Where We Go From Here in Reading
By Todd Brekhus
There are far too many students in the United States who can't read proficiently. And, the reading achievement gap has persisted for decades. It's time to re-examine how we in the education community assess and personalize reading. The convergence of new developments in reading research and technological advances illuminate a pathway forward to improve student literacy, and subsequently, academic outcomes. Special education programs have used IEPs, or individual education plans, to measure personalized reading growth for students with dyslexia and other special literacy needs, providing a successful example of the future of reading measurement for all students.
We live in an age of data. States and districts have introduced numerous measurement tools that generate reams of data. But oftentimes, educators are not getting the meaningful information they need to impact student performance. In an average school district during the school year, teachers and students complete a standardized state test, a few benchmark tests, and several summative assessments for the end of a unit, chapter or textbook. These methods are disconnected from the reading experience itself and are incomplete when used alone. They don't provide detailed information about students' appetite for reading and their reading prowess. The testing also eats up valuable teaching and learning time educators can't afford to spare.
While most of these assessments provide necessary check ups, they are less effective in illustrating a picture of student learning in the moment for educators to tailor instruction and help each student grow during the year. The current methods and measures are no longer sufficient to improve reading at the scale and speed schools need and students deserve.
Most earlier advances in technology and assessment focused on taking a quiz after reading a book, but this limited data set is not in keeping with modern capabilities of personalized literacy platforms nor is it comprehensive. With the advent of ebook libraries, mobile devices and affordable cloud-based tools, there is a unique opportunity to capture meaningful data about student reading while they are reading. Critical information about students' reading behavior, attitudes and performance can inform personalized instruction and drive literacy growth--without taking time away from or disrupting the learning process.
Three key factors in reading success are necessary for schools to evaluate and to deliver a personalized reading experience that improves student outcomes: motivation, volume and engagement.
Numerous studies link motivation to higher reading achievement. According to a 2010 study by Dominican University, when students are motivated to read, they read more because they perceive it as an enjoyable and appealing activity, contributing to greater reading success. Researcher John Guthrie and his colleagues have determined that students with high levels of motivation read more extensively and use higher order comprehension skills than students with lower levels of motivation.
In her article "Seven Rules of Engagement," Linda Gambrell outlines research-based ways educators can boost students' intrinsic reading motivation, including providing students with opportunities to read independently, autonomy support, choice, and access to a wide range of texts. Students are more motivated to read when they are able to choose books that match their reading level and interests.
Technology-driven reading platforms can provide these motivating conditions as well as the tools to measure students' motivation. Technology now allows educators to easily and quickly capture students' excitement for reading based on how many books they read, how long they read and when they read. For instance, if students are reading of their own volition--at home, on the bus or wherever and whenever they can access ebooks - it is a strong indicator of a motivated reader.
Educators in Berwyn South School District in Illinois found that students who were given access to an online reading platform weren't just logging on during class, they were also reading during their free time and on days when they weren't in school. This led the staff to embark on a coordinated effort to develop a culture of reading school- and community-wide that has dramatically increased student reading achievement despite the challenges of a high population of low-income and minority families.
The more students read, the better readers and learners they become. An extensive study of independent reading by Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding found that the amount of time students spent reading independently was the best predictor of vocabulary development and reading achievement gains. Additionally, the Reading and Writing Project suggests that a higher volume of reading leads to development of higher-order literacy proficiencies.
How long students can focus on reading (i.e., reading stamina), how many words they consume as they read, how often they read, and their reading frequency are critical determinants of learning outcomes. These elements can be tracked with new technologies, enabling teachers to employ interventions when needed to help students read more books, more often and for a longer period of time.
Through an online literacy program that matches students to their ability level and interests, school leaders in Polk School District in Georgia were able to monitor students' volume of reading and performance. The more time students spent reading and the more books they completed, the greater their Lexile scores grew. This prompted school leaders and teachers to implement incentivized reading programs, roll out monthly reading themes, and integrate ebooks across the curriculum, and more, to increase reading.
While motivation is the point of entry for teachers to get students invested in reading and primed to learn, engagement is where learning occurs. Guthrie defines reading engagement as "interacting with text in ways that are strategic and motivated," and his research directly links engagement to achievement.
Guthrie outlined what educators should look for to determine students' level of engagement, such as: reading for sustained periods of time, showing an interest in particular topics and authors, keeping lists of questions, words and ideas from their reading, responding in writing to their reading, and looking forward to time to read and work independently. Close reading strategies, such as annotating and journaling, are designed to increase student engagement in reading and provide additional measures of reading.
New digital platforms that combine reading with scaffolded supports and writing tools can provide teachers with ways to incorporate close reading while obtaining a wealth of data to assess student engagement. Students' annotations, notes, dictionary searches, and responses to discussion questions are just some of the information that now can be tracked and observed. Teachers can see students' activities during reading to assess literacy skills.
Measuring Reading with Reading
Intuitively educators know that when students are motivated and engaged in reading, they develop into better readers and learners. Today's technological advances enable teachers to easily assess and evaluate this process with minimal effort. What teachers have observed in the classroom - and what they couldn't see beyond the school walls - is now measurable.
Data gathered while students read, and viewed together, provides a complete picture of learning at a time when action can still be taken to help students improve. It's measuring students' reading proficiency with data about their individual reading: their behaviors, attitudes, activities and growth. Administrators and teachers can determine the right levers to push to effectively foster greater motivation and engagement among their students and personalize instruction. Given the opportunity to see their growth over time, students can self-assess their reading habits and skills and become motivated to improve. Gambrell noted in her article that "students who believe that they are capable and competent readers are more likely to outperform those who do not hold such beliefs." Parents also become active participants when they have meaningful information on their students' reading progress.
"Measuring reading with reading" requires collaboration among all education community members from technology developers to content providers to educators. Some districts are already taking up the charge. Maury County School District in Tennessee has tapped a cohort of teachers among their staff to serve as instructional coaches and rethink formative assessment approaches, particularly literacy assessment. The district is using myON's built-in Lexile exams and reporting features to measure students' progress toward reading at grade level and to use digital interventions if students start to fall behind. The district staff examines number of books browsed and read, number of words and pages read, time spent reading, students' reading interests, and Lexile scores, among other data points to inform decisions that not only increase reading achievement but also instill a love of reading.
Todd Brekhus is the president of myON, a business unit of Capstone, which offers a personalized reading environment that matches students' interests and reading levels and tracks their reading growth. Prior to joining Capstone, Brekhus held executive positions in a range of education businesses, and spent eight years as an English teacher, department chair, and technology director. You can connect with him on Twitter here.