Literacy is the base on which learning is built—in school and in life. It provides a way to climb out of poverty, get a good job, and be a productive citizen. Helping the struggling readers in our schools to catch up is one of the most fundamental challenges educators face. Meeting that challenge is difficult for several reasons.
First, students who struggle with reading are not all developmentally equal. Some need basic phonics instruction. Some have comprehension and fluency issues. Some are only a couple of years behind. Some read at a below-basic level. Some have profound learning disabilities. Some are recent immigrants who speak little English. Teaching a group of students with such divergent needs is almost impossible, even for the best instructors.
Second, struggling readers have no time to waste and need to learn faster than other students if they want to catch up. They need targeted, individualized help, and they need deliberate and intensive skill practice—all at the right level. This is difficult to deliver in a class of 20 or more students.
Third, students who struggle with reading expect to fail. Many of them have never succeeded in academics, so they are no longer motivated to work hard. They often don't see the value in going to school or listening to a teacher or reading a book. That's why many of them drop out.
Fourth, students who are two, three, four, or more years behind in reading have been unable to learn from texts they were assigned in school for quite some time. So there's a massive "background knowledge gap" they need to overcome.
So how do we help these students? I would argue that technology gives us the best chance.
For more than two decades, I have been studying how carefully designed applications of technology can help students who struggle with reading and math and help teachers overcome many of the challenges I've noted. Schools across the United States are already using technology in this way. What we need to do is replicate this success and scale it up.
I see five ways that technology can be a game changer for struggling readers.
1. Technology is adaptive.
The typical middle or high school English language arts classroom has students with varying needs. Because it's difficult for teachers to teach at 15 different levels, they often end up shooting for the middle and hoping for the best. What else can they do?
Adaptive technology, using software that constantly assesses students as they learn, is able to respond instantaneously to student progress and deliver instruction and practice at the optimal level. If a 9th grader who reads on a 3rd grade level is reading an article about the War of 1812, adaptive technology knows to give him a version of that article that is on his reading level and to provide the necessary background knowledge to make him successful. If a student is struggling with silent es, the computer will recognize that and provide instruction and guided practice until the student masters the skill.
2. Technology is good at facilitating repetitive practice.
People who struggle with a task can benefit from targeted and repetitive practice. Just as a golfer might practice a pitch shot over and over until it becomes second nature, a student learning to read needs to practice key skills. In a classroom of struggling readers with different needs, teachers simply don't have time to set up tailored practice drills for every child.
Smart technology is great at this. If it's adaptive, it knows which skills a student is struggling with and can tee up the right kind of practice until it knows the student has mastered it.
3. Technology is available anytime and anywhere.
As technology becomes ubiquitous in our lives, it allows for learning outside the classroom. Technology, which is impervious to the physical barriers of a four-walled classroom and an 8 a.m.-to-3 p.m. school day, allows for a more seamless connection between classroom and home, and among teacher and student and family. It creates opportunities for collaborative homework assignments, for virtual learning when students get the flu, and for deep learning when a student discovers a passion.
There are still challenges concerning home access for all students, the expense of devices, and security concerns. But we're nearing a time when every child can have a device that opens new doors to learning—and fits in a pocket.
4. Technology is superb at gathering and processing data.
The human brain is wondrously powerful and sophisticated. Yet it struggles with gathering, ordering, and processing data. Wouldn't it be remarkable if a teacher, with a click of a button, could look up the day-by-day progress of a struggling student, see which concepts have been holding him or her back, then use that information to create an individualized learning plan for that student?
This kind of thing is already a reality in classrooms today. When a student spends just a small amount of time using the right kind of software each day, computers can quickly assess that student's skill set, organize the data, and deliver customized data to the teacher, parent, or student. I envision a day when students will use specialized e-reading devices that can monitor their eye movements to assess their fluency and comfort in reading any text.
5. Technology is motivating.
For almost anyone, but especially for a student caught in a cycle of failure, the greatest motivator is success. You may have seen the Nike running app that gathers data every time a runner goes out for a jog, then puts it in order and serves it up on a smartphone. Athletes can see how many miles they've run over the course of a year, their personal bests, their average times from week to week, and other data. It's very motivating.
Technology can do the same thing for people learning to read. It can process data and demonstrate improvement in even the smallest increments. And for students who have never experienced success in school, seeing those reading levels tick up and up is incredibly motivating.
The Best Tools for the Job
Teaching and learning are human endeavors. Students don't remember the computer that turned their life around; they remember the teachers who inspired them and never gave up on them.
We need to use every tool possible to help teachers and students be even more successful. Just as soldiers wear sophisticated armor to protect them during battle, swimmers use ever more specialized suits to reduce drag in the pool, and car companies build hybrid and electric models to reduce both emissions and drivers' fuel costs, teachers can use certain applications of technology to help with many of the things we struggle with in learning and teaching.
You've probably heard the naysayers who think technology has no place in education—who say that it's a distraction; that there is no evidence it moves the needle on achievement; and that "I did without a computer or a cell phone in school, and I turned out just fine!" These are the people who are going to battle without the best available armor.
The question we should be asking about technology is not whether it should have a role in education or not. It's too late to turn back. That train has left the station. We should be asking how to use the technology we have
- To support the science of learning.
- To help us teach students to read.
- To help end the literacy crisis in our schools.
If we answer these questions thoughtfully and apply those answers to our teaching, we'll be well positioned to take advantage of the benefits technology provides for our students. So let's log on—for their sakes.
Ted Hasselbring is research professor of special education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. He was an author for the intervention programs READ 180, System44, and FASTT Math.
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