Reading technology engages students and empowers teachers

By Merlynn Newbold

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, March 13 2013 5:15 p.m. MDT

Nothing is more important in the life of a child than to learn to read. This crucial step during a child’s formative years can lead to a lifetime of learning and achievement. Without it, children are more likely to be involved in crime and poverty, and may never reach their full personal potential. As the great novelist Victor Hugo wrote, “To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.”

The Utah Legislature recognized last year the powerful gift reading gives to every child and acted upon this recognition by passing the Early Intervention Program, HB513. This bill created an investment in reading software for one third of Utah’s 90,000 kindergarten and first graders. To ensure the best implementation of the reading software, a competitive process was used to find schools that were the most capable and eager to take advantage of the early intervention reading program, and commit to its success. To further enhance a competitive process, these schools were able to choose software from six different companies that were selected through a rigorous Request for Proposal (RFP) process at the State Board of Education in order to find the best match.

The reason reading software is so effective at turning around the lives of struggling and at-risk students is because of the individualized, patient, and powerful instruction it provides to students in recommended “dosages”. For example, it is common practice for students to use reading software for 20-30 minutes daily. Some software utilizes the Internet and can be used at home. The individualized instruction these digital learning tools provide is then tracked by interactive and adaptive computer software. The outcomes of these measurements provide the teacher with information which they can use to individualize their teaching. The child is also provided an infinitely patient and positive virtual tutor that they can read to as they progress through various reading levels.

According to Ernest Broderick, a principal of 20 years at Stansbury Elementary in Salt Lake County, the program is just as effective for native English speakers who are struggling with their fluency and reading comprehension as it is for students whose second language is English. Broderick commented, “I felt that to know the efficiency of reading software intervention and not to provide it, would be educational malpractice.” Stansbury Elementary has since seen its English language learning students double their progress in learning English by using the reading software four times a week for twenty minutes a day.

This type of outstanding progress is going on all across Utah at the schools who are participating in the Early Intervention Program. In order to empirically see the progress of the program, the results of last year will be measured by a third party evaluator and the effectiveness of the investment will be determined. The study will reveal the relative improvements students have made using digital learning reading software. Based upon so many early indications of success and the optimal deployment in schools across Utah, the Legislature passed SB260 on March 13, sponsored by Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, to provide greater access to the successful reading technology tools provided by HB513 last year. The bill will be forwarded on to Governor Herbert for his signature.

The ability to read is not only essential for basic function in society, it is a key indicator of success inside and outside the classroom. Statistics show that if a child is not reading at grade level by third grade, that child is four times more likely not to graduate from high school. This greatly diminishes the chances for success and lifetime earnings of that individual. Through this program, all children may be given a chance to light their own spark of imagination and curiosity to become lifelong learners. We have a goal that 90 percent of Utah students will attain reading proficiency by third grade in 2020; this measure will take great steps toward accomplishing that goal.

Merlynn Newbold is a former legislator (member of the House of Representatives) who sponsored HB513 in 2012.

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