News and Tribune

February 5, 2013

Students using e-readers see big boost in reading ability

By JEROD CLAPP
jerod.clapp@newsandtribune.com

FLOYDS KNOBS —  

He just didn’t like to read.

Michael Atwood, a seventh-grader at Highland Hills Middle School, had no interest in picking up a book and finishing it from one cover to the other. 

Then, something changed after the beginning of this school year.

“If I go [to the library], it’s hard to find a book and they don’t have a lot of books I like,” Atwood said. “But with a Kindle, you can read really fast because you can personalize it to you. It makes me feel like I’m pushing right though the pages.”

A Read 180 class in the New Albany-Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. is giving the rest of the district a preview of what could happen when technology is introduced to every student in the classroom. Carla Thomas, who teaches the class, purchased seven Amazon Kindles with money she was awarded last year.

Thomas’ class helps students who are reading below their grade level catch up with their peers. Even though she’s only had half a school year with e-readers in the hands of her students, she said the results have been huge.

“For me as a reader, what I’m seeing is that I’m having conversations with kids about books,” Thomas said. “Before, it was staged, I was rehearsing what I was going to say to them. Now, they’re coming up to me, showing me things they’re reading and talking to me about it.”

In her class, she uses a Lexile scale — a standardized measure of reading ability — to gauge where a student stands with their peers. Typically, she said teachers in Read 180 shoot for gains of 50-100 Lexile points in a year.

Since she started with the Kindles in August, she said her students have already increased at an average of 200 to 250 Lexile points, some seeing as much as a 500 point gain.

 

What difference 

does it make?

Thomas said she had a student in her class one year who was a reluctant reader. One day, she looked up to see him with a Sony Playstation Portable in his hands during class.

As she made her way toward him, she noticed he wasn’t playing a game. Instead, he was reading a book.

She said the wheels began turning for her, then she was awarded WHAS 11’s ExCEL Award in May 2012. She got $1,000 along with the award and purchased the Kindles with a few books on each of them to use in her classroom.

But after trying to find resources online, she said most of the teachers who had introduced e-readers to their students just wrote about how to use them rather than incorporate the devices into the classroom.

“I didn’t want it to be something where we had the same group of seven kids and read the same pages,” Thomas said. “I wanted them to be independent and really get lost in the book.”

While she thought students might enjoy the e-readers, she said she didn’t realize it would make such a big difference for the ones who were frightened by reading.

With a Kindle at home, Thomas said she noticed students doing some things with them she didn’t expect. They were turning them sideways and increasing the font size.

After talking to some of the kids, she found it wasn’t because they couldn’t see the letters, it was because fewer words on the page made reading less intimidating.

One of her students, whom she did not name, didn’t read a single book last year. By October with the Kindle, she said he’d finished three.

“Once he took it, he was gone,” Thomas said. “He’s the one that told me it doesn’t look as scary to him, there weren’t as many words on the page and it didn’t seem like as big of a book to him.”

 

Reading at home

Abby Durrett, a seventh-grader and a couple of her classmates have e-readers of their own. Durrett and another student, Mason Carte, have Kindle Fires. 

Thomas said Carte and another student get together, read the same book and discuss it with each other. She said she never thought students would spontaneously begin their own discussion groups.

“He and his friend read the same book, talk about it and keep up with each other on it,” Thomas said. “It’s organically, naturally happening. Where if I would have assigned it, I would have dragged them kicking and screaming into the assignment.”

She said a couple of other features help children boost their confidence in reading: The Kindles are always the same thickness and built-in dictionaries help with words they don’t understand.

Durrett said she likes being able to look up a word on the fly with her e-reader. 

“I think they’re cool because if there’s a word you come upon and you don’t know it, you can press it and the Kindle gives you the definition,” Durrett said.

Since August, Durrett has improved her Lexile score by 400 points and is reading one grade level ahead of her peers.

But the reading scores alone aren’t improving. Some students are able to read without assistance for the first time in their lives.

Thomas said she also has a couple of Kindle Fire tablets in her classroom, which are more like a computer. She said since students with motor-skill issues, such as cerebral palsy, can’t turn a page on their own, they have to let a teacher know when they’re finished with a page.

Now, they can move their hand across the surface of the computer and turn the page by themselves.

“It’s taken the simple act of turning the page and given them that level of independence,” Thomas said. “They can go ahead and get lost in that book now.”

She said giving students a computer in their hands has come with a few lessons she’s learned, as well.

Along with manually restricting wireless network access and blocking some features of the e-readers to keep students focused, she said she still finds out something different students might do with them in the classroom.

But, she said, the key for her was to work with the students, not rebuke them.

“They’re very open and honest with showing you the workarounds, so you have to work together and foster that kind of environment in the classroom if it’s going to work,” Thomas said.

 

What’s next

The district has had serious discussions about laying infrastructure for a 1:1 initiative, which would put some kind of personal computer in the hands of every student to use in classes.

Steve Griffin, principal, said he thinks some of what Thomas is doing with her class is just the beginning of what the district could look like in the next few years.

“The kids in our building now and all of the buildings are digital natives,” Griffin said. “They’re so used to that, it almost seems strange to them to come in and see these old-fashioned textbooks we use. I think the wave of the future is having something kids can interact with... .”

Thomas said there’s still a long way to go with some students and she’s already looking at ways to reach them through technology.

She said with a series of other reading intervention programs on computers, some students are catching up that way. She also said she’s working with the school to create an audio library, where students can borrow an iPod loaded with books that include sound effects while a reader acts out from the text.

She said students who have a hard time reading have a difficult time imagining the scene authors are trying to paint with words.

She said since students are interested in the new devices, it just makes sense to bring them into the building.

“The more we get into it, the more we have to study it,” Thomas said. “Not that traditional books will ever go away, but since they seem interested in technology, why not capitalize on it?”

Griffin said he’s thrilled with the results he’s seeing with the e-readers, but another crucial part of the equation hadn’t been given enough attention.

“No, and really, the Kindles are a great tool,” Griffin said. “What she does is she probably doesn’t give herself enough credit. It’s really Carla Thomas. The Kindles are great, the technology is great, but the way she works with those kids, they work their tail off for her.”

As computers, tablets, iPods and other devices begin working their way into classrooms nationwide, Thomas said even parents are beginning to realize that it’s more than just a fad.

“When parents contact me after years and years of fear and reluctance from their students, I don’t have to convince them of anything,” Thomas said. “They just want to keep the momentum going.”