Thursday, 23 March 2017

No Problem, There’s a Tool for That!

5 Tips for Using Technology to Improve Reading

As we head into Spring Break season, its a great time to take a pause and think about how to get the most from the final push of the school year.

As publishers of technology tools, we often make the mistake of thinking about our products as the solution to the struggling reader problem.  The reality is that learning is a very complex, living process that involves human beings. As much as we take pride in the tools that we develop to assist in the process, they are just that tools.

With that in mind, here are my top five tips for using technology tools with struggling readers, gleaned from the awesome teachers who do the inspiring and complicated work everyday in the classroom.

  1.  Keep it interesting: Provide a lot of variety and use different media to engage students. Reinforce reading with video, audio and images that reinforce key concepts. Combine self-paced work with small group instructional time to go over those concepts and remediate any areas of difficulty.
  2. Reward early and often: Students who struggle with reading find it very difficult and discouraging. Teachers acknowledging the hard work their students are doing to improve their reading provides important extrinsic motivation. Set goals and make them achievable. For example, let the class suggest targets for weekly reading time and reward students who consistently hit them. Programs that include collecting and redeeming points for completed work can also help to motivate students to read. Involve parents to provide recognition beyond the classroom.
  3. Give extra credits: Struggling readers need more time to practice reading and improve their skills. Use early drop-off and after-school programs to get as much reading time into the school day as possible. Reward students (see #2) for getting extra reading time at home or after class. Reading time can be used to earn extra credits for class assignments. Some teachers hold rewards days for special prizes and recognition in front of the class and school.
  4. Make it age-appropriate: Research consistently shows that the best way to improve reading proficiency is to work with on-level text. This makes a lot of sense when you consider the deficits students need to make up when they are behind their peers in reading. Nothing is more demotivating than being treated differently from your friends. Try to find reading material that is engaging and high-interest rather than using easier material designed for younger students. Use tools that also give students the chance to increase their knowledge and confidence with grade-level standards and question types from high stakes tests.
  5. Use technology: OK, I started this blog by saying technology isn’t the solution. But it can be a powerful assistant in the learning process by complementing instruction when it’s difficult to give individual attention to every child. Technology programs that measure every keystroke and response provides data to zero in on problem areas for remediation. Technology can also take the fear factor out of reading and help to build both confidence and reading skills.

    Video can increase interest and reinforce understanding of a text.

    Got a tip for working with struggling readers? Share your ideas here or on our Facebook page.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Activating Dual Channels – Why Improving Reading Isn’t Just About the Text


My son recently celebrated his birthday. As tradition holds, he received a LEGO project from his grandparents. Given his experience with the blocks, his proud grandparents thought he was ready for a more advanced creation...but still within the "suitable age range." One afternoon, he sat down to get started. He asked me if we could work on it together as a team. He may have been a little intimidated, but he wouldn't admit it. I was happy to help. I love LEGO. Together, we could build anything.

About 30 minutes in, something wasn't right. A piece didn't fit. We looked at each other, then at the instructions, then at our project so far...then back at the instructions. We repeated this head twisting for several minutes like we were watching Wimbledon - except that we were confused...

LEGO instructions are irrefutable...a model of design. How could we go wrong? Unable to figure it out, we took it all apart and started over. Despite extra attention, we hit the same snag the second the same place. We both realized that we had been defeated. If only there was text or video to support the pictures! A quick Google search turned up nothing. We put the LEGO away.

Mulling this experience over driving to work the next day, I was reminded of the concepts of the Dual Code Theory, cognitive load and information processing. (As an instructional designer, my musings often take odd turns.) Back in the 1970s, Allan Palvio developed a theory of cognition that would influence cognitive psychology for generations.  In a nutshell, Palvio's theory is that the brain processes information along a visual and a verbal channel, and that information is better understood, retained and recalled when both channels are utilized when dealing with new information rather than just one. When combined with the brain's limited cognitive capacity - the brain can only process so much new information at one time (Sweller) - I began to understand our failure at our LEGO challenge. We only had one channel being activated (image-based instructions) and the information coming in on that one channel was too much for us to process.

When new information is presented on both the visual and the verbal channel, it's easier to process, understand and act upon. It's the reason for the rise of multimedia education, TED talks, and YouTube. Children who find it difficult to read can often sit for hours watching instructional videos because the information is presented in a way they can more easily process. As educators we can often give new information to our students that they can't digest because it is using only a single channel and is cognitively too demanding. By presenting text, for example with supporting visuals, audio, or video, the cognitive demands are reduced. Activating both codes (visual and verbal) allows information to be processed and retained more readily.

We still haven't finished our LEGO project. It's been a couple of weeks. I'm sure we'll get back to it once the sting of defeat has subsided. I can't help but think that many kids experience the same thing with their reading struggles, particularly older kids who have outgrown picture books. Knowing that they are supposed to be able to read grade-level material and then fail to comprehend it makes the struggle all the more damaging. If only there were pictures to go with the text.