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Innovation

How important is 1:1 to literacy?

Our literacy specialist showed me data from our regular assessments where students made moderate progress throughout a year, but by the following fall, were back at their baseline reading levels from the year before. This just didn't make any sense, I thought. However, as she pointed out, these are the kids who haven't read and/or been read to for an entire summer. They haven't touched a book.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

We heard yesterday morning that Macedonia is rolling out 53,000 Classmates to improve education throughout the country. At about the same time, I took a class about literacy in schools and ways to enhance both reading and writing skills in all grades and all content areas. One of the real takeaways from the class was the absolute need for students to read and write every day.

We certainly see this with our students. Our literacy specialist showed me data from our regular assessments where students made moderate progress throughout a year, but by the following fall, were back at their baseline reading levels from the year before. This just didn't make any sense, I thought. However, as she pointed out, these are the kids who haven't read and/or been read to for an entire summer. They haven't touched a book.

Summertime is hard to address without changing the way in which we schedule our years. During the year, though, daily, intensive, level-appropriate reading and writing with feedback from peers and instructors is something we can provide. The exact pedagogy of literacy instruction in schools I'll leave to the experts. What I can do is provide technological tools to support extensive writing and reading efforts.

As I watched videos yesterday and talked with colleagues about "writers' workshops," I saw a lot of kids spending a lot of time writing and rewriting. It was all by hand. Laborious writing, revising, and rewriting with paper and pencil, followed by peer editing, teacher feedback, and more rewriting. While this process is incredibly important, I couldn't help but wonder if an infusion of technology might not allow the kids to focus more on the writing and less on the writing by hand.

Perhaps I'm missing something important here in terms of the actual, tactile act of writing - feel free to talk back and let me know if I am. However, when Google Apps, Word, and plenty of other tools allow easy tracking of revisions and have built-in facilities for editing and review, wouldn't it make sense for students to not only be practicing writing every day, but also be practicing it using 21st Century tools? Don't get me wrong: we all need to know how to write (as in paper and pencil). But for projects devoted to clear, written expressions of thoughts, ideas, and research, dispensing with writing by hand allows far more time to be spent on content once students have mastered basic keyboarding skills.

When was the last time you hand-wrote a document at work? And then revised it, rewriting it by hand? Even the staunchest handwriting advocates can't argue that editing isn't easier on a computer. Let's pretend for a minute that every kid from the 5th grade onwards could have a laptop (it doesn't matter if it's a Classmate, an OLPC XO, or a MacBook; just assume they always have a laptop at their disposal). According to researchers from the University of Southern Maine (Maine has one of the largest 1:1 programs in the country),

The first in a series of studies aimed at evaluating Maine's pioneering laptop program, Maine's Middle School Laptop Program: Creating Better Writers concludes that the use of laptops improves scores on writing skills assessments, that more frequent use is linked to higher scores, and that writing skills of laptop users transfer to writing without a laptop.

Next -- >

Now let's take another leap. What if even younger students had laptops, complete with libraries of leveled books (I just learned about these yesterday. Leveled books provide both pleasure and content area reading adjusted for levels of reading skill, allowing struggling readers to build literacy and knowledge without frustration and successful readers to extend and grow quickly)? Both the OLPC XO and the Intel convertible Classmate have e-reader modes, Microsoft's rumored Courier will likely be a Kindle-meets-tablet-PC, and increasingly cheap e-readers can pair with inexpensive netbooks or classroom computers to manage educational libraries as well.

My house is filled with books. I grew up reading non-stop and my big weekend expedition with my 7-year old (aside from going to see the Young Frankenstein musical in Hartford) will be going to Barnes and Noble to buy some new books. He's read everything we have that's all appropriate for him, so it's time for some more. Unfortunately, this just isn't possible in too many households.

Do you realize that every child 15 and under in the United States (all 61.5 million of them - Thanks, Wolfram Alpha) could be given a convertible Classmate for only $27 billion? Obviously we could shave off a couple billion by not giving them to babies or toddlers, but $27 billion is only 4.3% of the defense bill just passed by the Senate. If these were all pre-loaded with leveled books and a variety of educational, pleasure, and text books (there's where we could spend the extra billion or two), kids would always have something to read. Just as importantly, they would have instruments on which they could always write, collaborate, peer-edit, and get feedback from a variety of sources.

Sure, this is all pie-in-the-sky. But for all our talk of 21st Century skills and making our children competitive, why can't we turn to technology to build literacy in important new ways? Without literacy (and I'm taking the broader definition here that includes the ability to write well and understand a variety of written media), all the 21st Century skills in the world aren't worth a hill of beans. I'm not saying that the government should allocate $27 billion every three years for student laptops either (although I can't say it's actually that bad an idea, given the pork to which our tax dollars often flow). Yet it's clear that the technology is getting more affordable and more mature every day.

I'd like to wrap this up with a YouTube video by Professor Daniel Willingham of the University of Virginia. It's an interesting slide show about the interplay between literacy and everything else we teach our kids. As you watch the video, think about how kids could be using 1:1 technologies to access information, texts, and resources across our curricula. 1:1 has come a long ways from our early forays into laptops for kids. We're right on the cusp of not only being able to build those fabled 21st Century skills but also drastically improve our students' core literacy through intelligent use of this technology.

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