Reading & Literacy

Helping Young Readers

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 20, 2007 4 min read
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Reading specialist Anne Bonington has searched 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.

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

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.

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

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“There are some kids who need much more practice” reading a variety of content, Bonington says. “You have to be able to plunk students down in front of the program and let them work by themselves successfully. 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. As more districts look beyond the bells and whistles that have made software lessons a novel addition to the classroom to more meaningful and effective applications of technology to instruction, they are heeding the lessons learned by teachers such as Bonington.

“The software has to cause children to actively pay attention to what you want them to learn,” says Marilyn J. Adams, a prominent reading researcher 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,” she says, “and it has the unique potential to adjust materials according to the individual needs of the students.”

Individualized Programs

The ability to individualize the program is particularly valuable to teachers who organize their reading instruction around small groups and rely on structured activities that keep students productive and engaged when they have to work on their own.

“Teachers don’t have time to sit and explore all the features of a particular software program,” says Diane Morrone, a senior literacy associate at Learning Point Associates, a Chicago-based education research and policy organization. “In thinking about K-3 readers, the difficulty of the program is a big issue, and the match is really important of the material and the software to the student.”

For middle school youngsters, however, the trick is providing the kind of basic instruction that struggling students need while tailoring the content and activities to the more mature tastes of adolescents and preteenagers, according to Danielle Carnahan, who leads Learning Point’s literacy team.

“The software has to look age-appropriate,” she says. “While they may not be strong readers, they are middle school students who don’t want to do baby stuff.”

But finding products that match the curriculum and are easy to use, yet sufficiently sophisticated for tech-savvy students, can be challenging.

Even after surveying selections from hundreds of vendors at a reading convention recently, Bonington went home empty-handed. She will continue to search, she says, because of the promise of technology to give students more chances for guided practice even without one-on-one attention from the teacher.

‘Where It Works Best’

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,” says Ted S. Hasselbring, a research professor of special education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “It should not be playing the role that a teacher should play.”

Checking off a list of required or preferred features, however, is not enough, adds Hasselbring, who helped create Scholastic Inc.’s “READ 180,” a print and computer-based reading-intervention program for upper-elementary and middle school students. He advises looking for programs that are founded on the principles of research-based reading instruction and have 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,” Hasselbring advises. “And you should ask: ‘Is there evidence that this program is making a difference with kids?’ ”

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, an associate editor for Education Week, covers curriculum issues.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2007 edition of Digital Directions as Helping Young Readers

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