Tech and the Race to Read: the Case for Early Literacy

A Houston library services specialist finds that the addition of technology motivates learning, helping both students and teachers overcome the challenges of low reading achievement.
boytech"I learned to read in a snap!" exclaimed an excited four year old. The magic of the moment permeated the entire room and shouts of "me too!" burst forth. While these exclamations seem to suggest the kids felt as if the acquisition of the ability to read was effortless, it was the result of numerous hours of hard work, on the part of the student, the teacher, and the parents. Learning to decipher the symbols on a page and to make sense of their meaning is a skill that is foundational to academic success. These students are well on their way to meeting the goal of grade level reading. Grade level reading leverages the idea that the predictive power of reading on level by third grade is significant and persistent. The problems that evolve because of poor reading proficiency by grade three have been well documented in the research and are the impetus behind efforts to mobilize around early literacy. Early literacy is at the forefront of the Houston Independent School District's (HISD) Literacy by 3 campaign. Launched in 2014, Literacy by 3, aims to ensure that all third graders read at or above grade level by the year 2019.  The initiative involved extensive professional development for classroom personnel and the provision of classroom sets of leveled print titles. Many would argue that the addition of technology brings a motivational effect to learning that can help both students and teachers overcome the challenges of low reading achievement.

Setting the stage for success

The idea that grade level reading is a foundational skill for success in other content areas is supported by numerous professional organizations. The American Library Association (ALA), the International Literacy Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) are among the many. Teaching children to read comprises a large portion of early education and the successful attainment of the ability to read is the subject of much public examination. Regular testing of students’ reading ability has been the norm throughout our nation. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002 promoted the idea of systematic testing to assess the reading ability of American children. NCLB included other education reforms intended to ensure that all students were successfully reading on level by grade three. The phenomenon of high stakes testing and accountability requirements created a sense of urgency in implementing programs and practices designed to produce dramatic academic gains for students in high poverty schools and mitigating the persistent achievement gap that exists between minority and non-minority students. Evidence of the documented effects of persistent poverty demonstrates a clear connection between school success and upward mobility in adulthood. According to the research of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a growing body of other research confirms that inadequate reading proficiency by grade three is the precursor to a host of difficulties, the most devastating of which is not attaining a high school diploma. The recently enacted Every Student Succeeds Act, which supersedes NCLB, places emphasis upon the importance of students entering kindergarten with the requisite knowledge to be academically successful from cradle to career. This latest Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization seeks to create a culture of sustained teaching and learning that begins before the child enters formal education at kindergarten.

Learning to Read

Reading is a multifaceted activity involving both cognitive and affective domains, reading experience, contexts, and a dynamic process of reader to text interaction. The most dramatic shifts in reading proficiency occur in the years between preschool and third grade. The instructional practices and reading behaviors during this critical time often mean the difference between excited capable readers and struggling readers. The case for grade level reading is widely accepted and the diffusion of technology into K-12 settings has provided a wealth of digital tools with which to accomplish this goal.

The Technology Playground

In the ever-changing landscape of learning environments, strategies and techniques for teaching reading abound. With the proliferation of technology, great hope was placed in the possibility that technology would increase educational attainment, narrow the achievement gap, and minimize the problems of poor attendance, high dropout rates, and discipline issues present among students living in high poverty areas. Technology in the K-12 environment initially sought to put computers in the classroom, but as mobile technology has risen in popularity there has been widespread adoption of tablets and their apps across grade levels. The Rand Corporation found that emerging technologies afford interactive and engaging ways to support young learners in their efforts to become competent readers. The introduction of computers and the rapid proliferation of technology in K-12 educational settings have fundamentally changed the definition of what it means to be literate. The organization NCTE posits, "The 21st century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies are multiple, dynamic, and malleable." Emerging technologies, especially in the K-12 setting, continue to flourish and digital literacy is increasingly more important. Digital literacy, as defined by ALA, “is the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills." This digital transformation presents both challenges and opportunities for increasing the reading proficiency of some struggling readers.

Engaging Early Learners

After successfully applying for the Department of Education's Innovative Approaches to Literacy grant, mobile devices were available to students through our campus library. The IAL program supports the literacy efforts of high need local educational agencies through quality literacy programming in school libraries. The program, known as Project REALITY, was instituted at ten of Houston ISD’s lowest performing schools and each campus was the recipient of iPad carts. The program coordinator, Gloria Dennis and elementary school librarian, Elizabeth Awani-Holmes, took on the task of finding and implementing developmentally appropriate uses for the iPad carts. Although there was no formal criterion for the apps for the iPads, research from the RAND Corporation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Common Sense Media guided the decisions. Additional considerations for learning apps included the presence of the five components of effective reading instruction from the National Reading Panel (phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) as well as the presence of text to speech capability and the incorporation of social interaction, requiring questioning and discussion among students, parents, and teachers. Anecdotally, many people surmise that children and technology are perfectly matched and that students who have never known a world without multimedia intuitively know how to use technology with scholarly intent. The fact is, though, that technology competently integrated into reading instruction supplements the skill and insight of knowledgeable teachers. The deployment of the iPads was intended to be in conjunction with adult guidance. Evaluating software, websites, and apps is both time consuming and labor intensive. Providing new learning resources for early literacy development is an evolving process and more nuanced selection criterion now includes technologies supported by Universal Design principles, data capacity, a balance of passive and sedentary activities, scaffolding, and assessments.

Sharing What We Learned

It soon became clear that the plethora of mobile resources required a method of curation to facilitate optimal location and the ability to share with families and other educators. Several social bookmarking tools were tried, but Symbaloo proved to be the most efficient method of managing the websites, apps, and teacher resources. Some of the resources met the established criteria for use in early literacy instruction, but many are simply useful for their entertainment value and the fact that they can be used on devices other than iOS.   Janice Newsum, M.Ed., MLIS is a library services specialist in the Houston Independent School District Department of Library Services.              

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