My original proposal was meant to explore the methods undertaken to improve reading ability, and their effectiveness. So far it’s been an ever-unfolding investigation where I’ve found some of my old ideas (like giving students choices to improve readership) were not so simple (it’s not just about choice; It’s also interest, motivation, and other, less tangible factors as well).
The more I read about all the attempts to improve reading, the more it starts to look like Hercules trying to cut the heads off of the Hydra. For every new idea trotted out, more complications arise from the various options explored to help students. Multiple tools for reading and learning mean an ever-increasing need for multiple literacies as well—not just the literal ability to read and write, but the ability to understand and make efficient use of new tools meant to enhance literacy and reading. Everyone’s obsessed with the latest gadgetry, apps, and tools meant to improve and ease our lives, but for students (and sometimes educators too), there’s a learning curve with all that technology.
Are the simplest methods easiest? It may seem a trivial solution to just hand students stacks of books to encourage more reading when they have the time. James Kim’s ‘Effects of a Summer Reading Intervention’ examined the availability of printed reading material and its effect on the abilities of students who were given more opportunity to read. By providing several recreational texts to students who might lapse or regress in their reading, the program in this study was able to help students improve their reading proficiencies, especially those who were non-white and/or of low socioeconomic status (and thus without as much reading material as the more affluent families). This sort of ‘intervention’ required only that basic textual literacy, a self-reinforcing trait—the more you read, the more you can read—but programs like this only shore up reading deficiencies, and then only by handing students a heap of books and saying, “Here, read these.”
In the search for more streamlined methods, some people point to modern technology and computer-based instruction. And indeed, use of the computer as the popular teaching tool has dramatically increased in the last several years, but in comparison to traditional materials, just how helpful is this methodology? Alison Kuehner’s investigation into computer instruction and its influence on reading skills takes a look at the computer rather than books as the fount of knowledge and inspiration, claiming that the use of computers may act as a time-saving tool for reading (although precisely how, she didn’t say), and improve vocabulary and comprehension through specialized programs (not to mention all that reading on one screen just being good because, well, it’s all that reading on one screen). Sounds good and fast, and better than a pile of books, right? Not necessarily. Computers crash, programming is inflexible, and costly machines and software become outdated. The article also says the claims are still countered or debated by naysayers, who point to multiple studies on computer use having lacked controls. Students were highly interested in using computers, but that doesn’t meant this method was effective. Some instruction was also skewed to guiding the student users—essentially, taking more time to teach them or using tutorials, which means they needed to give students further “literacy” in those educational programs too.
It’s all well and good to have more and different tools in your kit (better to have an inverse ratchet samophlange and not need it), but aside from whether or not these tools are effective, what if students don’t know how to make the best use of them—or any use at all? In the case of learning to use continually-updating series of computer-based reading and writing programs, students need a different sort of literacy to go with the traditional one—a meta-literacy of sorts, and one that needs constant updating to go with new programs and tools. My own college career has shifted over time, transitioning from a concentration in handwritten materials and texts, toward a greater emphasis on blogs, websites, online reading and writing activities and more. Leu and company mention this change in ‘Toward a Theory of New Literacies’: “Many graduates started their school career with the literacies of paper, pencil, and book technologies but will finish having encountered the literacies demanded by a wide variety of information and communication technologies.” Improving reading ability by providing more access to materials and methods (instead of just hoping students will improve by just reading traditional texts) is a great goal and a useful means to an end, but this rapidly evolving suite of technologies has forced me (and countless other students) to have to become literate in those new tools as well—then possibly abandon each tool and its literacy thanks to planned obsolescence or the next trendy idea. We risk getting caught up in the technology rather than making judicious use of it.
Does a new computer with the latest reading application actually make the instructor’s job easier or provide another obstacle to the instructor’s work? Does it improve students’ reading ability, or do they have to become literate in its use before they can apply it to their studies? There’s an ever-growing need to provide constant access to reading materials and means, whether physical or electronic, as well as an accompanying growth in the ability and time to make use of them. Is there a way to integrate all this into the classroom, from childhood onward? Computer literacy classes are a start, but what about improved access throughout the curriculum, a general trend rather than one or two focused courses (similar to reading and writing across the curriculum, rather than a minor set of composition-only classes)? We can hand students all the books or technology we think will help, but aside from the general aim—getting them to read—how best can we make genuine, consistent, effective use of all these materials? Is it even possible?
We can tailor classes to include tutorials on computer and application usage, but not every student is going to come in knowing how to use them at the same literacy level—just as every student’s reading ability is unique. The mention of Snow’s Aptitude Treatment Interaction stood out to me in our last lecture in regard to this. That extra time needed to teach this meta-literacy to students will either take too long (for students already versed in it) or not enough time (for students with less previous experience). Having to customize that education for each student adds unnecessary complication, and the march of technology means dealing with the risk of obsolescence (Apple IIs, anyone?) or changes in popularity (MySpace? What’s that?) or just not being all that useful (I’m looking at you, Google+), in addition to traditional lesson planning and education. Meanwhile (as someone said out loud during this week’s class), you can still teach using the same book twenty years after print (and it doesn’t crash, run out of battery power, fall prey to a virus, or fail to patch). It seems best to keep technology in order to supplement, not supplant. There’s no need to burden either students or educators with more technology to ‘help’ students read when, as Kuehner’s study would suggest, the only tools you may really need are a text and a competent instructor.