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School Libraries

A Digital Library Spawns More Reading

At a high school in Florida, ebooks transformed student reading habits—and improved proficiency across a wide range of students.

April 30, 2021
Anna Castro and Zoe Milenkovic

You’ve probably come across the indictments of digital reading again and again. Some say turning pages is critical from a cognitive perspective (and that “digital reading breeds overconfidence”) and that even though kids are digital natives and might prefer reading on devices, their reading comprehension is better with print—even if they think it’s better on a device. In 2016, Edweek fussed about schools pushing digital textbooks. Scrolling is said to negatively affect comprehension. Still others maintain that the smell of print books with its “hints of vanilla...as well as grassy notes” fosters a love of reading.

Fair enough, I suppose.

But I’m about to tell you a story that might make you question the academic and popular hand-wringing over the rise of e-reading.

The Baseline

Just a few years ago, Cypress Bay High School, where I am a media specialist and ELA teacher, had a sadly underused space: a 6,000 square foot library that housed a collection of 28,000 aging fiction and nonfiction books. In the 2013-2014 academic year, we had 4,500 students and fewer than 400 library checkouts. Fifteen Macs lined one wall, and on the rare occasion that a student was in the library, they weren’t reading or checking out books—they were glued to a Mac, cruising social media or printing materials for class.

With Cypress Bay’s 10-year accreditation renewal looming, our leadership questioned the library’s purpose. If physical books weren’t being opened, learning wasn’t happening, and literacy proficiency rates among our high schoolers were stalled.

Digitization of our resources was in order.

Creation of The Digital Wave

In 2014, Broward County residents approved an $800 million bond to renovate and repair schools, as well as invest in ed tech. Cypress Bay got $100,000 from the bond issue, and our stakeholders (parents, students, teachers, and administrators) agreed to channel it toward transforming the library into a digital media center.

In 2016, the languishing library was transformed into the Wave. We retained 5,000 print titles that framed a media center equipped with 100 laptops students could check out and collaboration areas.

Most importantly, we invested in a collection of 10,000 Overdrive ebooks and academic research databases including SIRS ProQuest Issues Researcher, which provides authoritative content related to the most-studied social issues, and GALE, which includes access to primary sources, literary criticism, and biographies, and connects to CANVAS, so teachers can provide students with direct access to materials. An online science magazine joined our collection, too. Every bit of this was available to kids 24-7.

At the time, my own reaction was tepid. I was skeptical because of what the research (and my teacher colleagues) said about kids and ebooks, plus I had my own personal preference, as an English teacher, for printed books. I remembered my sense of accomplishment after reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, one of the longest novels ever written, in 10th grade. Would Cypress Bay’s students be as gratified by scrolling on a tablet as I was by turning physical pages?

Results (Way) Beyond Expectations

We expected to double student engagement with our media materials the first year; instead, they increased tenfold. At the end of our first digital year (2016-2017), students had spent over 6,000 hours doing research with our academic databases and checked out over 4,000 ebooks through Sora, Overdrive's digital library service and student reading app—a 1,000% increase over the previous year.

Checkouts of ebooks continued to grow after that first year, and we are now on pace to exceed 10,000 checkouts over the course of the 2020-21 school year—a 2,400% increase from where we started. That’s not just because of the pandemic: In 2020, we had 4,000 unique users, which is impressive in a school with a student population of 4,500, and in April alone of last year, at the start of remote learning, students opened over 3,000 books and read for 1,600 hours on school-issued laptops and their smartphones.

Audio versions of novels are also a huge success among our students who prefer listening to fiction assignments: fifteen percent of our checkouts are audiobooks.

As for our achievement levels? Those increased, too. Florida End-Of-Course assessments are scored from 1-5, with a 3 considered passing. Back in 2014, 79% of our students reached Level 3 and higher in ELA achievement. Now that figure stands at 83%—a modest but healthy improvement.

One of our users, Vivek, is just one of many Wave regulars. “I have always wanted to read Marvel comics and I couldn’t find them at the public library. That’s how I was introduced to Sora at the Wave,” he told me. The year after he started checking out Marvel comics, he joined our Sora reading challenge, in which students collected badges for completing reading tasks (e.g., A Moment to Spare: reading for five minutes at least five times a day or Early Worm: reading before 7 am). Vivek earned 29 out of 30 badges in a month, winning the competition and a Chromebook to boot.

This year Vivek went to India to visit his grandmother. He has continued Cypress Bay classes online and accesses our digital library from thousands of miles away. “The other day I downloaded a biography on my favorite person: Elon Musk. I can read anywhere and without hesitation,” he told me. “The Wave’s digital content is on my phone, it’s simple and portable, I always have it with me. I don’t remember ever carrying around a book with me.”

Vivek embodies my philosophy: “A passionate reader will be a proficient reader.” He came to the Wave looking for comics, not academic content. Now he reads both.

The Equity Piece

You might think, as you’re reading this, “Well, that’s all well and good, but surely this isn’t a very diverse school.” But that’s not the case: Cypress Bay reflects the diversity of Weston, the city that it serves. Minorities make up 63 percent of the total student enrollment (53 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian, and 3 percent Black).

We hoped that in addition to making books accessible digitally—including via students’ smartphones—we could also diversify our content offerings. Some students who struggle with reading are often not identifying with or relating to the text. They struggle with stories and even words that may have little to do with the world they know. To counter that, we offered a digital curation of diverse digital titles with recommendations from School Library Journal, Junior Library Guild, and Project Lit.

Of course, this diversification could support our Hispanic students, but the truth was they were already doing relatively well. (Several years ago, this population was recognized for having one of the top high school AP test passing rates in the nation. Many moved to the area from South America in the early aughts.) Our Black students were struggling: Five years ago, their pass rate on Florida assessments was 55 percent. We wondered if more opportunities to see themselves in the books they read would make a difference in their reading proficiency.

The answer is yes. By the end of the 2018-2019 school year, after four years of access to the Wave’s collections, Black students at Cypress Bay had improved reading scores on Florida’s assessments from a 55 percent pass rate to an 81 percent pass rate, an increase of roughly 47 percent.

Meanwhile, six percent of our students are active English Language Learners. When we created the Wave, we committed to supplying ebooks in those students’ native languages (primarily Spanish). We now offer about 350 Spanish-language books and a Chinese-language collection of 200 books, as well as titles in Hebrew, French, and German.

All of our ebooks from Sora have features like text definitions (students highlight any word in the text and the definition appears). Our digital content also provides access to Google Translate within the text so students have word’s meaning at their fingertips instead of guessing with context clues. Finally, our digital database partners GALE and SIRS provide students access to Microsoft Immersion Reader, which translates the text in academic articles into multiple languages. Our collection of over 2,000 audiobooks also provide modeled reading in English for our ELLs.

The results, in just one year? From the end of 2018 to the end of 2019, our ELL achievement levels on the Florida State Assessment increased from 63.9 percent to 67.7 percent, an increase of nearly 6 percent.

Tech-assisted reading

About seven percent of students at Cypress Bay are identified as SWD (Students With Disabilities). Our digital content supports students with learning and vision disabilities with all sorts of readability features—students can adjust the font, size, and contrast of the text, as well as dyslexie typeface, a tool that helps some of our struggling readers the most. (Designed by a member of the dyslexic community, dyslexie font bottom weights letters, creating a grounding line which alleviates flipping of letters for some students.) Our students with disabilities can also access digital read alongs, which provide visual and audio reading experiences at their grade level.

After the  2018-2019 school year, our SWD achievement level increased from 43.5 percent to 48.8 percent (a 12.4 percent increase) over the previous year; the increase over five years was 27 percent.

The academic transformation of our school has met with statewide recognition. At the end of the 2018-2019 school year, with a 3 percent student achievement growth over three years, Cypress Bay was named a Best and Brightest School by the Florida Department of Education.

A review of data at the granular level made it clear that access to digital content helped learning gaps for all students and increased engagement. It also made this skeptic a true believer. But even better, it transformed our school into one recognized for its culture of reading. 

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