Building reading skills with digital literacy tools

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Teachers know that meeting students’ individual needs in a bustling classroom is a Sisyphean task. But the job may be getting easier, thanks to a variety of new digital literacy tools. Last year Debra Rook began using Newsela, a program that uses news articles about current events to build reading comprehension, and customizes each article for five different reading levels. “It provides differentiation for each student, and I can find resources I couldn’t have otherwise,” she says.

Reading levels for students in Rook’s 8th grade classroom at Chowan Middle School in Edenton, North Carolina, range from 3rd grade to 12th grade. Almost 80 percent of incoming kindergartners in the largely rural Edenton-Chowan district arrive at school without satisfactory literacy skills. That can mean a lot of catch-up for students and teachers. With Newsela, Rook can track individual and classroom progress on an online dashboard, comment on student work, and annotate lessons. Newsela provides Lexile data in real time that enables Rook and her students to see how they’re doing and to address issues as they arise. The texts are pegged to the Common Core and other state standards.

Rook also uses the program to capture student progress in a straightforward graphic screenshot to share with parents. Rook says she’s tested a number of digital literacy tools over the years and found them wanting. “If all it does is make them type instead of write, that doesn’t do it. Those are just click worksheets, and they cost a lot of money,” Rook says. “I’m looking for something transformative.” Her students recently read different versions of the same article about homelessness, depending on their reading level. At first, she says, they expressed fairly conventional ideas about who was homeless. But she encouraged them to read more, and more deeply. “They read about child homelessness and how families live with other families and realized, ‘Hey, that’s my cousin,’ and ‘That’s me,’” she says. “The entire conversation changed. They are much more engaged.”

Given how many U.S. students struggle with literacy, and how crucial reading mastery is to learning anything else, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has supported the development of Newsela and several other promising digital literacy tools and providers through its Literacy Courseware Challenge. Each offers content and tools, online tours and tutorials, and membership and pricing information on their websites. For busy teachers, the idea of learning a new computer program can be daunting. But Gina Fine, an 8th grade English teacher in Irmo, South Carolina, says that she quickly mastered Actively Learn, a digital reading program that enables her to interact with her students and monitor their progress, after a short tutorial. Her students took to Actively Learn with aplomb. “A lot of the reading they do, it’s blogs, social media, online stories,” Fine says, “so we’re meeting them where they are and using something they already like.”

Dean Deaver also uses Actively Learn in his 4th grade classroom in Riverside, California; 90 percent of the students in his school receive free or reduced-cost lunches. Deaver’s classroom is designed to make it easy for students to learn at their own pace, and collaborate. “All my students can be working on different things, and I can give quick feedback when it’s needed,” he says. “They like that.” Actively Learn’s library of fiction and nonfiction and its personalized learning tools “have opened up a new world to my students,” Deaver says. “Kids that feel held back can go at their own pace. Kids that are making slower growth can go at their own pace, with the attitude, ‘I don’t know it yet, but I’ll try it again.’” Actively Learn allows Deaver to easily read, comment on, and grade student reading and comprehension and see standards-based rubrics as students read and interact with the texts.

Each student can track their own progress, take notes, use an online dictionary, and comment on texts, ask questions about what they’re reading, and share their ideas. Being able to see their own progress and where they need more work tends to motivate his students, he says. “If they don’t get an answer right, they love to come to me and ask to try it again,” says Deaver. “I talk to them, then reset it, and they do it again.” Deaver says a student transferred into his classroom from a special education class in September, testing between a 1st and 2nd grade reading level. Actively Learn helped her with reading comprehension, and she enjoyed using the program. “She told me, ‘I can do this,’” he says. She worked in a small group, Deaver answered her questions as they came up, and she tracked her own growth. By early spring she’d made a full year’s progress.

Kevin Doyle teaches language arts to 11th grade students at the Urban Assembly School of Music and Art in Brooklyn. He’s been using the digital program LightSail since last year. LightSail has an extensive library of fiction and nonfiction, Lexile-based assessments, and real-time data in easy-to-read graphic format for teachers and students. “It gives me a very digestible stream of data that comes directly to my dashboard,” says Doyle. “I can see what [students’] needs are and respond to them quickly. They appreciate that. They are so comfortable with this technology.” Last year he had a “reluctant reader in my class who hadn’t had a lot of positive experiences with reading,” he says. “As a teacher you want to create readers. Now she’s copying out quotes and excited about what’s she’s reading. And that happens when a student is having a positive, meaningful reading experience.”