Mississippi District Turns to Technology To Help Struggling Readers

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When administrators and educators at the Lamar County School District in Mississippi realized that the number of struggling readers was increasing as the volume of resources available to teach reading at the secondary level were decreasing, they knew it was time to take action. They also knew that a technology-based solution just might be the most efficient, effective way to improve the situation.

"We realized several students were progressing to middle school and high school but could not read adequately," said Peggy Williams, director of instruction for the district, which comprises 7,900 students in grades K-12 and at 15 schools. "Teachers at that level are not trained to teach reading; we needed a solution that could give students the tools to catch up quickly."

A few years ago, the district launched a reading class designed to help those middle school students bring their reading skills up to par. The plan didn't work, said Williams, who in 2005 learned about Scientific Learning's Fast ForWord reading intervention software. The Fast ForWord products are designed to accelerate learning by developing the student brain to process more efficiently, according to Linda Atwood, implementation manager for Oakland, CA-based Scientific Learning Corp.

"The district was looking to raise its Mississippi Curriculum Text (MCT) scores," recalled Atwood, "while also improving reading skills among subgroups, such as special education and ESOL students, that were bringing down the district scores."

Even with the pledge that Fast ForWord would help "accelerate learning" for students, Williams said she wasn't sold on the tech solution right away, and needed to be convinced of its effectiveness before investing in it.

"I'm skeptical of programs because I don't believe there is one right answer for every child," said Williams, who signed up for a one-year trial to test it out, with the intention of buying the license (which today sells for about $4,500) if the program worked. "We saw results fairly quickly in grades 7 through 12, so a year later purchased it for those grades."

Realizing the value of early intervention, the school district next implemented the solution at the elementary school level in 2007, thus reducing the "need for it at the upper levels," said Williams. "Our goals are to catch students with difficulties early on and to help them build cognitive skills--memory, attention, processing rate and sequencing--they need to be successful in English and reading and across the curriculum."

Today, the reading assistance software is used district-wide, and for all grades, but not for every child. "We don't really put kindergartners on it, but we do put first graders through 12th graders on it, as needed," said Williams, who noted that one particular gifted student recently raised her reading ability by three grade levels after just a few months of using Fast ForWord. "Parents, students and teachers are all raving it about it."

In fall 2008, the Lamar School District added Scientific Learning Reading Assistant software to its lineup. The software combines advanced speech recognition technology with scientifically based interventions to help students strengthen their reading fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

"We allow each school to decide how it would like to implement the Reading Assistant software," said Williams. "Most schools are using it with the same populations that are using the Fast ForWord software to continue to strengthen their reading skills."

With several software implementations under her belt, Williams said the biggest obstacle to successful integration and usage is a "lack of hardware" on the part of the school district. "We just don't have as much hardware as we need," she lamented, "and as a result, we can't put as many students on the programs as we'd like to."

Conflicts between hardware and software have also been challenging for the district, which recently installed several new computer labs, only to find out that the equipment wouldn't run the Fast ForWord program. "We had to do some revising," said Williams. "Our technology department has worked very hard to eliminate those glitches."

The payoff has been significant for the district, whose students have shown significant gains on the Mississippi Curriculum Test (MCT) over the last few years. From 2005 to 2006 and 2006 to 2007, for example, students who worked on the Fast ForWord program increased their language scale scores and reading scale scores. In contrast, when looking at all students at the same schools, the institutions showed only small increases or even decreases in their scores.

Other positive results include increased Lexile grades; 40 percent fewer students referred to special education; improved student attention, behavior and self-confidence; and improved student grades. Williams, who admitted to being skeptical at first about the program's ability to positively affect such a wide swath of the student population, is now sold on technology's ability to make a difference in a child's learning ability.

Right now, Williams said the district is again turning to technology, this time as part of an online dropout prevention program for high school students. "We're always looking for tools that can help, whether they're used district-wide or on an individual basis," said Williams. "Over time, we've found that technology really is the way to go to help individual students get maximum benefit."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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