A few years ago, I wrote a white paper that made a case for how innovations in educational technology could both address teacher shortages and help teachers tackle challenges beyond basic content instruction. Looking back on that paper in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, its insights and recommendations seem more relevant than ever.
Survey data we collected in October 2021 provide insights into the struggles faced by teachers and administrators rippling out of last school year’s remote and hybrid instruction. And now, surges of the omicron variant are wreaking new havoc on schools. Staff shortages, quarantines, closed school buildings, and general stress and anxiety all make teaching and managing schools feel like drowning.
In the midst of these challenges, online learning is probably the last technology educators are utilizing for relief. As one principal I spoke with recently told me, even schools he observed that spent years working on blended-learning implementation are now turning away from technology. Keeping heads above water trumps innovation efforts in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But the right online learning tools, when used effectively, can help them tackle some of the challenges on their plates.
At the time I wrote the white paper mentioned above, most of the prominent and promising online learning technologies were in math instruction. But since that time, I’ve observed a number of solutions for language arts teachers that deserve attention. Below are three examples worth considering.
1. Reclaiming days of instructional time in early elementary grades
A few years ago when my oldest son was in Kindergarten, his dinner table stories seemed to suggest that he was spending a good portion of each day at school watching Disney movies. When my wife later volunteered in his classroom, she discovered that the stories were partly true. His teacher needed to administer reading assessments to each of her students every month or so to track their progress in developing their reading fluency. The assessment data both informed instructional strategies and helped the school keep itself accountable for ensuring all students learned to read. But when children aren’t yet fluent in reading, reading assessments are effectively oral assessments that must be proctored by the teacher one student at a time. Our son’s teacher was using movies for an hour or so each day to keep the class entertained while she proctored these assessments—a process that usually took a few weeks to complete.
One of the most valuable educational technologies to hit the market in the last few years are programs like Literably and MAP Reading Fluency that streamline and automate this process. They turn work that swallows multiple hours of classroom instructional time spread out over a few weeks and complete it for an entire class in one sitting with results available within hours. Students read aloud following prompts from an app and the app then audio records their reading, scores it accordingly, and notes the particular reading skills each student needs to improve. For teachers, less time on assessments means less stress trying to manage a class from the back of the room while administering assessments, more time to focus on the instructional interventions students need, and more at-hand data to inform instructional decisions.
2. Shifting attention from lesson planning to active learning
Another major draw on language arts teachers’ capacity is the time they spend first trying to find engaging and appropriate texts and then developing lesson and unit plans that use those texts to cover learning objectives. On this front, a number of worthwhile resources both streamline the planning process and help enhance instruction.
Actively Learn is a platform with a complete language arts curriculum for grades 3 through 12 and a wide selection of supplementary reading assignments designed to help students develop close reading skills. As students read, they can highlight and annotate the text and engage in discussions around the text with their teacher and classmates. The platform also includes embedded notes to provide background information and context, periodic free response questions to prompt engagement and critical thinking, and read-along features.
Newsela makes it easy to add engaging, relevant, and aligned supplements to language arts instruction. The platform produces articles on current events and topics of interest to students at five different reading levels. Teachers can then search the articles by topic and filter their searches by grade level, standards, and particular reading skill (e.g. identifying theme), thereby making it much easier to find interesting and appropriate articles to supplement core curriculum.
As students progress through elementary grades and develop their literacy skills, the focus of language arts instruction shifts from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” But this shift becomes problematic for students who, for one reason or another, don’t become fluent readers before high school. As a former teacher myself, I know that high school teachers often aren’t trained or experienced in helping high school students develop basic literacy. To help on this front, Riveting Results is a curriculum designed to engage high school students in complex texts while also helping them catch up on reading. In other words, it gives high school teachers a manageable way to expand their capacity to teach basic literacy without pulling back from high-school-level analysis of texts.
3. Breaking the bottleneck of writing feedback
Writing is a skill that takes purposeful practice. Students need to do it repeatedly, they need feedback, and they need to reflect on that feedback to help them improve. Unfortunately, many students rarely experience that type of practice because teacher capacity is a huge bottleneck to the feedback part of the process. Most teachers just don’t have time to review students’ writing assignments multiple times and in a timely manner. To make matters worse, one-and-done writing assignments undermine efforts to help students develop growth mindsets.
Fortunately, modern tools like NoRedInk and Quill now help break that bottleneck. These programs provide both exercises to help students develop basic writing skills and automated coaching on larger writing assignments following structured processes that help them review and revise their work. With immediate feedback on their writing, students can practice and refine their skills in much more rapid iteration.
These tools don’t replace teachers in coaching students’ writing. They just take care of providing feedback on basic writing skills so that teachers can focus their feedback on higher-order reasoning and creativity that software can’t address.
The long-term goal of self-directed learning
Reading is one of the oldest forms of self-directed learning. The invention of written language enabled humans to share and discover information and ideas well outside their immediate experiences and those of their immediate families and communities. These language arts solutions supported by online learning, can serve not only to lighten teachers’ loads and allow capacity for higher-order student support, but as they help teachers to lift their students’ literacy skills over time, unlock the foundational literacy critical to self-directed learning opportunities.
If you’ve used any of the tools described above or similar tools to expand your teaching capacity, please share your experience and thoughts in the comments below.
Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages.