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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Myth About Computer-Based Reading Software?

By Peter DeWitt — January 20, 2013 6 min read
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It’s the 21st Century thing to do. Take students who are struggling readers or those classified as special education students and put them on an interactive reading program to learn how to read. Many educators buy into it. After all, kids are enveloped in technology from an early age and these programs have sound, graphics and the programs ask in-depth comprehension questions which seem personalized to fit each student’s need. But are they working?

Educators believe they are working. They get data from these programs that say student’s Lexile scores are climbing and find that students are showing an increase in comprehension. With the support of these programs, some students find reading less intimidating and pick up books to read which may be different than their previous behavior of not wanting to read at all. But, is their fluency really getting better? Are they really becoming better readers?

How are those students doing when teachers complete non computer-based progress monitoring?

Reading Software Results
Recently, I had a conversation with Dr. Dick Allington, one of the leading experts in the area of literacy instruction. Dr. Allington made the comment that he would ban computers from an instructional role and that they didn’t have a significant effect on teaching students to read. He added that the results of studies are “Largely depressing, especially since schools are spending billions on such software.”

In a 2007 Education Week article, Trotter wrote that, “A major federal study of reading and mathematics software has found no difference in academic achievement between students who used the technology in their classrooms and youngsters who used other methods.” This is troubling considering the number of schools that use computer-based programs for reading instruction.

In addition, in this time of using technology (I have written about BYOD, flipping classrooms, etc. and see the benefits of technology and social media) are educators really getting the bang for their buck? Are we hoping to see something from technology that might not be there?

The Dynarski study that Trotter referred to said, “

The second-year study included four reading software products for first grade, Destination Reading (Riverdeep 2008), the Waterford Early Reading Program (Pearson School 2008), Headsprout (Headsprout 2008), and Plato Focus (Plato Learning Corporation 2008).

Three of the four products provided supplemental instruction and Plato Focus was used as the core reading curriculum. The second-year study also included two reading products for fourth grade, LeapTrack (LeapFrog Schoolhouse 2008) and Academy of Reading (Autoskill International 2008). These products supplemented the core reading curriculum with tutorials, practice, and assessment geared to specific reading skills.”

According to Campuzano et al, “The findings indicated that, after one school year, differences in student test scores were not statistically significant between classrooms that were randomly assigned to use products and those that were randomly assigned not to use products. The study found a positive, statistically significant effect for one of the six reading products examined (LeapTrack®, 4th grade). The estimated effect size was 0.09, equivalent to moving a student from the 50th to the 54th percentile of reading achievement.”

A Balanced Program
So why focus on a study that came out over five years ago? Recently, Dr. Allington suggested that these programs are still not valuable to the reading process and that states are spending billions of dollars for programs that do not help students become better readers. According to Allington, students need a more balanced program which should not include sitting kids at a computer.

There is nothing more important to the reading process than a teacher who can provide high quality reading instruction to students. We all know this! However, it is surprising to read how ineffective some computer-based programs were in the area of reading instruction. Allington has some suggestions to foster better readers.

In a former interview Allington suggested the following:
Every child reads something he or she chooses - Allow students to choose books that they like AND can read. This is in addition to books that are selected by their teacher.

Every child needs high-quality instruction - That reading instruction needs to be 90-120 minutes which includes a large percentage of time being engaged in reading. In READ 180: Policy Gone Wrong for the Language Arts Journal of Michigan Suzanne Whitford wrote, “Students must be engaged in reading every day, and it must be authentic and meaningful. Too often students are engaged in activities about reading rather than being engaged in actual reading.”

Every child reads accurately - Many schools have increased the time spent on ELA but increased time doesn’t mean that students are allowed to read books where they can be successful (98% accuracy or better). Students need to spend time reading texts that are not too challenging. Reading books where they can be successful increase the likelihood that they will become better readers. This differs from some who say the Common Core suggests a focus on more challenging texts.

Every child reads something he or she understands - Allington and Gabriel say that, “Understanding what you’ve read is the goal of reading. But too often, struggling readers get interventions that focus on basic skills in isolation, rather than on reading connected text for meaning.”

Every child talks with peers about reading and writing - Provide students time to talk with one another about their reading and writing.

Every child listens to a fluent adult read aloud - Listening to an adult who reads fluently increases students’ own fluency.

In the End
• What are your thoughts?
• Do you see the benefits of computer-aided software?
• Are there any computer-based programs that have helped students?
• Or do you believe there isn’t a place for such programs in school?

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A special thank you to Dr. Dick Allington for the resources and information. He is not only an outstanding resource but he is a phenomenal keynote speaker.


Blok, H., Oostdam, R., Otter, M. E., & Overmaat, M. (2002). Computer-assisted instruction in support of beginning reading instruction: A review. Review of Educational Research, 72(1), 101-130.

Borman, G. D., Benson, J. G., & Overman, L. T. (2009). A randomized field trial of the Fast ForWord Language computer-based training program. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 31(1), 82-106.

Campuzano, L., Dynarski, M., Agodini, R., & Rall, K. (2009). Effectiveness of reading and mathematics software products: Findings from two student cohorts. (NCEE 2009-4041). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Dynarski, M. (2007). Effectiveness of Reading and Mathematics Software Products: Findings from the First Student Cohort: U.S. Department of Education. Downloaded from: http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20074005/

Rouse, C. E., & Krueger, A. B. (2004). Putting computerized instruction to the test: A randomized evaluation of a ‘scientifically-based’ reading program. Economics of Education Review, 23(4), 323-338.

Trotter, A. (2007). Federal study finds no edge for students using technology-based reading and math products. Education Week.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.