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We Need More Teacher-Centered Solutions in ICT for Literacy

Toni Maraviglia

I’m not convinced that the challenge of promoting literacy ICT is a market failure, a human constraint, or a technological constraint. It’s a bit more nuanced than that. The tech capabilities are there, teachers will use good literacy tools, and the market exists. But what is lacking is the connection between all three of these things.

What I’ve observed during my short time in this whole ICT realm is that people who design ICT tools for literacy have never really gotten into the brain of a child learning to read and have probably never taught a child to read. I think what we need are more teacher-centered solutions in ICT. We need to mimic what REAL human beings already do well while teaching our children. And we need to make it as simple and as useful as possible.

Teaching a child to read is no easy task.

What continually amazes me is that the more years I spend teaching, the more styles of reading acquisition I see with children. One of the main reasons it is difficult to utilize ICT to teach children to read is because most ICT tools do not often differentiate between a child’s fluency and comprehension needs.

These two facets of reading adoption intertwine and are relevant the moment a child first opens a book, or is read a book. Some children are quick decoders, with the ability to grasp phonemic awareness and phonics almost instantly. In other words, they can sound things out, they can recognize sound patterns, and they can orally read what’s on the page. But that doesn’t mean a kid knows how to read.

The second part of reading gets even more complicated – comprehension. The way that I see basic comprehension is that a student can understand the essentials of what s/he’s reading, retelling the main parts with some important details. But…

  • Can the student differentiate between what is relevant and irrelevant in a text?
  • Can a student understand the use of different language tools an author uses in a specific type of text?
  • Can a student grasp and utilize complex vocabulary words?
  • Can a student identify a theme and analyze how an author utilizes that theme in a text?
  • Can a student truly evaluate a text?

It’s hard for any type of tech tool to capture a student’s comprehension in these ways. Dang – it’s hard for a reading teacher to do that well!

My mythical ICT tool for literacy

Trying to think of a tool that would really and truly help with literacy, I concocted a mystical tool that mixes a bit of artificial intelligence, a computer adaptive-type learning system to do what reading intervention teachers do – figure out a student’s fluency level and comprehension level and adapt learning exercises based on this. (Great reading intervention tools like Reading Recovery do this. See Fountas and Pinnell also.)

A student would begin an initial fluency assessment based on phonemic awareness and phonics. It would detect the student’s ability to decode both simple letter sounds and complex letter combinations. (Found this and thought it was funny. Word to the wise, a kid learning CVC words can’t read the stuff on the left!)

This fluency assessment would also need to incorporate both voice and text. Questions would adapt according to the level of the student. At around the 10-15 question level, this adaptive test would determine a fluency level.

After this, the student receives a fluency score and is encouraged to continually practice to increase their level.

On the comprehension side, students would take a similar adaptive test that utilizes the most basic comprehension skills first (such as retelling), and then, it would gradually get more difficult or easier, depending on the student’s comprehension level. After about 10-15 questions, the student would get a comprehension score, like the fluency assessment. The student would then be encouraged to increase their mark.

The student would need to read short comprehension passages on a device, but if the comprehension level of the student is low enough, the system would adapt by voicing short reading passages and then asking questions via voice.

Next, the student encounters a series of practice exercises mixed with both fluency and comprehension, using reading passages of high interest. If a student’s decoding ability is very low, then most tasks are fluency work. However, they will also listen to stories and answer comprehension questions to those stories based on voiced questions.

For both fluency and comprehension, each time they answer a series of 5 questions correctly, their score goes up. (For the sake of student confidence, their scores can never go down from the initial score given.)

Ideally, this whole system would be utilized on existing class computers or at home. I think it would be really effective on the phone as well.

Let us not forget differences in language

One of the comments earlier brought up a good point about language. Any literacy tool should also incorporate other languages besides English, which I haven’t completely thought through yet. What I know from teaching ESL and managing ESL teachers through Teach For America is that the best ESL teachers just use really good reading tactics – phonemic awareness, sound patters, listening to others speak, hearing yourself speak, and comprehension strategies.

With a mixture of fluency, comprehension, and some simple artificial intelligence, students could learn to read much easier on their own and teachers would be happy to encourage students with a tech tool for something they already do. I’m no longer a teacher, but if I still were, I would definitely use this in my classroom.


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