Literacy Disrupted

Coming soon to classrooms: the joy of reading (on tablets).

GUEST COLUMN | by Gideon Stein

CREDIT LightSail EducationWhat are your students reading? Great fiction and non-fiction texts that are a pleasure to read? If so, count them among the fortunate few. Reading has become an unwelcomed chore for the vast majority of students in public, charter and private schools throughout the country. There are many reasons for this, including uninspired made-by-committee textbooks, understandably distracted students, and teachers who need professional development and support to help children enjoy reading.

The catastrophic result is that, according the National Center for Education Statistics, a shockingly low 33 percent of American students are proficient in reading by eighth grade. Tragically, most of the others never catch up. Student readiness for college-level reading, according to the ACT, is at its lowest in over a decade.

In recognition of our national failure to make good books, love of reading and support for reading instruction part of every school’s literacy program, 46 states have mandated a return to quality reading, including texts of literary and historic value, in the form of the Common Core State Standards.

The good news, whatever your stance on the Common Core, is that there simply is no better way – some would argue no other means – to build students’ comprehension and cognition skills than for them to engage consistently, purposefully and more pleasurably with books. And digital tablets are making that possible.

There has been a lot written on technology’s potential to “disrupt” American education for better or, some believe, worse. But while there may be legitimate reasons for concern about the over-use of technology in the classroom, digital tablets offer an extraordinary opportunity to impact literacy rates by improving the quality of students’ reading, supporting teachers, and helping administrators scaffold their schools’ enhanced reading program. And all of this can be done using tablets for a relatively small part of a child’s instructional day.

Digital tablets – iPads, and others – are among history’s fastest-growing educational tools. More than 5 million iPads have already been sold to U.S. schools, many in our largest districts.  This rapid adoption of tablets is being driven by educators who see their promise – in exciting students, certainly, but also in bringing a wealth of instructional materials, including materials familiar to us pre-tablet students, into often under-resourced classrooms.

Using a tablet, students can access worthwhile books when they need them, where they need them. Publishers are now supporting the development of classroom e-libraries, providing best sellers and classics to schools at cost-effective prices.

Tablets support teachers, too. Educational software monitors students’ comprehension as they read, through third-party validated assessments and other analytic tools. This way, teachers know when students need help and can provide it immediately, face-to-face. The same digital tools can instantly aggregate data on classrooms’ progress toward Common Core mastery for administrators, who in turn can make certain that teachers who aren’t supporting students effectively receive the coaching they need.

These changes are already taking place in urban classrooms. In my work, I have heard from teachers whose lives have been made not just easier but more rewarding because of what tablets are doing for their literacy program. I have seen at-risk students reading on tablets long after being dismissed for lunch – because the books they were reading were that good.

If this is the disruption pundits have been predicting, it looks a lot like joy.

Gideon Stein, CEO and founder of LightSail Education, is Vice Chairman of the Education News Network and serves on the boards of New Classrooms and The Moriah Fund, a private foundation.

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