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The Digital Transformation of Literacy Education

This article was originally published on the Learning Counsel website.

How teaching reading has (and hasn’t) changed over the past 30 years.


Companies that have been in the game for a while have been courtside in watching EdTech explode over the past 35 years. Even as schools and districts rushed to buy the new, hottest thing, to me the question has always been whether a given piece of tech actually held enough substance to improve student learning.

When it comes to teaching literacy, a huge shift happened in 1999 when the National Reading Panel put out a report saying that if you don’t teach phonics as the foundation of a structured literacy approach, you’re severely crippling the ability of as many as 30 percent of your students who are striving to learn to read. The report found that a foundation in phonemic awareness and phonics was essential.

Not all educators have embraced phonics, and it’s true that the majority of students can learn to read regardless of how they’re taught. It’s also true that as many as 30 percent will struggle and they frequently go undiagnosed through 3rd grade if they are left to their own devices. Structured literacy instruction does not delay learning but expands the mind and capacity of every student, without the risk of failure for 30 percent.

It has been exciting to see the focus shift to getting educators trained in the methodologies behind the science of reading. Once educators have the know-how, they can give students the skills, the rules and the ability to decode and understand the structure of language. It all begins with phonemic awareness—knowing the sounds of letters and being able to blend sounds together to form words. When students unlock that code, it’s a whole new world. While the pendulum has swung when it comes to methodology, the tech has changed, too. Here are a few ways teaching literacy has transformed over the past 30 years.

From Floppy Discs to Web-Based Learning

Thirty years ago, parents were appalled at the thought of their kids learning how to read on a screen instead of in a book. On a smaller scale, that concept still has a lot of opposition.

Back in the day, the Accelerated Reader (AR) software owned the K–6 landscape. Students would read a book and then get on a computer to take a quiz revolving around the reading. Students who achieved a certain number of points could attend an AR party held by their school. The software proliferated across most of the country in the 1990s and early 2000s and was the primary focus for literacy learning using digital tools. But that was the extent of the use of screens when it pertained to learning how to read.

My company, Reading Horizons, has been in business long enough to experience the transition from floppy discs and audio tapes to CD technology and now to a web browser where we can enable the program instantaneously. It’s like going from a bicycle to a rocket ship. Online content and tools have made information and instruction available 24/7. Students can, in theory, move at a pace that is right for them. The investment in technology across our K–12 school systems has been significant. The adoption and adapting to that technology has not been nearly as prolific. Educators have struggled to integrate what has been purchased and to relinquish some of their role to a digital voice.

Quality Over Eye Candy Tech

Now that districts have an abundance of EdTech to choose from, the challenge they face is differentiating quality teaching and learning tools from purely “eye candy” tech. There’s a lot of good-looking tech out there that doesn’t have a lot of substance. Districts have spent millions on software over the last 20 years that hasn’t moved the needle. It’s not helping the 25 percent of students that need it the most because it doesn’t show them the “how” of reading. It’s a challenge educators face because the tech might look like it would appeal to the student, but it isn’t helping them learn in an effective way.

Phonics-based instructional software can help educators focus on the “how” in ways that can be tailored to the student. Multisensory reading instruction has been proven to be the most effective, even among students with dyslexia. Tech can teach students how to read and then expose them to controlled text, improving their fluency and comprehension.

Assisting, Not Replacing, the Educator

In terms of making educators’ lives easier, we’ve come a long way from the days of floppy discs, when a school would have to buy five licenses to get software on five computers. Now, students can access tech tools on multiple devices, anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. There’s no comparison.

EdTech is at its best when it’s augmenting and reinforcing an educator’s lesson. It extends an educator’s reach and allows students to learn and comprehend faster. No matter how tech changes, the educator’s role in delivering instruction and mentoring students will not go away. When students get to higher grades, an effective tech tool will allow educators to follow up with literacy students since they’re at so many different levels of reading that it’s hard for an educator to tend to them all as a class.

As we move into the age of artificial intelligence and machine learning, the assessment options are expanding exponentially. One only has to take a moment to review reports from 30 years ago to see how far we have come as it pertains to student analytics and progress monitoring. So much more can be ascertained through the use of pinpointed assessments and data-gathering. With all the improvements in hardware and software, teaching is still teaching, and tech’s role will always be to allow teachers to focus on the pedagogy that will help the broadest group of students.

What works well for children learning to read should work well for ELLs, as well. Helping them understand the structure of English empowers them and builds their confidence. Most have been told that English is full off exceptions and they will just have to memorize what words say, instead of learning the sounds and patterns. That is simply not true.

For today’s EdTech to be truly effective, educators need to understand and believe that software can augment their teaching and allow for students to be pre-taught and retaught as needed. As teachers adjust to the digital tools and better understand how to use them to extend their reach, we will see tremendous advantages, especially for students who are ready for more advanced content and for those who might struggle. Software tools must be up to the challenge.

Tyson Smith is the CEO of Reading Horizons, a phonics-based literacy program that recently celebrated 35 years of helping educators teach students how to read.

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