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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Tech Teaches: Screen Time Isn't Necessarily a Bad Thing

Once thought to corrode reading skills, computers are a key tool in improving them.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
Related Tags: Assessment,All Grades
Credit: Drake Sorey

The transcript of a typical teenager's instant message correspondence -- full of acronyms, symbols, and misspelled and partially spelled words -- might bring despair to adults. How, asks the appalled reader, do we improve the literacy of adolescents bent on destroying it through technology?

The answer is surprising: Computers may represent TEOTWAWKI (that's "the end of the world as we know it," in the NetLingo.com dictionary) to the old-school observer, but those computers -- and the technology that fuels them -- also represent a new world of improved literacy, and not just literacy in the traditional sense. Technology promises to play a crucial role in helping adolescents cope with reading and writing deficits, at the same time teaching digital literacy, an essential skill in the world beyond school.

"There are all these new literacies that kids are engaging in that are in the workplace but haven't made their way into schools yet," says Bridget Dalton, chief officer of literacy and technology at CAST, a Massachusetts-based organization that creates educational technology for all kinds of learners. "We could create a new group of kids who have a literacy disability if we don't prepare them for working in these new environments." The International Reading Association goes so far in its position statement on technology to say students "have a right" to instruction that develops critical forms of literacy for using computers and the Web.

Despite what may appear to be grammar-busting drivel in instant messages and chat rooms, many education researchers report that the unfiltered chatter found online doesn't seriously threaten kids' literacy. Stanford University professor Michael L. Kamil, who researches literacy and technology, analyzed hundreds of random Web sites through a search engine and found that the text consistently hit an eleventh- or twelfth-grade reading level -- nearly equal to that of the New York Times, on his scale.

Clemson University researcher David Reinking, a co-editor of Reading Research Quarterly, believes kids are reading more now because of the Internet's appeal. Overall, Kamil and others say, any drawbacks of computer technology are far outweighed by its potential for aiding struggling readers, engaging kids in their learning, and leveraging instructional time to target students' individual needs.

Because computers enable kids to access text through multiple media, such as image, audio and video, they can dynamically support students' reading and expose struggling readers to stimulating content that would be out of reach to them through print alone, says Dalton. Julie Coiro, a doctoral candidate at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, adds that the interactive nature of the Internet allows readers to choose their own pathways through information in personally relevant and interesting ways.

"The technology does bring in ways of leveling the playing field," Dalton says. "Sometimes it's the kid who's the struggling reader who can actually thrive in this environment."

CAST has used software to boost students' development of reading skills. In one model, the software stops students periodically as they read and prompts them to deploy a comprehension strategy, such as summarizing the text, Dalton explains. The program, the basis for Thinking Reader software for struggling middle school readers, responds to students' individual skill levels and nudges them toward independence, giving less and less guidance over time.

The key benefits of computer-based reading lessons are simple: They help students practice reading at their own pace and give individualized instruction and immediate feedback -- all when the teacher might be occupied helping other kids, Kamil says. For example, in a study Kamil published recently in Threshold, the magazine of Cable in the Classroom, Kamil assigned fourth- and fifth-grade students to read a multimedia lesson on coral reefs with or without an "adaptive agent." The agent, an animated hermit crab, gave lessons on tough vocabulary, asked questions to monitor comprehension, and modeled good reading strategies. Both groups made gains on multiple-choice questions before and after the test, but only the crab-assisted group improved on the short answer questions, which required more inference.

Opportunities Abound

Computers also can engage students in a powerful way, broadening the opportunities to connect to a world outside school, says Mark Warschauer, professor of education and informatics at the University of California at Irvine. He tells the story of a fourth-grade teacher who, in a southern California school with many English-language learners, used Amazon.com in a literacy lesson. The exercise is detailed in Warschauer's upcoming book, Laptops and Literacy, from Teachers College Press. After reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, by Eleanor Coerr, the class critiqued readers' reviews of the book on Amazon. Armed with those self-generated lessons about what makes a good review, the children wrote their own, submitted them to Amazon, and were delighted to see their work posted,Warschauer writes.

Another tool for engagement is WebQuest, a lesson model developed at California's San Diego State University in the mid-1990s in which students embark on a guided inquiry by way of the Internet, beginning with an open-ended problem and culminating in an original solution. Webquest.org archives more than 1,500 ideas for such projects, such as sleuthing Shakespeare's identity, planning a vacation through past and present Egypt, or briefing the UN secretary-general on the situation in sub-Saharan Africa.

Though these possibilities seem inspiring, research on the effectiveness of teaching literacy through computers is thin. A review of the research sponsored by the National Science Foundation in 2003 found that technology had marginal impact on reading performance. Yet author James A.Kulik, who produced the report for SRI International, wrote that the body of work was too patchy to draw sweeping conclusions. In contrast, a 2000 report from the National Reading Panel -- a group of experts convened by Congress in 1997 to assess various reading-instruction methods -- found generally positive results in the existing research and called for more study on the best uses of technology for teaching. The results of a $10 million study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education to evaluate reading software are due out in April.

But researchers warn that educators should not focus simply on the ways that technology can teach traditional reading skills. What also needs to be investigated, they say, are ways to teach the sophisticated skills needed to navigate information and communication online.

Donald J. Leu, John and Maria Neag Endowed Chair of Literacy and Technology at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, says the process -- and sometimes the purpose -- of reading online can be profoundly different than those for reading print. To be digitally literate, Leu argues, students must identify an important problem or question, pinpoint information within an unchecked world of resources, critically evaluate material for bias and reliability, synthesize information from disparate texts, and effectively communicate through email, blogs, and other forums. Those aren't technology issues to be relegated to computer class, he says; those are literacy issues. Both books and computers are technologies for reading.

As Elizabeth Birr Moje, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Educational Studies at the University of Michigan, sees it, the ultimate benefit of technology in teaching reading comes down to a simple maxim: It's all about how you use it. "The potential in technology is enormous; of course, there are lots of risks, too," says Moje.

Without proper supervision, explains Moje, some readers could become dependent on high-tech crutches to understand text. Or the vast scope of the Internet could habituate students to seeking breadth over depth of learning experience. That's no reason to fear computers in teaching or miss out on all they can provide.

This coverage was made possible in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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