Reading & Literacy

Classroom-Tested Tech Tools Used to Boost Literacy

By Katie Ash — February 04, 2011 7 min read
Adina Sullivan, a 4th grade teacher at San Marcos Elementary School in California says most of her students do not have computers at home, but they do have DVD players.
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Instead of investing in prepackaged software programs, many teachers are harnessing the technology they already have—such as webcams, audio recorders, blogs, and other Web 2.0 tools—to boost literacy in students.

“With schools being so cash-strapped, we can’t go around and buy a new program all the time,” says Adina Sullivan, a 4th grade teacher at the 720-student San Marcos Elementary School in California. “You can go with something that you can find a lot easier at no cost and make it work for what you need, rather than [using pre-packaged software.]”

Sullivan, who is a lead technology teacher at her school, works with English-language learners to help build vocabulary and fluency.

“When you start with the learning standard and match the tool to the learning standard and then to the student’s level, it’s easier if [teachers] have more flexibility. Sometimes prepackaged materials can be a little limiting,” she says.

For instance, in her classroom, Sullivan uses photos licensed under creative commons, an alternative to copyright that allows varying degrees of sharing, as a jumping-off point to start a conversation with her students.

“It gives them a mental image to connect to,” she says, “a familiar, relatable scene so we can discuss what we see in the photo as a class and build the vocabulary.”

Then the students can transition into a writing exercise, says Sullivan.

Sullivan also uses audio recorders to have student-teachers read sets of vocabulary words, then she creates matching PowerPoint presentations with the words and burns them onto DVDs for the students to take home and listen to.

Most students in her classroom do not have computers at home, but they do have DVD players, says Sullivan. And having a variety of student-teachers record the words makes students more adept at recognizing what they are.

Sullivan also uses audiobooks in her classroom.

“Hearing a model reader helps with the fluency and the comprehension,” she says.

Recently, her class listened to the audiobook of James and the Giant Peach, and at the end of the unit, only two students did not pass the test—a vast improvement. When Sullivan gave her students a choice of reading their next book out loud or listening to the audiobook, they chose audio.

Adina Sullivan, a 4th grade teacher at San Marcos Elementary School in San Marcos, Calif., uses iPods, digital voice recorders, PowerPoint presentations, and DVD reviews of classroom materials to help boost the reading skills of her students.

Webcams and Podcasts

Timothy Frey, an assistant professor of special education, counseling, and student affairs at Kansas State University, has been researching how to use webcams to improve reading fluency and comprehension in elementary school students.

Working with two elementary schools in Kansas, Frey observed 27 2nd through 4th graders over 16 weeks as they used webcams to see themselves reading and then he identified their mistakes.

Within the first five weeks of the experiment, all of the grade levels made at least two fewer mistakes per minute.

“New technologies are making amazing inroads into helping students overcome some of the challenges that have prevented people from keeping up with reading,” says Frey. “The technology is just a tool that is engaging and allows [students] to do the instant playback.”

Lisa Parisi, a 5th grade teacher in New York’s 4,000-student Herricks Union Free School District, on Long Island, and co-author of the forthcoming book Blogging in the Middle Years, places a major focus on her students’ reading skills.

“The last two years I really looked at the data to see how the kids were doing using all of this technology, and in both the past two years, I ended the year with no children below grade level in reading,” she says. “I do think that technology has a very large part in that.”

Parisi uses podcasting to help her students practice fluency.

“One of the really neat things to do is have the kids edit their own podcasts,” she says. Then they can literally see the pauses or mistakes they made in the editing program and correct them.

Parisi also uses blogs to engage her students in reading and writing.

“They have contests to see who can get the most comments,” she says. And what most students have figured out is that the better their writing is, the more visitors and comments they receive.

Authentic Audience

Hooking her class up with students from other parts of the world also motivates her students to focus on their grammar and pronunciation, says Parisi, especially if the students they are working with are not native English-speakers.

“It just makes them work harder,” she says. The Internet allows her students to engage with an authentic audience, says Parisi, which motivates them to record podcasts or write blogs that are more polished than what they might create for just the teacher.

Teaching students to read in an authentic context is a key part of being literate, says Jeffrey Wilhelm, a former middle and high school teacher who is now at Boise State University, where he does research on struggling readers.

“Being literate has always meant the capacity to use a culture’s most powerful tools to create and communicate meanings,” he says. “If you’re not teaching with [technology], you’re not only not preparing the kids for the future, you’re not preparing them for the present moment.”

Technology, such as the Internet and Web 2.0 tools, makes it easier for teachers to tap into students’ interests and personalize what they are reading, he says.

For instance, during a unit about satire, Wilhelm had his students post jokes to a wiki. Afterward, the class read through the jokes and identified what made each one funny.

“We were defining satire, pastiche, misdirection,” he says, and because it was in the context of funny jokes, the students were engaged.

“Most of the technological [interventions] that I see are decontextualized,” he says, “but it’s only going to help [the student] comprehend better if [he or she] is inquiring about something [he or she] cares about.”

Katie Van Sluys, a member of the Urbana, Ill.-based National Council of Teachers of English and an associate professor of literacy at DePaul University in Chicago, also believes that using technology to connect students with meaningful audiences and resources can promote important literacy skills.

Using the Internet to go over the daily weather report with kindergartners, for example, or reading through current events with middle school students can engage children with authentic, personalized information, she says.

And using technology also provides an opportunity to teach other kinds of literacies, such as digital and media literacy, says Van Sluys.

“You have to be a savvy reader and consumer—perhaps even more so because of the types of information and the amount of information you can access,” she says. “You need to be able to say, ‘What does this mean for me? What does this mean for the world?’ That’s part of the reading curriculum.”

‘Thoughtful’ and ‘Intentional’

Internet resources can also help teachers in other content areas incorporate literacy lessons into their classrooms.

For instance, Teachers’ Domain, an online repository of free media resources for teachers run by the Boston-based WGBH Educational Foundation, provides multimedia-rich science and social studies curricula infused with literacy lessons.

“It’s really designed to give content teachers who do not necessarily know literacy strategies ... some simple guidelines on comprehension skills and building vocabulary,” says Carolyn Jacobs, the national accounts manager for Teachers’ Domain.

The lessons include a glossary of terms, videos, interactive Flash activities, and text boxes for students to submit answers in.

So far, there are about 15 lessons, with plans to create 25 more in 2011, says Jacobs.

Technology can help “extend a teacher’s reach” says Gail Lovely, a former K-8 teacher who started her own company, Lovely and Associates, to help teachers integrate technology into curriculum. However, teachers need to be careful to integrate it thoughtfully and intentionally, she says.

“My bias is that a caring adult will always read a book aloud better than a computer can,” she says. “We have to be thoughtful about where the technologies fit best.”

Using VoiceThread, for instance—which allows users to create collaborative, multimedia slide shows with images, documents, and videos—is an innovative Web resource that can be used in a thoughtful way, says Lovely. And another Web resource, Storybird, allows students to tap into a library of illustrations to create digital books, says Lovely.

“One of the cautions is that it’s not about doing the same thing with new tools. It’s about doing new things or difficult old things with tools that make it easier,” she says. “We want to use these tools in intentional ways to make a difference.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2011 edition of Digital Directions as Boosting Literacy


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