize the way proficient readers interact with the text every day.  

Paragraph-Level Interactions

Because Expanding ELs have more developed language skills, they interact with the text by writing questions, opinions, and brief summaries of paragraphs in the margins.  I teach students to use the Comment function on Google Docs to house these more detailed annotations.  Questions and opinions stimulate conversations about the text, and they raise the quality of the discussion from being about the recall to encouraging more inferential thinking.

Expanding ELs can handle comprehending several paragraphs simultaneously, so I have them stop at the end of a page and summarize what they read.  This allows them to process what they read and become active readers.   When students understand the words but not the meaning of an idea, I teach them to write a question.  They then bring these questions to start the discussion the next day.

I also have students write their reactions to a surprising event or an action committed by one of the characters.  These opinions become fertile ground for developing persuasive thinking during our discussions.  

The image below shows Jessica annotating the text at the paragraph level.  We were reading Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai.  The school purchased each of them as Kindle editions, enabling me to screenshot the text, paste it on a Google Doc, and post it on Google Classroom. This process allowed me to set-up a virtual doc that allowed me to have access to every student’s digital annotations.

using Google Docs comment function to teach reading

Notice how she writes an opinion about how children should interact with their parents.  Her annotation shows that

  1. she understands the text at a literal level and
  2. she’s actively thinking about the events and ideas in the text.  

She’s interacting with the text like a proficient reader would.


While reading is, physically, an easy activity, it’s a cognitively challenging one that requires readers to make many dynamic mental moves: re-reading, summarizing, making opinions, asking questions, forming connections.  The tango back and forth between the reader and the words of the text is facilitated by software such as Google Docs.  Using technology shouldn’t replace reading instruction, but technology should opportunities for students to use language and access content.

Ausubel, D.P. (1968). Educational psychology:  A cognitive view. New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Ausubel, D.P., Novak, J.D., & Hanesian, H. (1978). Educational psychology:  A cognitive view (2nd ed.). New York:  Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Parris, H., Estrada, L., & Honigsfeld, A. M. (2016). ELL frontiers: Using technology to enhance instruction for English learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.