This feature story is part of a series focused exclusively on literacy. To view other posts in the series, check out the spotlight page.
In Utah, the UPSTART program provides early literacy interventions via technology to students across the state, free of charge. Despite connectivity deserts, sometimes language barriers, and poverty in many cases, four- and five-year-olds in the state all have access to the program which seeks to close the literacy gap before these students enter Kindergarten.
Utah’s UPSTART program is funded by the state legislature, because literacy is an educational priority of the state.
“In classrooms right now, we see teachers using tech to help support literacy in a number of ways,” said Thomas Arnett, a senior education research fellow at the Christensen Institute. “When teachers are using software or when students are using software that’s appropriate for their current reading levels, it can actually helps students because it can target them where they are.”
Arnett said using technology to help personalize literacy instruction is most beneficial to English language learners and students from disadvantaged backgrounds, because it helps to bridge the skills gap at students’ own pace, which teachers faced with a classroom of students of varying abilities might not be able to do as easily.
“Literacy assessments can be very time-consuming for a teacher,” he said, adding that the use of technology to supplement the instruction “let them do more small-group guided reading instruction.”
But technology is not a cure-all, he warned, saying, “I’ve seen students that are completely frustrated with their online learning.”
In some cases, simple nuances of culture or language can confuse students and make the use of technology unintentionally difficult. It’s also important not to look at personalized learning simply as adding technology to the classroom to enable the teacher to work more with students one-on-one. Personalized learning is also simply taking a more personalized approach to learning for each student.
“It’s really important for an educator to understand the learning style of their students so they can create an environment that is engaging and draws those students in. Once a student is drawn in, they become engaged and then they become successful,” said Toronto-based teacher and education coach Ruth Rumack. “My feeling about reading is that everybody can learn to read with the right kind of instruction and the right instructor.”
Rumack said it is important to consider “where [a] student is coming from … are they a visual learner … are they an auditory learner … are they a kinesthetic learner, do they need to move in order to really understand it?”
This means educators need to consider everything from the way a classroom looks and is organized to the way lessons are structured to engage students.
“For many kids, and especially kids with ADHD, you need to keep them engaged physically as well as mentally. Sitting in a room for an hour or even a half hour can be torturous,” she said.
“Sitting down to read is going to look different,” Rumack continued. “Even if it doesn’t look exactly the way it looks in the storybooks, with everyone sitting down, huddling up around a storybook, it’s still very valuable.”
“Movement and memory work together, so jumping jacks, lunges, bouncing on the bouncy ball, using the hula hoop — anything that is active while you’re trying to memorize something at the same time, it actually works better,” she said.
Rumack suggested tactile or kinesthetic strategies to help boost engagement and learning. An activity such as tracing spelling words in shaving cream can help students remember the words better.
“The neuro feedback that he’s getting from dragging his finger through the shaving cream is resistance, and the resistance is telling the brain ‘Oh, pay attention,’” she said.