Many schools are finally acquiring sophisticated computer equipment for their classrooms, and this is creating a demand for more effective software that can be used to enhance a child’s reading development. It is now possible and affordable for savvy teachers to use sophisticated computer software to complement and enhance their own instruction. As computers get faster and smarter, and as software gets better and better, the promise of using technology in reading instruction becomes more and more a reality.
As a profession, we should be cautious not to try to use computers as substitutes for good, focused instruction from knowledgeable classroom teachers. Professional development for teachers should still be a top priority for our schools because, when it comes to teaching a skill like reading, nothing can replace a strong, diagnostic teacher who can cater instruction to the individual learning needs of her students (See H is for Highly Qualified Teachers).
That said, however, I have to say that some software companies are developing some very clever programs that provide children an opportunity to develop and practice their reading skills while simultaneously assessing and monitoring each student’s literacy growth.
At a recent conference, I saw Marilyn Jager Adams demonstrating some very impressive new software that she has been helping to develop. She has been working with a company called Soliloquy to create computer software that lets a computer “listen” to a child read out loud. The computer presents text on the screen, and listens as the child reads the text aloud. The computer provides feedback and support if the child has difficulty, and the computer keeps track of the child’s fluency and accuracy (tracking performance over time). If the child doesn’t know how to pronounce a word, the computer helps with pronunciation. If the child doesn’t know what a word means, the computer helps the child understand the meaning of the word in context. The computer is tireless, so children can sit for hours and practice reading out loud, and the computer does not mind listening to the child read the same story out loud over and over.
Alas, as so often happens to innovative ideas, our free-market system has interfered, and the last time I spoke with Marilyn, she told me that Soliloquy had been bought out. The people who bought it apparently have very little understanding of what they bought, and they have changed it to make it less effective.
Especially when one considers that research indicates that time spent practicing reading, and opportunities for repeated oral reading are two of the primary variables that support reading fluency (see F is for Fluency), so this software held tremendous promise for helping children to develop reading fluency.
I’m told that IBM is developing some similar software. I’ll post information here if I learn more about it.
Phoneme Awareness and Letter-Sound Knowledge
For very young students, the “Earobics” program is quite effective for teaching phonological and phoneme awareness and for helping children develop rudimentary letter-sound knowledge (http://www.earobics.com). There are a variety of games that the children play with the computer that help them to develop an awareness of the sounds in speech and some understanding of how those sounds map on to letters in text.
One of the better programs for helping young children (K-2) learn and apply letter-sound relationships is a program called Read, Write, Type (http://www.readwritetype.com/). This is a very engaging program that also enhances writing and spelling skills, and helps children develop vocabulary, and even learn about proper punctuation.
I have also been favorably impressed with “Leap into Phonics,” which is again a good program for very young pre-readers developing early reading skills (http://www.LeapIntoLearning.com)
Another good program for very young pre-readers is Daisyquest (http://www.metiri.com/Solutions/DaisyQuest.htm), which can be used to help children develop basic phonological awareness. This same company also produces Daisy’s Castle which can be used to help children develop more advanced phonological and phoneme awareness skills. Barker and Torgesen (1995) used this software in a study of computer assissted phoneme awareness training, and found that the software did significantly enhance students’ phoneme awareness.
For older children, Lindamood has developed software to complement their reading program, and their reading program has been used with some success with struggling readers of all ages, but I’ve never had a chance to review that software. I can only assume that the software is inspired by the same research that inspired the Lindamood reading program. (http://www.lindamoodbell.com/multimedia.html)
And then, of course, there is the ubiquitous Accelerated Reader (http://www.renlearn.com/ar/) with the Star Reading Assessment. Accelerated Reader is a fine program, and it really motivates children who are already somewhat fluent readers to independently practice and hone their reading skills. However, I see nothing about Accelerated Reader that can help a struggling reader who does not have a solid foundation in those cognitive domains that I covered in my framework. When I think of Accelerated Reader, I think of it as a motivational tool for precocious readers rather than an instructional tool.
It is said that education is always 10 years behind the technology curve, and that may be the case. However, that just means there is a technology boom beginning in the world of education, and in the coming years, there will be a lot of technology based resources available to support reading instruction.
Barker, T., & Torgesen, J. (1995). An evaluation of computer-assisted instruction in phonological awareness with below average readers. J. Educational Computing Research, 13, 89-103.