Could digital tools foster literacy?

Kathryn Hunt
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Being able to read well opens whole new worlds to students. Literacy is crucial to mastery of any subject and to success in college and career. But it is also a door to the imagination, to stories, and to knowledge about the world—a way to experience a full and rich life.

Yet a disquieting number of children—about 67 percent nationwide and more than 80 percent of those from low-income families—are not proficient readers by the end of 3rd grade. This has consequences for each student, for their families and communities, and for our country.

In an effort to turn those alarming statistics around, many teachers are moving toward a model of personalized learning in their classrooms and are finding that digital tools, or courseware, can be a useful route to help their students do better.

“These tools harness my students’ natural facility with technology,” says Kevin Doyle, an 11th grade English teacher at the Urban Assembly School of Music and Art in Brooklyn. He’s been using the digital programLightSail since last year. “The technology fosters a much more active stance on their part in relation to the text. They enjoy it more. I can track their progress [against standards]. I can give more targeted intervention.”

That’s why the Gates Foundation has supported the development of LightSail and other promising new digital tools, through its Literacy Courseware Challenge. We believe that digital learning tools can extend the reach of teachers to make personalized learning possible, particularly for students who are underserved by the current education system. Leading mathematics courseware products have already produced strong evidence that this is possible. In 2013, we awarded $6 million to 29 organizations to build tools to help students in grades 4 through 8 improve their reading and writing skills and—ideally—master the Common Core State Standards. Some of the new digital literacy tools are now being put to the test in classrooms around the country.

Debra Rook, who teaches 8th grade language arts at Chowan Middle School in Edenton, North Carolina, usesNewsela in her classroom, and has even integrated Newsela into a research project she’s pursuing. Rook is interested in ways to infuse digital literacy lessons with the dictums of digital games—competition, collaboration, feedback, and the impulse to learn from failure. (Her research grew from the work of Jane McGonigal and theInstitute of Play.)

“I’d discovered Newsela last year and realized it would be a perfect fit for my research idea,” she says. She uses Newsela as a primary digital resource for improving student literacy skills. She’s also recently completed a Newsela mini-lesson, with video and additional resources, to give other teachers a sense of how she uses Newsela in the classroom.

Digital tools will never replace the powerful connection between teacher and student. In fact, the digital tools we support are designed to foster face-to-face interactions, as teachers respond to real-time data on student progress. Digital literacy tools give teachers the information they need to meet individual needs, one on one and in small groups, in a medium that today’s young students—digital natives—already enjoy and have mastered.

This article is published in collaboration with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Kathryn Hunt writes on education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Image: Students take notes from their iPads at the Steve Jobs school in Sneek. REUTERS/Michael Kooren
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