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Best Practices: Struggling Readers

5 Missed Opportunities to Help Struggling Readers and What You Can Do About Them

By Julie Wood | October/Novermber 2005

Most kids who are struggling readers and writers have a natural affinity for computers and other gadgets. Yet they often have only limited opportunities to apply new tools in ways that excite them and help them develop their literacy skills.

Why the disconnect? Considering how far we’ve come in integrating technology into education over the past dozen years, why is it that students who have the most to gain from what new tools can offer are often denied them?

As an education consultant, I consider this paradox when working with teachers and administrators in schools in urban Boston and its suburbs. Examples of missed opportunities portrayed below are

  • failure to use adaptive tools for students with special needs
  • ineffective assessment measures for English Language Learners
  • relegating low-achieving students to drill-and-practice software routines
  • not guiding student researchers to stellar resources on the web
  • failure to employ computers to take young writers from draft to final publication

The good news is that with some careful analysis and planning, each of these opportunities can be exploited.

1. Adaptive technologies (for example, adaptive keyboards, electronic books with built-in supports) have yet to be widely implemented in schools, despite their ability to transform literacy learning.
Thirteen-year-old Tanya is a spirited girl who has been identified as language impaired. Although highly creative, she has difficulty expressing her ideas in writing. Her special needs teacher shows her how to diagram her ideas using paper and markers as a prewriting activity. He also helps her start a pencil-and-paper draft, but then has her work independently. Tanya tries to keep up the momentum, but spelling has always been anathema to her. She clutches her pencil, then freezes up. By the end of the period she has little to show for her efforts, except for multiple erasures and a few handwritten sentence fragments.

Tanya’s classmates also have individual needs. One boy with fine-motor problems struggles with orthography, or letter formation, when trying to write down his ideas. Standard keyboards also pose physical challenges for him. Another classmate is visually impaired. An enthusiastic reader, she has already read all the available large-print books in the school library and now waits for her teacher to read aloud to her.

What can an educator do?
Adaptive technologies can have a dramatic impact on literacy development for Tanya and her peers in the special needs classroom. Adaptive hardware, such as specialized keyboards, or software that reads back what the child has typed or anticipates the next word in the sentence as a child composes, can be the stepping stones these kids need to make real progress:

At OSEP you’ll find information about educational leadership and grants aimed at improving services for children with disabilities. You can also find resources for implementing the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

2. Statewide testing has displaced more authentic ways of assessing literacy development.
One morning in May, Marcel, a child who immigrated to the Boston area from Haiti two years ago, removes everything from the top of his desk. He, along with his fourth-grade classmates, is about to take the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), a statewide test. Marcel is fluent in Haitian Creole and understands many French words and phrases. Although he is rapidly learning to speak English, he finds reading and writing in his new language confusing, given all the contradictory rules. Faced with the circle-the-correct-answer format of the MCAS, Marcel panics. His communicative abilities are severely compromised. He will probably not get the right answers on the test. Will his teachers think he has learned nothing all year?

What can an educator do?
The best assessment programs incorporate different types of evaluation tools, from formal (for example, the MCAS) to informal (such as the Developmental Reading Assessment, or DRA). The portfolio assessment strategy—with its emphasis on project-based learning and student reflection on the process—can enrich teaching and learning by offering a realistic portrait of a student’s accomplishments over time and across disciplines. But how does technology come into play? Students can both create projects on computers and archive them electronically on a web site or CD-ROM. For inspiration, check out these web sites:

See also “Create, Grade, Prosper” by Pamela Wheaton Shorr in the August 2005 issue of Scholastic Administr@tor. 

3. High-achieving students are often assigned to the coolest, most cognitively challenging software applications, while less proficient students are relegated to drill-and-practice routines.

Jerome, a ninth grader who has been assigned to an Advanced Placement English class, is using a professional-quality graphics program to lay out a school newspaper. Jerome has been voted editor in chief; it’s up to him to coordinate all the news, feature, and sports articles along with the graphics. Over the past several months Jerome has learned how to manage his team and how to edit articles to fit the available space. Moreover, he has developed an appreciation for the processes—in which writing skills play no small role—that come into play when publishing a real newspaper such as The Boston Globe, whose offices are just down the street.

Back in a general education classroom, a girl named Tracy plugs away at her computer. She is practicing her grammar skills by filling in the blanks; for every correct answer she earns a point. Although Tracy, who has played the same game multiple times, earns high scores, she is never asked to apply the grammar lessons to an authentic piece of writing.

At the next computer, Tracy’s classmate Miles answers literal comprehension questions about a chapter book he has just read, also using a fill-in-the-blank format. Once he has finished answering the questions, he’ll print out his score on the computer and hand it in to his teacher. The book will go back on the shelf—end of story. It’s unlikely that Miles will be called upon to interpret the characters’ motives or make connections with other titles he has read in the series. Miles will be psyched to have racked up more electronic points, but is he really developing a love of literature?

What can an educator do?
For greater equity among AP students and those in general education classes, seek out open-ended software applications that model real-life situations. Software that both motivates and challenges struggling readers and writers beyond drill-and-practice routines can have a profound impact on their literacy development. Here are a few guidelines, which I’ve excerpted from my book Literacy Online and adapted from The Connected School. Evaluate the projects your students engage in by asking the following questions:

Does the software or web site

  • emulate the ways in which professional readers, writers, and communicators use technology?
  • involve complex tasks, such as conducting research, summarizing findings using one’s own words, and presenting information?
  • require significant amounts of time for completion, as with online journals and collaborative writing projects?
  • give students latitude in designing their own products and in determining when and how to use technology in reading and language arts?
  • involve multiple academic disciplines, as in extending literacy skills across science, social studies, and math?
  • provide opportunities for student collaboration with peers and outside experts in ways that incorporate authentic reading and writing tasks?

4. The Internet abounds with first-rate primary source material, yet students often rely on questionable, second-rate information that they find through electronic searches.
Tenth graders in Miss Nelson’s class are creating multimedia scrapbooks focused on the Reconstruction period following the Civil War. Some students catch on to the research process quickly, typing in Reconstruction, freed slaves, and so on, into Google. The problem is that these types of searches call up an astonishing number of documents. Some material is posted on legitimate sites like libraries, while other texts consist of “facts” pulled together by people who lack the relevant credentials.
It takes sophisticated research skills to be able to navigate one’s way through such a morass of information. Often, fledgling researchers panic; to hedge their bets they decide to print everything, unwittingly jamming up the printer for hours.

What can an educator do?
The research process can be daunting even for us as adults. Why not bookmark the web sites that set industry standards? A starting place for high school students would be the PBS site American Experience. Here, they can tap into resources for Reconstruction: The Second Civil War, which includes a state-by-state map depicting what happened after the war, and several mini-documentaries.

Primary Source Materials:

5. Computer software can support process writing in a dozen different ways. Yet students often use computers merely as a vehicle for inputting their final drafts—not to support each stage in the process.
Marla, a fifth-grade student with attention deficit disorder (ADD), loves writer’s workshop. Today Mr. Taylor presents a mini-lesson on using figurative language. Marla, never at a loss for what to write about, will begin a new draft. She’ll try her best to incorporate at least one simile and one metaphor into a short piece of fiction. Then she’ll cram her rough draft into her writing folder along with many other compositions.

The problem is that all Marla’s drafts end up in a jumbled heap, with poems from the fall intermingled with snatches of realistic fiction from the spring. A related problem is that Marla finds it hard to settle on just one idea to revise and polish, despite Mr. Taylor’s repeated urging. Marla needs a way to keep careful track of her work, and to learn how to focus on one piece, taking it from the prewriting to final-draft stage.

What can an educator do?
Several software applications designed to support process writing could help Marla approach her compositions the way professional writers do. Such tools could help her get organized. They could also make it easy to mark up drafts for revision, write in multiple text genres (for example, a persuasive essay, a science report), and polish her work for publication:

For younger students:

For older adolescents:

For middle and high school students:

We have come a long way as educators when it comes to bending new tools to rich educational purposes. But we can set the bar even higher so that we eliminate the types of missed opportunities described here.

At the end of the day, we want to be sure that we offer students every opportunity to reach their full potential as readers, writers, and communicators. New tools, used wisely, can surely help.

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