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Teachers Seek Out Software to Help Students' Reading

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Angie Lebron clicks rapidly through the brightly illustrated passage on her computer screen to learn about an archaeologist’s study of the mummified remains of the Chachapoya people, who lived in South America more than five centuries ago. When a difficult term or phrase trips her up, the freshman at Eastside High School here simply points her mouse to highlight it and bring up a definition or detailed description. Pictures and other graphic elements provide links to related materials.

Earlier in the school year, Ms. Lebron would have been frustrated by the complicated language and historical content in the reading assignment. But with the help of a reading-intervention program that includes computer-based lessons that adapt to her reading skills and specific instructional needs, Ms. Lebron is now on grade level and learning to enjoy reading in school and at home.

The computer software “lets me practice and get better,” she said as the school year came to a close last month. “And it includes interesting video on stuff I’ve never heard of, and the stories help build my vocabulary.”

Like Ms. Lebron, school leaders in the 55,000-student Paterson district, and their counterparts across the nation, are learning the benefits of incorporating computer-based features into the reading curriculum to help teachers address their students’ varying skills and experience.

“So many of our students are lacking foundational skills, like decoding, that high school students don’t normally get attention for,” said Alexandra Gina, the director of high school language arts for the Paterson school system. One of the state’s so-called Abbott districts, Paterson benefits from a court decision that equalized funding for New Jersey’s economically disadvantaged school systems.

“There are potentially huge gaps in student proficiency in any one classroom,” Ms. Gina said. “Only use of a computer program can address those different levels efficiently.”

During the 90-minute English/language arts block at Eastside High, for instance, each of the 15 students in the remedial class gets a chance at using one of a half-dozen computers to strengthen basic skills, including decoding, reading fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. An audio feature allows students to record themselves reading or listen to a taped version of the text. The activities bolster group lessons on grammar, writing conventions, and literature, and equip students for tackling grade-level reading assignments independently, educators here say.

The software component, part of Scholastic Inc.’s comprehensive reading program READ 180, was an essential feature when school administrators shopped for language arts instructional materials. With nearly nine in 10 entering freshmen at the school last fall struggling with literacy—and most testing at a 4th grade level—teachers needed a program to mitigate students’ reading deficiencies while exposing them to interesting and age-appropriate content.

The Long Search

But navigating the vast marketplace of reading software can be overwhelming, educators and experts say. Moving beyond the bells and whistles that have made software lessons a novel addition to the classroom to find more meaningful and effective applications of technology to instruction has proved difficult for many schools.

Autoskill International Inc., Lexia Learning Systems, Riverdeep Interactive Learning, Pearson Digital Learning, LeapFrog Schoolhouse, and Renaissance Learning have all come out with top-rated software targeting essential reading skills. The exhibit hall at the annual convention of the International Reading Association in Toronto this spring included hundreds of vendors marketing reading products.

Reading specialist Anne Bonington was there searching, as she had for months, for just the right software for pupils at Westorchard Elementary School, particularly the 4th and 5th graders working to build their fluency and comprehension skills.

The reading teacher did her homework in figuring out first what role reading software will play in the classroom before she began researching computer-based products.

Teachers at the Chappaqua, N.Y., school need such lessons and activities to be aligned with the traditional ones presented throughout the school year, she said. The technology tools must also provide a variety of exercises that allow reading practice, engaging vocabulary lessons, and content that builds background knowledge.

Ms. Bonington’s ideal software package features activities that are sufficiently complex to push students’ skills forward, yet adaptable to each child’s reading level and technologically undemanding so that the children can be productive while working independently of the teacher.

“You have to be able to plunk students down in front of the program and let them work by themselves successfully,” the veteran teacher said. “But if it’s disconnected from the instruction they’re getting from the teacher, and the teacher doesn’t know the program well, it’s not going to be effective.”

Such features are must-haves for teachers looking to integrate computer-based products into reading instruction, experts say.

“Teachers don’t have time to sit and explore all the features of a particular software program,” said Diane Morrone, a senior literacy associate at Learning Point Associates, a Chicago-based education research and policy organization.

The technology must be suitable to the targeted age group, Ms. Morrone said, meaning simple enough for younger students to use independently, or sufficiently challenging and engaging for adolescents and preteens.

At every grade level, Ms. Morrone and other experts say, the ability to individualize a program is essential, particularly for teachers who organize their reading instruction around small groups and rely on structured activities that allow students to work on their own.

'Making a Difference'

That’s part of the appeal for teachers at Eastside High, which began implementing READ 180, a textbook-based reading program for middle and high school students, last fall. Teacher Shari Valenz, for example, can sit with a handful of her students to discuss writing conventions or literary themes, while another small group sits in the library corner completing reading and writing assignments. The students take turns rotating between teacher-led, independent, and computer-based lessons before completing the accompanying quizzes, also on computer, that help Ms. Valenz gauge what they’ve learned.

“For years, I taught regular English in a classroom with no TV, no computer, just books, and I’d assign ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and To Kill a Mockingbird, and they didn’t understand it,” she said. “I had to read it to them and explain it. But this program is helping them become readers, so they can read it on their own.”

Her students tend to prefer computer time over other classroom activities, but it is only a supplemental tool for Ms. Valenz and other teachers at Eastside High.

While it has proved valuable in giving students guided practice, and has considerable appeal for tech-savvy teens, knowing just how much of a role technology should play in reading instruction is part of the challenge as well, some experts say.

“To be really smart about this, you’ve got to use the technology where it works best, not in areas where you need teacher instruction and tutoring,” said Ted S. Hasselbring, a research professor of special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “It should not be playing the role that a teacher should play. It can’t do everything, but it does some things well,” he said, such as providing manageable text and increased practice time.

Checking off a list of required or preferred features, however, is not enough, added Mr. Hasselbring, who helped create READ 180. School leaders, he said, should look for programs that are founded on the principles of research-based reading instruction and have some evidence that they are effective in similar schools and districts.

“We know there are certain things necessary to making good readers, and you need to look for technology that supports what we know about good reading instruction,” Mr. Hasselbring advised. “And you should ask: Is there evidence that this program is making a difference with kids?”

The most effective software keeps students engaged with both content and format, and provides feedback to help teachers adjust their instructional approaches, according to Marilyn J. Adams, a prominent reading researcher.

“The software has to cause children to actively pay attention to what you want them to learn,” said Ms. Adams, who has helped design a voice-recognition reading program for Soliloquy Learning, a Waltham, Mass.-based reading-software company. “It must always give the teacher [information] about how kids are doing and progressing.”

Such features in READ 180 have pleased Ms. Valenz, and her students.

Using that program’s computerized database, she has been able to gauge students’ progress on specific skills, such as spelling and comprehension, and overall proficiency. The reports then suggest suitable classroom and homework assignments for each of them.

In the course of the school year, Ms. Valenz said, nearly all the students advanced two grade levels or more in reading, and most had mastered 9th grade work, skills that have carried over to their other schoolwork.

“And now in other classes, they can read their history books, and they can read their science books,” she said. “For a lot of these kids, this is the first time they are getting this kind of success.”

Vol. 26

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