There has been an ongoing debate among educators as to how students best acquire literacy. There are economists and journalists who have even weighed in on this debate. Entire sections of bookstores are devoted to books parents can buy to help practice reading with kids at home. Advertisements for reading specialists and for employees with specific training in certain reading techniques is now common. And, of course, the educational technology community has now begun to focus on this.
I first stumbled on this subject when my first child was born. I began reading Ed. Hirsch's rather well respected book Cultural Literacy and then his older book, The Knowledge Deficit. Having had an incredibly progress, yet elitist, education at TC, I began thirsting for different viewpoints on education in general that were more in sync with my own views. I was particularly concerned about how my child was suppose to go from being an illiterate being to a full functional, capable reader who suddenly acquired this great skill that transformed human made images into characters that stand for created meanings. This leap was unfathomable to me. Now I have confess, I made a major mistake (ok this is nothing new and definitely not my first nor last) by not taking the full Columbia Readers and Writers Workshop while at TC. At the time, I could not image ever caring how to teach little kids how to read because I was focused exclusively on high school and figured all high school students already know that. I did not take into account my future role as a parent nor did I take into account the possibility of ever being on the board for an elementary school or becoming so fully enamored with elementary education. I also had no clue that this would be a real struggle for many high school students. I hope to rectify this in the near future, but since 2008, reading acquisition has become something on the forefront of my mind.
My increasing interest in literacy has been further magnetized by my discovery of the growing number of students who remain functionally illiterate well into high school, having never fully mastered decoding or site memorization skills. I have noticed this not only among ELL students and students with classified IEP's, but also students with no apparent learning disabilities or second language acquisition obstacles. I've seen this with students who would normally be considered quite "bright." The second hidden area of weakness is reading comprehension, which in many cases is actual derailed by this lack of literacy fluency that had failed to be learned in younger years. In fact, I've seen reading scores on major standardize exams that definitely do not match up with a student's ability to communicate verbally in a classroom.
I've even experimented with the use of more than one level of reading textbook for teaching in the classroom. Alternative homework assignments given based on literacy level in non English literature courses is often something that many are now discussing. However, this is a band aid, not a solution. This is a systemic problem that needs to be addressed, not just in English and at all grade levels. Providing some sort of standardized exam to measure progress of any approach suggested conducted internally may help a district or school see where the problem is most prevalent within the school and how effective one approach is over another. This however, needs to be done in conjunction with experimentation in different approaches. It needs to be addressed in high school.
Update: Gradpoint is not an effective option. Magen David used it this year and abandoned it mid year. The fundamental issues with Gradpoint are threefold: 1)The units and individual activities within the units run much longer than it takes the teacher to cover the same information 2) the material does not sync up appropriately with the offline curriculum 3) It operates like a textbook and kids prefer to read a textbook not look at a screen 4) the assessment tool does not ask relevant questions that help a teacher utilize actionable data 5) It's totally boring and the kids dislike it.
Interestingly enough a recent study was done about exceptional high reading scores in a district over time due to students going to shelters and actually reading to cats. The study concluded that most probably the reason these struggling readers became so much better at reading was because they were able to practice reading in front of a non judgmental audience that was not the least bit intimidating to the students. While I don't know if that is necessarily realistic or ideal for our students, I do think finding a non judgmental and non intimidating audience for our students to practice is is key. Perhaps the answer might be letting older kids spend time reading to younger ones in a school setting or even as a homework weekly to siblings. While this certainly is not a "tech approach" it might really help older struggling readers (or even 2nd graders and up) significantly increase their reading ability.