Literacy Skills

iPads Make Better Readers, Writers

In a research paper titled “Unlocking Literacy with iPad,” Ohio English teacher James Harmon found that state-compiled statistics indicate that those students with iPad access in the year leading up to the Ohio Graduation Test had a 6-percent greater chance of passing the test’s reading portion than those without, and an 8-percent greater chance of passing the writing portion.

Once upon a time teachers stood in front of a blackboard writing letters of the alphabet with chalk and drilling students to develop literacy skills. But now that children are growing up with laptops, streaming video, and even iPads, what’s a teacher to do? Well, some of them—like James Harmon, an English teacher in Euclid, OH—have jumped on board.

During the 2010-2011 school year Harmon conducted a “teacher-research” study to measure the effect Apple’s iPad had on the language test scores of his students taking the annual Ohio Graduation Test. He published his results in a paper titled “Unlocking Literacy with iPad.”

Among the findings presented in Harmon’s paper were state-compiled statistics, which seemed to indicate that those students with iPad access in the year leading up to the test had a 6-percent greater chance of passing the test’s reading portion than those without, and an 8-percent greater chance of passing the writing portion.

This convinced Harmon of the appropriateness of the iPad as a teaching tool. However, it was anecdotal evidence involving the way his students were typing on their devices that led him to another discovery. Harmon had his three sections of sophomore English play with a vocabulary game on his classroom set of iPads if they finished their in-class journal writing early. Based on a Scrabble letter-tile model, kids had 10 minutes to create as many words as they could in an effort to achieve a high score.

“You can’t just make up words,” Harmon said, “but kids would make up words anyway and it ended up being a real word. And they were surprised, which caused a little curiosity. Then they’d go and look at the application dictionary.”

Harmon said the ability to type journal assignments on the iPad meant some wrote longer entries and more students completed the assignments, compared to his experience with using notebooks the previous year.

“To be a good writer, I think you have to be able to read your writing out loud with your peers and get some good feedback,” he said. “That’s a part of my classroom process. Kids will close their iPads and listen to one student read their journal entry. So if you’ve got more kids that are finishing, then you’re going to have more kids that can read their writing, and more kids that are going to get feedback on their writing.”

Glen Jagels, teacher leader at Westbrook Elementary School in Omaha, NE, introduced his three kindergarten classrooms to the iPad in the 2010/2011 school year. The successful experiment led Westside Community Schools to roll out the technology to every kindergarten classroom in the district’s 10 schools this year. Each room will have six iPads: one for the teacher and five for the students to share.

“If you get kids engaged in learning, you’ve taken away half the battle,” Jagels said. “When you get them engaged, you get them focused on what they need to do and you get them interested in learning. And if it’s using an iPad, we’ll use whatever we need to get kids learning. Once we got going and the kids started messing around, then it was just like wildfire.”

The iPads weren’t used primarily for instruction, but as a reinforcement tool. Jagels believes this is an age-appropriate usage model.

“When the kids go into their center to play, they can get on an iPad and play a game that reinforces what they just learned in large group (instruction),” he said. “Would you rather do it with a magnet letter on a cookie sheet, or would you rather do it on an iPad where you can hear it and manipulate it?”

It’s the preparation that makes an iPad or any technology effective in the classroom, according to Dominic Mentor, an instructor at Teachers College, Columbia University who developed and co-teaches the nation’s first mobile phone learning class. The hype around any technology will eventually end, he said, so the focus needs to be on effective implementation.

“You want to ask yourself, ‘Is it going to be appropriate? Is it going to add value much more than what I’m currently doing?’” Mentor suggested. “If you’re going to use the multimedia features available in the iPad, can you appeal to the multimodal sense of the students—both sound and video—without them being a distraction or disruption to the actual educational goals?”

Mentor also raised some drawbacks to the iPad, one of which is being locked into a specific platform. Universal accessibility to apps is beginning, but it will take time before any device can utilize any app. The time-consuming expertise required to develop successful apps means that demand for specific kinds of educational apps for all grade levels and devices already outpaces production.

Then there’s the keyboard, which garnered criticism even before the launch of the iPad 2 due to concerns about ease of use. Mentor illustrated the difficulty by describing the frustration of two students who tried to type a book report on the iPad after reading the book on the same device.

“The accuracy of typing wasn’t as good, so they had to constantly correct,” he said. “And there’s a force-correct feature, so sometimes they wanted to use a word that the force-correct feature changes and they had to go back and delete the word. It was detracting from the actual educational engagement.”

Harmon concluded by acknowledging that adding the tablet alone may not be a panacea. “Is it just putting the iPad in the kids’ hands that’s a silver bullet? Obviously not, and no intelligent technology-using teacher would say it’s the technology that makes the difference,” he said. “But it definitely has an impact.”

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