When I taught high school English Language Arts (ELA), one of the ways I utilized technology was to engage my students in different types of reading and writing. While the apps I used over the years have changed and evolved, the reasons behind them always stayed the same. Those reasons are sometimes tough ones for teachers to “sell” to administrators when it comes to using new tools in the classroom.
I remember a time I had to beg to have YouTube unblocked for my class so I could allow students to create and share videos. Sadly, there are still some schools where YouTube and other applications are blocked. Sometimes it just takes the right reason to convince an administrator. Here are a couple of reasons to utilize digital tools to support reading and writing.
Differentiation in ELA
One of the hardest parts of being a teacher is the need to differentiate all of our lessons to support the wide variety of learner profiles we encounter in a classroom. The days of just standing in the front of the class and talking for 45 minutes in the hopes that everyone writes it all down and memorizes it later should be long behind us. Students and teachers have access to amazing applications that can change the way that they engage with reading and writing.
When it comes to differentiation in the classroom, there are many valuable applications that can dramatically increase student engagement in the reading and writing process. Whenever students asked me how to become better readers and writers, I told them doing more of both is the best way to get better. With more and more tools out there that allow students to engage with the text they read and write, more students will feel comfortable doing the reading. When more students read and write in differentiated situations, everybody wins.
For students that need support with reading, a teacher can use Newsela to vary the reading level of the same article. This allows the students to read the article at their reading level and still be part of the overall conversation. Nobody has to feel left out of the reading process and the overall learning process.
Snap and Read is another great tool that is a Google Chrome extension that can help students by reading text to the students that need a little more support. Like Newsela, there is a feature that will allow readers to highlight text and adjust the reading level to meet their needs.
Variety of Assessment
One of the things that stood out to me as an ELA teacher was how students would choose to engage in the reading based on the assessment that was going to wrap up the unit. In my first few years, my assessments were the standard multiple choice test. The high achievers would be engaged, but students who struggled with those types of assessments would not be as involved.
Why would they put in the time when they would fail the test whether they read or not? If the final assessment was a formal essay or impromptu writing piece, the students who excelled at writing were engaged in the reading, but those who struggled in that area would check out until the next unit. By looking at the data, I noticed a trend, and I needed to do something about it to increase engagement in all my students.
The PBL Puzzle
One of the biggest changes in my classroom was the move to Project-Based Learning (PBL). Instead of having me run a class discussion and then students take a test or write an essay, students would dive into the texts themselves, identify theme, symbols, motifs, etc., and then come up with a way to demonstrate their understanding of the text to share with the class. What this did was give all students an opportunity to engage in the text and then engage in the assessment in a meaningful way.
Some students would create movies using iMovie and share on YouTube; some students would create comic books using Pixton; some would create photo portfolios using Google Photos; and the list goes on and on. Students were fully engaged in the reading because they could use the digital tools that they were comfortable with to share what they learned. The more I made the end game clearer to students, the easier it was for them to engage in the reading in the present and plan for their project at the end.
The variety of assessments added Project-Based Learning and still had places for traditional ELA writing. When students knew they were going to be able to approach texts for essays the same way they approached their projects, I saw an improvement in many of the writing scores. The variety of assessments allowed students to engage in the reading in a personal way because they would be able to use digital tools they knew would help them best explain what they understand.
Increasing Engagement in ELA
When it comes to increasing engagement in reading and writing, teachers need to start moving beyond traditional instructional methods and embrace the wide variety of technology-based tools that can support students with a wide variety of learning profiles. The more students can connect with the text, the more likely they are to keep reading, work on their writing, and push through obstacles.
Taking the time and implementing different digital tools is worth the extra effort because of the long-lasting impact it can have on students who struggle in English Language Arts classes. At the end of the day, helping these students is what is important.
You can view a presentation related to this topic here.Photo: Aaron Burden