Contributing Author: Kristina Walton
As technology has increased its reach into every facet of our lives, our hope for its impact has also increased. For many teachers, our classroom’s center is our Smart Board, and every student is assigned their own computer. For many students, added practices using technology are engaging, deepen understanding, and allow for access at home as well. For students who are behind in achievement, the ones we work so hard to not “leave behind,” our use of technology-based interventions holds even more promise.
Let’s look at Stephanie. In school, the reading specialist gets to see Stephanie -- a fifth grader who is a year behind in reading -- twice a week for 22 minutes with four other students. In intervention, the teacher rotates through some stations so that she gets a few minutes with each student. A computer program for phonics is used a reading fluency component is employed and, while the teacher works at the table with hands-on materials, the tech-based programs collect the much needed progress monitoring data. Every few weeks, the teacher uses her one-on-one time to take a fluency score, and to collect other needed data that apply to Stephanie’s particular goals. We hope that Stephanie, who is intelligent and funny and savvy, who clearly has some individual learning challenges around reading, will close her year’s wide reading gap because she is with a specialist working on the tasks she needs to develop, at regular intervals every week. We measure her progress and we can see that she is improving at the identified skills. Meanwhile, though, Stephanie’s fifth grade class is practically soaring toward sixth grade standards. Even if Stephanie increases her skills from a fourth grade level to a fifth grade level in fifth grade; in sixth grade, she’ll still be a year behind. Stephanie needs more individualized practice, tailored to her.
Stephanie’s parents come to me, after they are about half-way through fourth grade. They want tutoring for two hours a week. I’m happy to take her on, but I also know, from studying Stephanie’s scores, and watching her read, that she needs a lot more reading practice. For homework, Stephanie is doing her reading log (silently), her spelling words (repeated copying), and some math problems. I want to replace everything she is currently doing with reading practices. I ask Stephanie’s parents, her teachers, and Stephanie to trust me. If we can take six weeks, the amount of time the brain needs to acquire patterns that lend to reliable pathways or “habits,” and practice specific skills, I tell them, her reading will take a tremendous leap. We all agree that with added practices that are intense and last for a duration, that Stephanie, who has a solid reading foundation, could close that reading gap by more than just a year.
Stephanie is not applying reading strategies with fidelity. What I need to do is train her to pick one or two strategies and use them. I can’t possibly be next to her every time she reads, so I use technology to close another gap in my instructional reach. Each evening she Skypes me. From there we review our strategies. One of the things she does, that makes me giggle, is she over-applies the “leap frog” strategy of sounding out an unknown word, except Steph never really “fixes” the word after she jumps over it. She doesn’t stop and try to chunk the word, and finally, she doesn’t simply stop and look at individual sounds. She’s trying to “get through” the reading. My other favorite strategy of hers is that she tries to “remember” words. She explained it this way, “Oh, I saw that word in class, I know it…it’s…” and from there she will literally throw in words that she thinks might match the word in front of her. Of course, for her, these strategies aren’t efficient. She thinks they’re “easy” or her most accessible strategies, but they just aren’t. We have to replace these bad habits with new ones.
So there we are on our screens, she’s reading a passage that I printed out for her that is on Front Row. The reading is right under her independent reading level, so it should come easily enough that we can focus on the lesson: applying strategies. Steph and I stop at the tough words and apply chunking and sound by sound. She starts to see that once she slows down and applies the individual letter sounds to chunks or even just letter by letter, she starts to “read” the word and have that beautiful moment where the word she applies “makes sense” in the sentence. From this exercise, I know I can now give some tech-based practices that are super-focused on words. To assess her all along the way, I take baseline reading scores on every passage, after we practice it several times together, I take another score. Finally, once I think she’s mastered a passage, she can log onto her Front Row and read the passage and answer the questions. For her, this is exciting, because she knows she’s going to do well.
I used technology to do several things for Stephanie. I asked her to immerse herself in daily practices; technology allowed me to access Stephanie every day. I got the parents to trust me around the issue of using technology as the primary means with which to increase Stephanie’s exposure to texts, the words, and the reading skills needed for them. I essentially promised that if Stephanie and they could use these tech-based interventions with fidelity, that Stephanie would read more confidently. I trained Stephanie how to use a tech-based resource in a way that supports her where she is, increases her face to face time with a facilitator, and increases her confidence in using those tools on her own. She also learned that when I send her to work on skills by herself, without my bobbing screen-head asking her questions, that her mistakes are okay, they are, in fact, the things I love the most. She can dialogue with me in a relaxed way about all the things she finds “hard” that she “doesn’t like.”
I know, from research, that if the intensity and frequency of practice is increased, and go on for a duration, that Stephanie will improve. The dilemma is always in the when, how and where? Technology promises our neediest students that if they “use” it, they will get “smarter.” Teachers are the foundation of this promise in this new learning paradigm. When we tell our parents that our uses of technology will make a difference, we must remember that how we use our tools still matters. Parents always say, “Oh they have a great teacher this year, we’re very hopeful,” but we can do more than just hope, we can fulfill the promise. We can teach trust and reap the benefit with results.
Kristina Walton is Director of Project Youth Learning and Leadership, a small non-profit that works to increase student achievement. She’s a licensed teacher of Elementary, Special Education k-12, and English Language Arts. She holds a BA in Special Education and an MFA in creative writing. Each year, Kris works directly with a handful of students and their families, while also continuing to research and develop as a teacher. This year she is launching Dys* Magazine (https://dysmagazine.wordpress.com), an online publication for student work. She’s a published author of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.