Thursday, November 10, 2016

Improve Reading Comprehension with Google Docs "Black Out"

Some key goals for literacy are reading comprehension, being able to identify main ideas, and summarization skills. There are many excellent practices that can help students develop these abilities.

Recently I came across a creative technique called “Text Reduction Strategy” (see the article here by Andrea Heick at TeachThought). I really liked the idea, but also felt it could be made even better with a Google Docs technology twist.

The original idea goes like this…

  • Students are given a magazine article and a black marker.
  • They are instructed to read the article and decide what text is critical to the main point of the article and what text is not.
  • Next they use the marker to black out any text that is not critical, leaving behind just the main ideas.

The benefit of this activity is that students do not have to come up with their own words to summarize the article. Instead all the words are already there, and they are just using their critical thinking skills to determine what is most important. This can be a helpful stepping stone to improving their reading comprehension while working toward better summarization skills.

As much as I love the idea, I thought it would be great to take it a step further and use technology rather that physical paper magazines and black markers. This activity works great in Google Docs, and even picks up a few added benefits by going digital. See below for full directions on how to do this.

Step 1 - Find an article

First of all you will need an article for your students to read. There are so many excellent websites that provide current event and high interest articles for students. Some are specific to certain grade levels, while others provide multiple versions of their articles at different lexile levels so students of all ages can engage with the writing. A few great sites to consider for articles include:

Step #2 - Put the article in Google Docs

For this step you will need to copy and paste the text of the article into a Google Document. However, there are a few tips that can make this easier and can produce a cleaner final product.

First, if the article is on a webpage that also has lots of other text, comments, or sidebar information, it might be difficult to select just the text from the article itself. One option would be to use a “webpage clean up tool” such as the Mercury Reader extension for Google Chrome (or any of the many other "clean up" extensions). This can remove all the extra text, so just the article is left to be copied.

  • Install the Mercury Reader extension from the Chrome Web Store - Chrome extension link
  • Open the website with the article you want to copy.
  • Click the Mercury Reader extension icon in your top menu bar.
  • The webpage will now be cleaned up, so that all the ads and extra content is removed, leaving just the text of the main article.
  • You can now select the article text and copy it. For example, to copy you can press “Ctrl” and “C”, or right-click and choose “Copy”.

A second tip to consider is a better way to paste the article text into your Google Doc. Normally when you copy and paste text from a website into a Doc, it brings with it whatever formatting the text had, such as font, color, size, and such. For this “black out” activity, it is best for the text to be as plain and simple as possible with no extra formatting at all. Thankfully there is an easy way to paste just the copied text, and no formatting.

  • First copy the text as explained earlier.
  • Next click inside of the Google Doc.
  • Press “Ctrl” and “Shift” and “V
  • Or click “Edit” and “Paste without formatting
  • Or right click and choose “Paste without formatting
  • The copied text will now be pasted into the Google Doc as plain text with no special formatting.

Step #3 - Share the Google Doc with your students

If you want each of your students to do the “black out” activity, they will each need their own copy of the Google Doc with the article text. You can do this a couple different ways:

First, you could push out a copy to each student through Google Classroom.

  • Go to Google Classroom as normal.
  • Click the button to “Create assignment”.
  • Fill in the details for the assignment.
  • Click the Google Drive icon and choose the Google Doc with the article text.
  • From the drop-down menu to the right, choose “Make a copy for each student”.
  • Finally click “Assign” and each student will get their own copy of the Google Doc to work on.

If you are not using Google Classroom, a second option would be to share the Google Doc with your students with view only rights.

  • Click the big blue Share button in the top right corner of the Google Doc.
  • When the “Share with others” window opens, click “Get sharable link” in the top right corner.
  • This will generate a link that will allow others to view the document. Provide this link to your students through email, or on your class website, or with a shortened URL, or such.
  • When the students open the shared Doc they can make their own copy by clicking “File” and “Make a copy”.

Step #4 - Students “Black Out” the article

At this point the students can do the “Black Out” activity. They need to read the article and decide what text is critical to the main point of the article and what text is not. Their goal is to black out any text that is not critical, leaving behind just the main ideas. In Google Docs this can be done by using the built-in highlighter tool, but choosing black for the color. Here’s how:

  • Select the text you want to black out.
  • Click the “Text color” button in the top toolbar.
  • Click the “Highlight” option in the drop-down menu.
  • Click the black color option.
  • The selected text will now be blacked out.
  • Repeat this process for other text throughout the document as needed.

To save some time, you can also use the "Paint format" tool to quickly apply the black highlighting to other sections of text (special thanks to Amy Farris for this great tip!)

  • First select some text that is already highlighted black.
  • Next double-click on the "Paint format" button to the top menu bar. Double-clicking will "lock in" the copied formatting.
  • Now simply select any other text in the document and the black highlighting will automatically be applied to it.
  • When done, just click the "Paint format" button again to turn it off.

If you think you made a mistake and want to remove the black out from some text, you can do that.
  • First, click and drag your mouse to select the blacked out text.
  • When you do this, the black highlighting will turn slightly lighter, which will allow you to read the blacked out text.

  • If you find some text you want to remove the black out from, select just that text.
  • Then click the “Text color” button in the top toolbar.
  • Click the “Highlight” option in the drop-down menu.
  • Click the “None” option.
  • The black highlighting will be removed from that text and it will appear normal and visible again.

When the student is finished the Google Doc will have blacked out text for a large amount of the content, leaving just the most important information visible. This might be just topic sentences, or key phrases, or such.

The students could then share their final products with their teacher, or with other students. Black out articles from different students could be compared to see what different classmates thought was most important.

  • As an example, here is a Google Doc with an original article about spiders - Google Doc link
  • Now here is a version with blacked out text, leaving just the most important information behind (at least in my opinion for this example) - Google Doc link


As I mentioned at the start, I really like the “Text Reduction Strategy” as a way to help students develop reading comprehension and summarization skills. However, I think there are some great benefits to doing the activity digitally with Google Docs. Some of the benefits include:

  • No need for multiple copies of magazines.
  • No waste, since there are no magazines to be thrown away when done.
  • Ability to remove the black out from text if a mistake is made or the student changes their mind about what to black out.
  • Easy for students to share their work with others.
  • Easy to display final products online or projected for the class to see and discuss.

This process can also be extended to other texts and purposes, such as “Black Out Poetry” where the students try to create poems by blacking out all the words from a text sample except for what they leave behind to make the poem.

If you try this with your students, or come up with other ways to use or improve this process, please share your ideas and experiences in the comments below.

Post by Eric Curts. Connect with Eric on Twitter at and on Google+ at


  1. Eric, if the students select the text in the Google Doc and press ctrl + \ that will remove the formatting as well. Pretty useful for when we forget to paste without formatting

    1. Thanks for mentioning that! I do the same thing by clicking "Format" and "Clear Formatting" or by using the "Clear Formatting" button on the far right side of the toolbar. Did not realize there was such a convenient keyboard shortcut.

  2. Great post! I'm thinking I'll "print" the article as a PDF, post it to Google Classroom, have the students use DocHub to "black out," and then add it back to Google Classroom.

    1. Great suggestion! I really like DocHub and use it frequently.

    2. I like DocHub, too, but lately I've been using Kami. It would work well, too.

  3. This is a great idea. The only change I would make (now here comes the librarian!!), have students use database articles! INFOhio, our state school library organization has plenty of great ones. Please don't forget them, they are crucial in educating our students to use quality, reliable and vetted sources!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing that! INFOhio is such a wonderful resource for our schools!

    2. A great way for tech and library to collaborate and provide students the best of "both worlds"!

  4. I think this is a great tool for teachers and students to use with Math word problems!!!

  5. Eric, what a great idea! You could also share the doc link as a forced copy that way they are prompted to make a copy. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Great point! I use that option a lot and didn't even think to mention that. Thanks!

    2. Thanks, Eric, for explicit instructions for us neophyte Google Doc users. Elementary school teachers may like to use or for text friendly articles. ReadWorks is perfect for struggling readers of all grades. The Teaching Tolerance resources are great for middle and high schools as well.

  6. Your instructions were so well detailed, this was easy to follow and I learned new commands in google. I'm a social wkr who integrates into the library to do my services with my students. This is great for black out poetry, my librarian does. Google is so great for schools. I also like the comments you received lots of ideas and resources. I have to follow your blog. Keep up the good work.

  7. Love this! One way to make it even easier for students to use the highlighting tools is to use the "format painter" which looks like a little roller brush. Format painting will allow students to highlight multiple lines and words in black without having to keep selecting the black highlighter. Here's how it works. First, highlight your chosen word in black. Then, use your mouse to select that black highlighted text, then double-click the format painter roller brush. Now, any text you select will automatically be highlighted in black without having to re-select the highlighting options. You have to be sure to double-click the brush, though, or your formatting will only paint the next item you select instead o every item thereafter as you want.

    1. Yes! The format painter works super well. Like Any says, be sure to double-click to keep it in "paint" mode.

    2. Amy, thanks so much for sharing that. I use the format painter all the time and I did not realize you could double-click to make the format stick. What an awesome feature! I may go back and add that into the article. Learn something new everyday!

    3. I am so excited! I think I'll frame this post as proof that just this one time in my life I knew a Google thing before you. I'm sure that's a first and a last for me! ;)

  8. Hi Eric - thanks so much for this awesome article! I am sharing it with all of our teachers, along with many of the comments as there were so many great ideas submitted in the comments.

    I think I noticed a typo in your directions the end of Step #2 you write....

    First copy the text as explained earlier.
    Next click inside of the Google Doc.
    Press “Ctrl” and “Shift” and “C”

    Shouldn't this last line say Press “Ctrl” and “Shift” and “V” for pasting unformatted text?

    Again, many thanks for all you do and for sharing with all of us!

    1. Suzi, thanks so much for catching that! I think I was a victim of my own copy and pasting from earlier in the article. I really appreciate you letting me know. I have fixed that now.

  9. Thanks Eric! You always have great ideas! I use a lot for articles too!

  10. You have written some good points there. I checked on the Web for additional info about the issue and found your site is one of the most accurate sources of information. sentence paraphrasing

  11. And here you can read more about those blackouts.

  12. I love the post and thanks for sharing. This is a simple but powerful strategy for improving reading comprehension. I plan to share with ELA teachers.