“While we (teachers) are not always comfortable with technology, we need to think about students first and work through our challenges to make things better for them.” These were Sharon Plante’s words, the director of technology for the Southport School in Southport, Connecticut, who spoke in a recent webinar hosted by edWeb.net.
She says student access to content to demonstrate knowledge should be the baseline when considering educational technology that supports and enhances small group reading instruction. In the webinar, Plante also emphasizes that
“meeting students’ needs with learning disabilities through the use of technology can make reading instruction a multi-sensory process that is engaging and explicit, but that also maintains “individualization and diagnostic-prescriptive aspects of the lesson.”
However, Plante cautions that technology is not a replacement for the traditional worksheet. Technology should help readers who are struggling with various reading skills that include decoding of words, reading fluency and comprehension, and differentiated contextual reading. Teachers need to assess students’ needs in the small group reading environment and analyze educational technology products that best suit those needs.
Is the product to be instructional or practice? Will it be used for remediation, accommodations, or differentiation? How valuable is the teacher/student data and feedback? Does the product have built-in accessibility features and ease of differentiation? What are the associated costs of the programs?
Decoding software can be beneficial for students who struggle with sounding out words. Plante recommends robust agnostic products, such as Sound Literacy, Lexia Learning, Classkick, Pear Deck, and Nearpod, products that can be customized for differentiation, progress monitoring options, and real-time data collection. These small group instruction programs will reinforce independent practice and the individual reinforcement of the skills needed for phonological awareness.
2. Encoding and morphology
Morphology, or the structure of words, can also be a struggle for readers with learning disabilities. Edtech programs such as Quizizz, Simplex Spelling, Word Wizard, and Classkick follow strong instructions sequences, allow the student to move at their own processing speed, and provide real-time monitoring and feedback features for both the teacher and the student.
Plante points out that “as teachers, we tell students what they need to fix, but because students can’t hear themselves, they don’t comprehend what we (teachers) are asking them to fix.” Students can quickly identify errors and what they need to change using “game-changing” audio products like Flipgrid and Fluency Tutor. Features to consider when implementing software to support fluency include students’ ability to record and review recordings on any device and customizable options for teachers such as the feedback type, passage lengths, and comprehension levels.
“Although students with learning disabilities may have the ability to process information, they do so with great inefficiency,” explains Plante.
“It is not atypical for students with learning disabilities to be unaware of basic strategies that good readers use as a matter of course, such as re-reading passages they don’t understand.”
Tools that support reading comprehension for students with working memory challenges include Actively Learn, InsertLearning, EPIC, and Flipgrid. These agnostic programs can break the text down into small chunks so that students can retain the information and participate in group discussions.
5. Differentiated contextual reading
While students in small group reading instruction may be at different reading levels, all students must access the same article, passage, or novel. Educational technology programs such as Newsela, Freckles, Rewordify, Learning Ally, and Book Share have Lexile measure options that allow students to access text at levels that ensure the same conversation in class and enable students to learn on their own and have a better understanding of the text.
Finally, while there is much educational technology software available to educators and students, Plante highly recommends that teachers find the text-to-speech and speech-to-text ability on the students’ devices in class and at home. Everyday devices such as smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers have supported and enhanced small group reading so much easier. The big three platforms — Apple, Google, and Microsoft — have improved accessibility functions such as text-to-speak, speak selections, and features that support all our struggling readers.