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How to teach kids who flip between book and screen

The use of digital books and textbooks exploded during the pandemic, and it may be only a matter of time before all educational publishing moves online. So it’s all the more important to keep making digital reading better for students, says literacy educator Tim Shanahan. Instead of trying to make the digital technology more like a book, Shanahan has written, “[engineers] need to think about how to produce better digital tools. Tech environments can alter reading behavior, so technological scaffolding could be used to slow us down or to move around a text more productively.” In the future, students might read about history or science from something like a “tap essay,” where words, sentences, and images are revealed only when a reader is ready and taps the screen to move on to the next piece of text. Or maybe their reading material will look more like a New York Times digital article, in which text, images, video, and sound clips are spaced out and blended together in different ways.

Hooked on computer phonics

About two-thirds of American schoolchildren can’t read at grade level. At least partly to blame is a widespread method of reading instruction that dominated classrooms for 40 years but was not based on scientific evidence about how the brain learns to read: “balanced literacy,” and its close cousin “whole language,” deemphasized explicit instruction in reading’s foundational skills, leaving many children struggling. But over the last several years, a new method strongly focused on these foundational skills, often referred to as the “science of reading,” has brought sweeping changes to the US education system. Based on decades of scientific evidence, the “science of reading” approach is organized into five areas: phonemic awareness (learning all the sounds of the English language), phonics (learning how those sounds are attached to letters), vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency.

Learn-to-read apps and digital platforms have the potential to teach some of these foundational skills efficiently. They’re especially well suited to phonemic awareness and phonics, making learning letters and sound combinations a game and reinforcing the skills with practice. Lexia, arguably the most widespread digital platform devoted to the science of reading, teaches basic and complex foundational reading skills, like letter-sound blends and spelling rules, using responsive technology. When learning a specific skill, such as figuring out how to read words like meal and seam with the “ea” vowel combination in the middle, students can’t move on until they’ve mastered it.

Digital platforms can reinforce certain specific reading skills, but it’s the teacher who is constantly monitoring the student’s progress and adjusting the instruction as needed.

A new wave of predictive reading platforms goes one step further. Companies like Microsoft and SoapBoxLabs are envisioning a world where students can learn to read entirely via computer. Using AI speech recognition technology, the companies claim, these digital platforms can listen closely to a student reading. Then they can identify trouble spots and offer help accordingly.

As digital tech for learning to read spreads into schools—Lexia alone serves more than 3,000 school districts—some reading experts are wary. Research on its efficacy is limited. While some see technology playing a useful role in reading-related functions like assessing students and even training teachers, many say that when it comes to actually doing the teaching, humans are superior.

Digital platforms can reinforce certain specific reading skills, explains Heidi Beverine-Curry, chief academic officer of the teacher training and research organization The Reading League, but it’s the teacher who is constantly monitoring the student’s progress and adjusting the instruction as needed.

Faith Borkowsky, founder of High Five Literacy, a tutoring and consultancy service in Plainview, New York, is not bothered by reading instruction apps per se. “If it happens to be a computer program where a few kids could go on and practice a certain skill, I’d be all for it, if it aligns with what we are doing,” she says. But often that’s not how it plays out in classrooms.

In the Long Island schools Borkowsky works with, it’s more likely that students do more reading work on laptops because schools purchased expensive technology and feel pressured to use it—even if it’s not always the best way to teach reading skills. “What I’ve seen in schools is they have a program, and they say, ‘Well, we bought it—now we have to use it.’ Districts find it hard to turn back after purchasing expensive programs and materials,” she says.

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