Literacy Software Saves Struggling Readers
While traditional reading remediation has focused on one method of teaching for all students, a more balanced approach acknowledges that although individuals with reading difficulties have many similar characteristics, they also have different strengths and weaknesses that require a variety of instructional techniques. Advances in education technology now enable teachers to address students’ needs with programs that are individualized and self-paced, ensuring that instruction is not moving too fast for some or too slow for others. However, the essential element for any effective literacy software program is the incorporation of insights about how people learn to read.
Research in neuroscience is providing us with an opportunity to not only design programs that target what struggling readers need instructionally, but also to determine the effectiveness of the instruction. For example, we have learned that targeted instruction designed to develop sound-symbol correspondence knowledge to a level of automaticity will strengthen previously weak functional connectivity in the brain and significantly reduce energy expenditure while reading. Knowing this, developers can design technology-based programs suitable for large group deployments that explicitly target the instructional needs of struggling readers. In addition, educators should demand software that offers instruction which focuses on building the automaticity of sound-symbol recognition.
Another significant insight into how the brain learns is the discovery that the more senses we involve in learning, the more brain processes that are activated and the more “sticky” the learning becomes. For this reason, reading intervention programs should always have a multisensory component. However, truly struggling readers should start with single-sense instructional tasks such as simple visual discrimination.
Technology is also well-suited to accommodate out-of-context direct instruction, which involves teaching isolated skills until they become automatic, then applying them to the act of reading (Willis, Stephens and Matthew 1996). Learning is enhanced through the immediate positive reinforcement of accurate responses and the presentation of correct answers when errors are made. In addition, to promote student success, the training exercises should be presented in a sequence from simple to complex so that learning occurs in a stepwise progression.
Literacy programs should also include another instructional concept previously mentioned: automaticity as an integral part of the student-mastery criteria. The basic components of reading must not only be understood, but learned to the point at which processing them becomes automatic. Programs that are mastery-driven and require students to demonstrate task proficiency in terms of accuracy and fluency will move student progress forward, while programs that only require accuracy will not achieve their desired learning goals.
However, technology-based intervention programs do not replace the need for teachers to motivate and encourage struggling students to achieve. Teachers also should not use the time spent on tasks as a measure of student progress; instead, educators should focus on the total number of exercises that students have mastered. Software can provide easy access to tools that offer information about students who need additional motivation, when they need this motivation and why. This information is available for both individual students and for groups of students; thus, helping educators teach a variety of students in one classroom.
Reading remediation technology such as literacy programs will continue to be in high demand in the upper elementary, middle and high school grades as expectations for student learning continue to grow. This technology will not only need to be highly effective, but also very accessible. Students must be able to access this technology in ways that allow them to strengthen their core reading skills, while continuing to follow their regular curricula. In addition, it’s important to remember that technology will continue to improve in terms of its responsiveness and adaptability to individual needs.
Willis, J., E. Stephens and K. Matthew. 1996. Technology, Reading and Language Arts. Needham Height, MA: Allyn & Bacon.
Information on AutoSkill and its Academy of Reading program can be found online at www.autoskill.com.
This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.