Expert Viewpoint

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How We Use Technology to Empower Both Our Students and Reading Teachers

As the nation's school districts grapple with budgetary constraints and limited resources, we're all looking for technology to supplement the sound instruction that teachers are providing in the classroom. Managing dozens of students — each of whom has individual needs, strengths, and constraints — is an ongoing challenge, and is particularly prevalent in reading instruction, where pupils learn and engage at many different levels.

With nearly 1,300 K-5 students, 46 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged, our district faces a number of literacy-related challenges. Given all of the competing needs that students display during the course of an instructional day, being able to pinpoint skill gaps in a complex area like reading is just one of our many ongoing challenges.

Our teachers must be able to quickly assess their students' individual needs — something that's not always easy to do in a classroom of 30 students. By implementing Lexia Reading Core5, a technology-based literacy program for grades pre-K–5, we've been able to overcome these hurdles and create a more engaging, productive instructional environment for all learners.

Filling in the Gaps

Rewind to about two years when one of the biggest challenges our district was facing was a lack of sufficient materials to support our core reading program. Our elementary teachers had varying levels of experience teaching phonics, a critical element for literacy success, and we needed to develop a shared understanding of phonics instruction. There was also a gap in phonemic awareness skills among students, due to inconsistencies in direct phonics instruction. As a result, only 53 percent of third-grade students were reading on or above grade level.

Ready to turn that tide, we set our sights on reaching 90 percent reading proficiency for our third-grade students by 2021. For that to happen, our teachers would not only need a tech-based literacy platform to supplement student learning, but they would also need professional development and resources to support them in delivering quality and consistent instruction across all grade levels.

For us, it was important that teachers knew that in addition to bringing this program (or any other program) to the district, we would also provide them with the necessary professional development. In fact, anytime we enter into a partnership with a vendor, we require an extensive professional development component that extends out for three years (or more). We want our staff to understand that we're fully invested in the implementation and that we're in this for the long haul. This, in turn, helps us get the most out of the resource for our students.

With our literacy platform, the professional development came in the form of job-embedded training and reinforcement. We had Lexia trainers onsite (or participating in conference calls) to answer teachers' questions and also had our own coaches available to work with them. These different elements came together to help break down some of the barriers that come with implementing a new program.

We also set specific performance goals for our educators and clear expectations for how to reach those goals. For example, our principals check in regularly with teachers, which ensures accountability. "As an administrator," says the assistant principal for Sara Lindemuth Primary School, "I like that I can check the program's data every day and get a pulse on this building — on both a grade level and a classroom level — very quickly."

This instructional support has been quite powerful, both in terms of the technology-based offline guided reading lessons that are created based upon skills deficits identified through the program and in our teachers' ability to target intervention to the students who need it. They're not only saving time and becoming more efficient, but they're also helping students close literacy skill gaps.

Putting Data into the Teachers' Hands

We viewed the literacy program as a prescriptive recommendation for instruction, so most students don't even know that they're learning because the program is so much fun. By combining "play" with prescriptive learning — and in a way that supports both teacher and small-group instruction — we've been able to fill in our reading gaps and get students continually moving up to the "next level" with their reading.

The proof is in the results. We use the literacy solution as part of our daily five rotations. While one group of students works on the platform's online activities, the teacher delivers targeted lessons to another group as part of small group instruction. As a result, the percent of K–5 students meeting usage in the program on average is 78 percent — an achievement beyond the district's goal for the first year. Students in grades K–5 who met recommended usage for at least 20 weeks made meaningful progress. There was an increase in the percent of students working in or above their grade level — a number that's grown from 39 percent to 90 percent.

The program's embedded assessment provides our teachers with additional data points in a manner that provides them considerable time savings. Administering assessments to every student, and then reviewing, grading, and acting on those assessments, require both time and resources. Using the literacy program, however, our teachers don't have to stop and administer a test but rather they can spend more time providing instruction that actually targets the needs that were identified in those assessments.

Technology Isn't a Threat

As we explore more technology options and add them to our portfolio of teaching tools, we want our teachers to know that tech isn't a threat, and that it truly supports good, sound instruction. We never want to forget that teachers are the very foundation of student learning in the classroom, and we understand that these technical resources help to support the work that they're already doing. It's not a replacement.   

Right now, we're headed in a direction where students will have the capacity to learn across a continuum and not be defined by specific grade levels. Instead, they'll simply say, "I learned this set of skills and I am prepared to move on to the next set of skills within a particular content area."

This will put students in the driver's seat and make them owners of their own learning; teachers will become facilitators of that learning. And while many of us are still working within the "industrialized model" of education, to truly harness the power of technology, we really need to allow students to become more active participants in their own learning. Technology allows us to do that.

About the Author

Dr. Tamara Willis is superintendent of schools for Susquehanna Township School District in Harrisburg, PA.

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