Rescue Me

Student literacy in crisis? Digital technology to the rescue.

GUEST COLUMN | by Gideon Stein

CREDIT LightSail tabletsLast month, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a report that found that two-thirds of all entering fourth graders aren’t reading proficiently – and 80 percent of all low-income kids are struggling readers.  As we know from earlier reports, students who fall behind as early as third grade are nearly guaranteed to stay behind. Given these terrible statistics, here’s a truth we can’t afford to ignore: growing great readers is a matter of making sure students stay simultaneously engaged and challenged by texts. But for schools

Earlier this month, EdNET reported that nearly 75 percent of curriculum directors said it was important that materials were available in digital format.

nationwide, this isn’t just difficult; it’s impossible, due to an insidious combination of shortcomings:

1. Students don’t readily have access to the books that will engage them and make reading exciting.   Between resource shortages, storage problems, and sheer material fragility, there is a dearth of great books available for many classrooms.

2. Even in classrooms with a decent collection of titles, many teachers cannot keep abreast of their students’ level of reading comprehension, so they are unable to monitor whether kids are reading the level of material that will stimulate the most growth.

You may be wondering how the one third of 4th graders – and one fifth of impoverished 4th graders – who are actually proficient readers managed to reach this goal, given the circumstances.   It can be said that most of those students have been lucky enough – through home life or excellent educational institutions or both – to have done the volume of challenging reading needed to build their comprehension skills.

To provide every student a fair chance at a productive life, schools must become far more effective at providing students with the books they need when they need them, and monitoring their growing comprehension skills. That’s where digital technology can help.

Earlier this month, EdNET reported that nearly 75 percent of curriculum directors said it was important that materials were available in digital format. Anyone who has ever dealt with educational purchasing and storage immediately understands the appeal. Digital materials can circulate throughout a school instantaneously and they don’t need to be requested and retrieved from storage. Digital materials cannot be defaced, lost, or forgotten at home. They save serious time and money, both of which are a premium in K-12.

The advantages don’t stop there. Digital materials can easily incorporate tools that assess students’ level of comprehension. That information can drive the delivery of personalized content targeted to students’ changing needs.

Adaptive technology is a fairly well-known strategy in the world of math instruction at this point – math lends itself to a clearly defined progression of skills. Products such as DreamBox Learning Math, ST Math and holistic instructional programs such as New Classrooms can serve up lessons based on what simple diagnostics determine are a student’s deficits.

A comparable strategy is also available in the literacy world. Thanks to computational linguistics and the work of psychometricians, we are now able to measure a text’s complexity as well as monitor a student’s level of comprehension of that text. As students move toward perfect comprehension of one text, they are immediately provided with more complex texts. This seemingly simple act of moving students up a staircase of text complexity is one of the key drivers to advancing literacy rates among students.

It may sound simple, but for most classrooms, it’s revolutionary. Today, the only way a teacher is able to come up with a reliable measure of a student’s reading level is through an individual assessment – a process that can take 20 to 30 minutes per child. Since their assessments cut into teachers’ instructional time, they are done infrequently and in many cases schools don’t do them at all.  As a result, many students are not being properly challenged – a conclusion sadly supported by the nation’s sagging literacy scores.

Moreover, digital materials can generate data that allow for transparency around both students’ progress toward grade level as well as Common Core standards and teacher practice. How long are students reading each day? How many notes do they take? How often do teachers respond to those notes?

Curriculum directors and technology managers understand this, according to the above noted EdNET report where more than half of all surveyed predicted that digital will replace print within three years.

As schools struggle to optimize learning for their students, rise to the Common Core, and live within budget, digital literacy materials are not just a breakthrough. They are one of the silver bullets.

Gideon Stein is founder and CEO of Lightsail Education. He has raised over $50 million for education reform-related not for profit organizations and serves on the board of a foundation with an endowment in excess of $100 million that funds education reform around the globe. He is Vice Chairman of the Education News Network, Green Dot New York Charter High School, and New Classrooms, the nation’s leading organization focused on delivering individualized instruction. He co-founded and was formerly President of Future Is Now Schools, and was founder, Chairman, and CEO of the enterprise messaging company Omnipod, Inc. (now a division of Symantec). Contact him through Lightsail Education.

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  • R. Jean Gustafson


    Are you serious? There are so many survey’s and reports out there and you grab ONE that says we have to go digital? What about all of the studies showing our littlest students NEED print; they are not making the jump in understanding from the digital texts. They do not see the story in the same way. What about the studies showing that the BEST and most reliable factor in higher reading scores is a fully funded school library managed by a certificated full-time Teacher Librarian? Lastly, did you even look to see the numbers of students who do not have access to digital tools? The very same kids you talked about do not have computers/digital tools or even Internet at home.

  • Molly


    Wait a minute – what about school libraries, staffed with professional teacher librarians? We have long been at the fore front of reading, technology, and literature trends. We know what kids like to read and how. What is lacking in many states is a requirement that all schools have a well stocked, professionally staffed library with a budget.
    Start your research here:

  • Realist


    This article acknowledges that students at schools in low-income areas tend to struggle more with reading, yet doesn’t acknowledge that cost is a major prohibitive factor in buying e-reader devices and e-books. Students in low-income areas are less likely to have access to the technology necessary for reading e-books outside of the school, and the school would therefore need to have e-readers or similar devices available for student check out. And e-readers CAN be “defaced, lost, or forgotten at home.”

  • Heather Mitchell


    Your article states, “we are now able to measure a text’s complexity as well as monitor a student’s level of comprehension of that text” but I would argue that what is being measured is book level, not complexity as defined by Common Core. There is a tremendous difference between the two which is obvious by looking at the level of a Dear Dumb Diary book versus that of The Girl of Fire and Thorns. The former has a much higher book level, that latter is complex. And as for measuring the comprehension of the text via technology, in my experience what is usually measured is recall, not comprehension. If there truly is something out there that accurately measures complexity and comprehension, I would love to know what it is.

  • Michelle Kelley


    “Digital materials cannot be defaced, lost, or forgotten at home.” No, but the expensive devices on which they READ these items certainly can be. I completely agree with the author’s first main point – that children don’t have access to enough quality reading materials. One important reason provided is the lack of resources. I have no idea how a school without the funding to provide reading material can suddenly afford the author’s solution = digital devices + reading content (since that still has to be purchased separately) + assumed tech support for the devices and digital content. It doesn’t make sense. Research indicates reading on digital devices leads to a decrease in recall, is often distracting (because the devices have internet and other options right there to draw students away from reading). Research is also showing that students who read exclusively or almost exclusively on digital devices enjoy reading less and do not report having a favorite book as much as students who read in print. Also, today’s preferred digital devices (tablets, ipads) are not designed with the epaper ink for long-term reading without eye strain. They are designed for maximizing high-quality images and videos – not print. Print solutions are cheaper, easier to circulate, involve less risk, allow for exploration of titles that is SO important in attracting the most at-risk readers, are easier to monitor without distractions, and are more developmentally and neurologically appropriate for stimulating reading achievement. Can we just invest in lots of good books for a change and provide libraries that are open the entire school day as well as afterschool? Perhaps THAT would solve the problem! I work in 12 elementary schools. I find it no surprise whatsoever that the ones that buy books, open their libraries, and build a culture that supports reading see the greatest improvements in reading. I do find it shocking that while poverty rates continue to increase, we zero out book budgets and close libraries, and then look around puzzled and wonder why our kids don’t have reading materials and perform poorly. D’oh!

  • youbook


    Reading digital text and reading traditional print require different sets of skills. Read the research, and check the new screen time recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics. For the amount of money it would cost to put a tablet in the hands of every student, we could hire a librarian for every school and make sure that students had access to the books that would interest them.

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