Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Use of Technology for Reading Acquisition

This is an older post, but I recently updated the bottom to include reflections on gradpoint; the blended learning digital content provider Magen David Yeshivah High School chose this past year.

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.

In an effort to find a solution and because of my personal interest in assisting my 5 year old (she is now 6) in learning how to read correctly, I began to seriously look at online tools to help assist in the literacy process.  I became frustrated when she started recognizing letters by 3, but I was told by daycare workers and friends with older kids that reading would not be taught till she was in kindergarten, 2 1/2 years away.  I had begun working with her at home on Bob's Books and Dora Reading Apps, but really wanted a formal program geared towards early readers that was game based.  Still haven't found that and well, now she is going into k. (She is now in K and we find the offline curricula significantly better than any online options for numerous reasons.)  She has started to read sight words, and we are on level A or 1 readers by scholastic.  Wish I had found something.  The is never enough material for preschool kids, but that's for another post.  (As an update, she is now on C level and ironically i-ready, the digital content provider her current school is utilizing is a total bust for her.  She scores much lower on online exams than in person assessments.  My guess is she is bored by the monotonous voice online and the repetitive nature of the program.)

What is my attraction to utilizing technology for students acquisition of literacy, especially in high school?  I think it has the unique ability to engage students in a fully customizable approach that enhances the students experience and provides for instantaneous feedback.  It also helps reading circles flourish by enabling students of different reading abilities to read the same book, but ideally have questions custom tailored to their areas of weakness and harder ones for the areas that are strengths, thereby enabling ability grouping to be much less rigid.  Or students in the same class can read different books based on interest or ability and be grouped accordingly, but still challenged in their specific areas of weakness.  In addition, it creates measurable, objective assessments that can be utilized so the teacher knows who he/she needs to help.  Furthermore, it encourages student independence and ownership over their own learning.  

I reached out to a friend who is a fantastic reading specialist in Bergenfield Public Schools, Shari Gussen.  Her district has turned to Renaissance Learning's Accelerated Reader and Star Reader programs.  They have used these programs, online based, adaptive learning software, with a great deal of success.  Apparently this program, which works nicely with the Columbia Readers workshop material for elementary school, allows teachers to input the book assigned for students and as already pretreated questions for the book.  It also is able to target areas of strengths and weakness and custom tailor activities designed towards growth for that specific student.  It is not used to replace teachers rather to diagnose areas of strength and weakness and enable the teacher to customize the instruction accordingly.  It is actually a program that can be used in K-12. I think it could be really useful in middle and high school for struggling readers enabling teachers to pinpoint areas of weakness quickly and correctly.  I have seen this demo in person at ISTE and was very impressed.  I would like to hear more about how it can be used in class in conjunction with curriculum already in place.  

I have also been told by a teacher that Compass Learning is currently being used that it has not worked for younger grades.  The negative with Compass is that a teacher has to input the adaptive features to the program because the software does not adapt itself to students strengths and weaknesses.  From the standpoint of a high school administrator and teacher, I do not find this program a serious option for Magen David for precisely this reason. Ideally, a blended learning program should enable the teacher to spend less time figuring out where a student's specific areas of strengths and weaknesses and more custom tailoring projects and lessons to meet the student where he/she is at.  However, in a small elementary school, this program does provide the teacher with total control.  Yet, I wonder how long you could really use it effectively.  From my own personal experience, I doubt a younger child could focus for an extended period of time on a computer to take the assessment, so any assessment would online for an elementary school would have to be done rapidly and not daily.  Possibly something with 5-10 questions maximum that require 5-10 minutes would work for kids in 3rd grade or up done monthly.  In fact, if done right, this could enable a teacher to harvest actionable data to use over an extended time and track progress for intervention purposes, but I don't see compass doing this.  It might be ideal for a middle school to utilize this digital content provider.  

I also saw "learnactively" at ISTE, which although is not the same type of program, could be used to help students analyze texts and increase reading comprehension skills.  It had several advantages, one of which is that it is free!  I'm still investigating the best way to teach literacy on a high school level and for a 5 year old.  Hope to demo gradpoint and other options this coming week.  Check back later for updates!

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.