For the past three years, as part of the multitude of intervention activities we run for students with weak literacy skills, we have been undertaking some research into the use of new technologies to improve reading and writing skills.
One area of this is the use of e-readers, such as Kindles, and e-books. Over the three-year period we have worked with students with a range of reading barriers (things that stop them from achieving in reading – i.e. SEN or disabilities, English as an additional language, low reading ages gauged from cognitive abilities tests).
These students have received years of intervention, teaching them an understanding of phonics and the practicalities involved in deciphering texts. These have made little or no impact and the young person remains at risk of not being able to access texts across the curriculum and therefore not making the required progress in attainment and achievement.
The programme we have come up with involves a 10-week period where we have the student for just one hour a week. We aim to try and get through four students per term and therefore 12 per year of the students that require this type of intervention the most.
The results we have had over this period have been phenomenal. The least students have achieved in this period is an improvement of 18 months in their reading age, but beyond this their attitude in classes, participation, and engagement also improve dramatically.
It is a very simple programme the aim of which is to break down any of the barriers that are stopping the young person from reading, and work with them to engage them into whole books that we know they will enjoy.
From breaking down these barriers we start to see an immediate improvement. Fundamentally what we are doing is showing the students that they can read, that they can enjoy books and that it is something they can succeed at. We are instilling in them a love of reading that will benefit them not only in the short term but also in the long term.
Having re-tested students that took part in our initial trials we know this is exactly what we are doing. Due to the fact we are promoting reading for pleasure, the effect is that the young person wants to read. Because they want to read they do more of it. Because they are doing more of it they are increasing their fluency and so are improving.
It is a very simple equation but one that hinges on being able to break down those initial barriers. This stays with them well after we have finished our intervention and re-tests show the improvement as marked.
From the work we have completed and achieved over the past three years we have been able to quantify six main reasons as to why e-devices can have such a big impact. They are as follows:
In secondary school, students read differently than in primary school. They use word recognition to read instead of breaking down words. It is why we/they can see a word with first and last letters in the right place but everything else jumbled up and still understand it.
What we are doing is recognising the rhythm of the word rather than using synthetic phonics. Once a student has been told a word they will remember this. At the same time they will also be learning comprehension, as they are seeing it used correctly in the right circumstances.
The more they come across the word the more it is embedded in their mind – as with anything – as they are creating and embedding neural pathways.
Although books like Barrington Stoke are really good, students with lower abilities need to still come up against hard words and have a high frequency of these interactions. Research shows that word recognition plays a vitally important part in reading.
If students come across harder words they will recognise them and how they are pronounced and they can then transfer this over to other words of similar ilk. Therefore to compound these neural pathways they need to have this higher frequency of interaction with such words and therefore with harder books that will challenge them.
Process vs pleasure
Very often a student will tell you that they do not like reading. What they are really telling you is that they do not like the process of reading that they have been through for the past six years. Not many people would enjoy reading if it happened to be reading a list of words on a sheet, being told to break them into phonemes and graphemes and then blend them together again.
After six or seven years of not getting this, we are compounding their problems by continuing to try and teach this in secondary schools. Students know that they need to break down words into their composite sounds then build them back up with blends and so on, but they do not get it entirely. They get the initial sound and then maybe the second one but just guess at the rest.
E-devices, with their text-size changer, can allow you to concentrate more on the words individually and spend time getting them right which means they can be reading a story they are engrossed in but still have time to work on harder words.
Words on a double page spread confuse weaker readers, even those that do not have dyslexia. If you watch a weaker reader read, their eyes tend to “wander” off the sentence or even paragraph. This is the same with a word that they have noticed at the bottom of the page and which they are worrying about. They either skip or do not concentrate in anticipation of a word they know they will struggle with.
This inhibits fluency as well as comprehension, but using e-devices that can enlarge the text helps lower the chances of this happening, therefore increasing fluency and comprehension – and in turn confidence.
Dangers of listening
If you listen to a weak reader read, They. Will. Read. As. If. They. Are. Reading. A. List. Of. Words. This is because this is all they know. They have not been given the opportunity or the skills to read with fluency, but have instead been used to reading a list of words. The knock-on effect is decreased comprehension, enjoyment and ability to increase literacy and reading skills.
Books and their sizes can be quite daunting and a turn off for a lot of students, especially if they have been told for past six years that they cannot read. An e-device takes this away completely – you do not have to worry about how many pages there are, you can just enjoy a book for the story.
Although this is just a small part of the intervention strategy that we have in place for our students and there are other factors that also play a part, the main reasons for the success is to make sure we are doing all we can to break down the barriers that stop students from accessing books and from reading. Once we’ve done this then the easy part begins!
Adam Lancaster is the librarian at Monk’s Walk School in Hertfordshire. Earlier this year he was named the School Librarian of the Year 2012 by the School Library Association. For details, visit www.sla.org.uk
CAPTION: Going digital: School Librarian of the Year, Adam Lancaster, in the library at Monk’s Walk School