The Digital Transformation of Literacy Education How teaching reading has (and hasn’t) changed over the past 30 years
By Tyson Smith
Companies that have been in the game for a while have been courtside in watching EdTech explode over the past 35 years. Even as schools and districts rushed to buy the new, hottest thing, to me the question has always been whether a given piece of tech actually held enough substance to improve student learning.
When it comes to teaching literacy, a huge shift happened in 1999 when the National Reading Panel put out a report saying that if you don’t teach phonics, you’re basically dooming 25 percent of your students. The report found that a foundation in phonemic awareness and phonics was essential. The positive results were overwhelming, and though new literacy-based tech companies have tried to come in and teach reading in an innovative way, the phonics-based approach never fails.
It has been exciting to see the focus shift to getting educators trained in the methodologies behind the science of reading. Once educators have the know-how, they can give students the skills, the rules and the ability to decode and understand the structure of language. It all begins with phonemic awareness—knowing the sounds of letters and being able to blend sounds together to form words. When students unlock that code, it’s a whole new world. While the pendulum has swung when it comes to methodology, the tech has changed, too. Here are a few ways teaching literacy has transformed over the past 30 years.
From Floppy Discs to Web-Based Learning
Thirty years ago, many parents were appalled at the thought of their kids learning how to read on a screen instead of in a book. On a smaller scale, that concept still has a lot of opposition.
Back in the day, the Accelerated Reader (AR) software owned the K–6 landscape. Students would read a book and then get on a computer to take a quiz revolving around the reading. Students who achieved a certain number of points could attend an AR party held by their school. The software proliferated across most of the country in the 1990s and early 2000s and was the primary focus for literacy learning using digital tools. But that was the extent of the use of screens when it pertained to learning how to read.
Reading Horizons has been in business long enough to experience the transition from floppy discs and audio tapes to CD technology and now to a web browser where we can enable the program instantaneously. It’s like going from a bicycle to a rocket ship.
Quality Over Eye Candy Tech
Now that districts have an abundance of EdTech to choose from, the challenge they face is differentiating quality teaching and learning tools from purely “eye candy” tech. There’s a lot of good-looking tech out there that doesn’t have a lot of substance. Districts have spent millions on software over the last 20 years that hasn’t moved the needle. It’s not helping the 25 percent of students that need it the most because it doesn’t show them the “how” of reading. It’s a challenge educators face because the tech might look like it would appeal to the student, but it isn’t helping them learn in an effective way.
Phonics-based instructional software can help educators focus on the “how” in ways that can be tailored to the student. Multisensory reading instruction has been proven to be the most effective, even among students with dyslexia. Tech can teach students how to read and then expose them to controlled text, improving their fluency and comprehension.
The beauty of using a tech tool is that if a select group of students is struggling, the computer acts as a tutor for each student. If the tech tool is effective, educators can trust that it’s going to give the student the right kind of instruction in the right time and in the right way.
Assisting, Not Replacing, the Educator
EdTech is at its best when it’s augmenting and reinforcing an educator’s lesson. It extends an educator’s reach and allows students to learn and comprehend faster. No matter how tech changes, the educator’s role in delivering instruction and mentoring students will not go away. When students get to higher grades, an effective tech tool will allow educators to follow up with literacy students since they’re at so many different levels of reading that it’s hard for an educator to tend to them all as a class.
In terms of making educators’ lives easier, we’ve come a long way from the days of floppy discs, when a school would have to buy five licenses to get software on five computers. Now, students can access tech tools on multiple devices, anywhere in the world with an internet connection. There’s no comparison. With all the improvements in hardware and software, teaching is still teaching, and tech’s role will always be to allow teachers and students to focus on the pedagogy, not the technology.
About the Author
Tyson Smith is the CEO of Reading Horizons, a phonics-based literacy program that is celebrating 35 years of helping educators teach students how to read.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.