09/28/2018 | By Robert Holl
Learning A-Z: Expanding Elementary Literacy
Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.— Bill Gates
My career, upon graduating from college, began as a classroom teacher and then transitioned into various facets of educational publishing. These varied experiences have affected my point of view and influenced my current thinking. However, the last 15 years, during which I founded and grew the Learning A-Z Publishing Company and developed hundreds of classroom resources, have led me to appreciate more fully how technology can assist teachers and improve learning for students.
As a publisher of learning resources and as a former classroom teacher, I have always believed that it is vital to never lose sight of the teacher’s significance in and out of the classroom. I have carefully weighed every product development decision to ensure that it strengthens a teacher’s instructional efficiency and effectiveness.
It seems to me that there are two faces of technology in the classroom. On the one side, I have come to believe that overuse of technology can have a dehumanizing effect. But on the other hand, I also have come to believe that technology can help personalize learning, promote interaction and engagement, and help improve motivation. From my point of view, we should not park students in front of a computer or other device and deliver technology-driven curriculum solutions that place limitations on human connections. This, I believe, would be detrimental to the development of the whole child. But there are countless benefits that support the use of technology in classrooms.
One of the most compelling benefits technology offers is its ability to save teachers time and deliver resources economically, 24/7. Take, for example, books and other resources needed to build reading skills, grow knowledge and motivate readers. Today’s teachers can have a library of electronic books delivered directly to their classroom as PDF documents that can be printed and made into low-cost books for their students to read in the classroom or at home.
These same books can be assigned as eBooks to read on any type of device. Teachers can also project these books within whole class and small group instructional settings. Never have so many books and other reading resources, in multiple formats, been so readily accessible to teachers and their students – developmentally appropriate books aligned with students’ interest.
Technology-enhanced text resources can have many embedded tools to support and guide the reader. For example, an audio track for listening to the entire text with words and phrases highlighted so the student can follow along—especially helpful to struggling readers and English-language learners. In addition, words that are unknown and difficult to pronounce can be selected for a pronunciation and a definition. E-books can also have recording features for students to record their reading of text and then play it back to self-monitor fluency. They can also send a recorded reading to their teacher who can then listen and monitor student progress.
Student engagement and interactivity with text can be facilitated by highlighting and other mark-up tools, notetaking and journaling features, as well as embedded prompts for students to respond to as they read. These tools and features can enhance comprehension and free up the teacher to interact more personally with students who need extra help.
Technology can now assist a teacher by gathering students’ performance data from tasks and activities they have completed on an electronic device, then organize and report this data in ways that inform teachers about the instructional needs of each student. The data also provides students with timely feedback on their performance of tasks. No longer do teachers have to spend countless hours grading papers and observing and recording student performance. Instead, they can take the data they receive to plan more effective instruction that targets specific student needs. This data can also be rearranged in meaningful ways for administrators and parents so they, too, can stay informed about learning gains or lack thereof.
Data gathered on student reading activity can also be used to establish a reader profile and then automatically suggest books and articles that are of interest to a reader. This is yet another way technology can save teachers time and provide teachers with valuable feedback about their students - information that can then help deliver more targeted instruction.
Technology can also be used to identify a student’s reading level by analyzing reading behavior and performance on online reading quizzes or other tasks. At Learning A-Z, each quiz item is tagged to a specific skill and reports are generated showing teachers which skills students are mastering and which skills need more work. Again, this saves teachers a tremendous amount of time and helps inform them of the instructional needs of each student. It also leads to the assignment of “just-right” developmentally appropriate books and articles that can improve student reading performance and reduce frustration.
Features like electronic file cabinets found on some publisher’s websites, including Learning A-Z, allow teachers to organize and store resources in file folders that align with their district’s curriculum framework. These resource folders can be shared with other teachers in a school or district. Website tools that align website resources to state standards or core curriculum programs make it possible for teachers to quickly gain access to resources targeting a specific standard at a chosen grade level, all with the click of a mouse or tap of a finger.
Another area where technology can expand learning is in the realm of virtual and augmented reality. Today’s students can visit places around the world and immerse themselves without leaving a classroom. They can manipulate objects and perform certain simulated activities without the cost and dangers associated with the actual activity. These tools along with teacher- facilitated discussions greatly broaden the experiences of students within the confines of a classroom.
It seems that the possibilities are endless. And the constant emergence of new technology applications simply increases the possibilities for improving classroom efficiencies, expediting the delivery of instruction, and enhancing interactive and engaging learning experiences. There are, no doubt, real benefits to the use of technology in the classroom. The uses mentioned above are just a few examples of the benefits technology brings to a classroom. However, none of them should replace a teacher. Instead, they should be used to strengthen teacher effectiveness and efficiency.
We cannot and should not allow technology tools to remove the real face-to-face human connections needed to develop well-educated citizens – citizens who possess the knowledge, as well as problem solving, social and emotional skills needed to collaborate and fulfill their roles as productive citizens. Teacher-to-student and student-to-student talk are necessary components to the education of the whole child, an education that can be enhanced with the appropriate use of technology. It goes without saying that both teachers and students should be trained on the correct use of technology and taught the skills of digital literacy—skills needed to succeed in a world that becomes more and more technology-driven with each passing day.