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Stephen May: The problem with literacy

Alan Cooper: Learning styles

John Hellner: We can all be leaders

 

 

Thinking Digital Readers

Gwen Gawith

A recent article in the Harvard Education Newsletter by David T. Gordon which described a computer-based reading program developed by researchers at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in the USA gave pause for thought. The program was devised by Anne Meyer and David Rose and has recently been evaluated with funding from the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.

Why does it give pause for thought? Because it makes the obvious point that, for all that we go on like rusty hinges about critical thinking and learning styles, readers who are struggling with the mechanics of de-coding text haven’t got a lot of time or energy for engaging with those mental processes which make reading both a meaningful and rewarding activity. And if they feel that the text is controlling them, rather than the other way round, what’s the incentive to read?

While absolute proof of the impact of computers on learning remains elusive, one of the consensus findings is the extent to which computers give students a sense of control of their learning, and having a sense of control over one’s learning is massively motivating.

The ‘Thinking Reader’ program seems to me an enlightened acknowledgement that this sense of control over the text, the meaning and the messages, is integral to the experience of the good reader. The use of digital technology to give challenged readers a taste of ‘real’ reading exemplifies the best possible use of technology. Remember the concept of ‘reading mileage’? What better way to provide it?

Gordon describes a group of students with learning disabilities reading Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet:

They sit at computers, each wearing headphones, and read a digital text of Hatchet using a program called Thinking Reader. For some, the computer simultaneously highlights each word on the screen and reads it aloud. Students who don’t understand a particular word can get a definition with a click of the mouse.

Occasionally, a cartoon genie appears on screen and prompts them to stop and think more deeply about the text. It may ask them to summarize what they’ve read, predict what happens next, formulate the kinds of questions teachers might ask, and seek to clarify confusing passages. If they forget what those strategies entail, the genie offers hints. The students type their responses into a box at the bottom of the screen—a journal that will later help them and their teacher assess their progress. The teacher moves among the children, answering questions the genie can’t and prompting them further—to be more specific in their responses, perhaps, or to consider another point of view. The class will eventually gather off-line to discuss the book with their teacher; they do this about once every two weeks.

Thinking Reader employs elements of "reciprocal teaching," an instructional method for teaching reading comprehension developed by reading specialists Annemarie Palincsar and Ann Brown in the 1980s. The idea is to get students to be active readers using a four-part strategy: formulate questions, summarize, clarify, and predict. In one-on-one or group sessions, teachers and students take turns leading a discussion about the text. Although the method takes both teachers and students considerable time to master, research shows that it can lead to dramatic improvement in the performance of poor readers.

Still, it’s labor intensive for teachers, and students in a traditional reading class can get inadvertently left out of the discussions, especially in a large class. Technology makes it possible for each student to directly engage the text through prompts embedded in the story itself and various decoding supports - supplemented, of course, by interactions with the teacher, who spends his classroom time monitoring student progress and providing targeted guidance to individual students.

Many teachers still dismiss any computer-aided learning as ‘drill and kill’ - the computer-based equivalent of despised ‘textbook’ teaching. I think this is silly on both counts. Textbooks have a place in primary as well as secondary education alongside School Journals and other resources. And CAL programs like this exploit the positive aspects of computers, give control of the learning to the LEARNER, and allow the teacher to do more actual teaching and maybe a little less facilitation! Can this be a bad thing?

www.pathway.hrc.co.nz Please do yourself a favour and have a look at the recently released Human Rights Pathway site - some really neat resources for teachers and lots of excellent discussion points, activities and links. Thoroughly recommended and 100% Kiwi.

www.math.auckland.ac.nz/Teaching/Schools/MathsTrail.html A great idea! This is a free ‘hands-on’ maths trail around the University of Auckland, designed for years 7 - 9, and successfully trialled by several Auckland schools. Student booklet available. Why not use students to make your own in your own neighbourhood?