Margaret Allen on why evolving edtech is just one part of the story when it comes to reading

Having spent time inside and outside of the classroom, firstly using educational technology solutions and then later on helping to develop them, I’ve had the unique opportunity to experience what it’s like on both sides of the fence.

Teachers are obviously key to all activity in the classroom, but I do believe that the biggest challenge for most is ensuring that technology is a purposeful enhancement and not just an obligatory adjunct.

awpartnerhandblueAnd depending on which side of that classroom fence you’re sitting at a particular time, learning with technology can feel a little like ‘Which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ Teaching Year 3s in my class had its challenges as I tried to develop their skills to cope with their key stage change, but nothing was more rewarding or stimulating than engaging them with purposeful technology. And finding opportunities for good quality talk and language development.

I do sometimes wonder whether edtech is evolving to support teaching and learning. Or is teaching and learning evolving in response to edtech? Or is it simply both?

Now this might very much depend on the type of the technology and the drivers behind development, but I know that one thing is for sure – those technologies which have arisen in direct response to a pedagogical need, deliver tangible benefits to schools and they help to better engage learners. 

'Technology only one cog in a much bigger wheel of teaching and learning'

However, it doesn’t matter how ‘trusted’ the technology is, or indeed even what type it is. The fact remains that technology is only one cog in a much bigger wheel of teaching and learning. Using Accelerated Reader as an example; the technology comes into play because children can choose to read a printed book or an e-book (from their school, local library or one they’ve purchased) and then take an online quiz. This assesses their comprehension, gives instant feedback on performance and then tracks their reading development over time (there are currently more than 28,000 quizzes available).

In its simplest form the technology is adding value to the student’s reading development by giving instant feedback and tracking development. Which is great. But where we start to see the real value being gained, and what I would deem to be best practice, is when the technology is truly embedded in school processes. As a teacher, the challenge was always finding evidence which would help me understand an individual child's needs and progress.

Progress in reading is virtually impossible to measure. Unlike maths and writing, the evidence of children's ability and achievement in reading can never be really seen. I recognise that teachers can't sit down and talk to every child each time they read a book, so AR does this for them and STAR (the online assessment test) confirms and validates the "journey" each time it is administered (normally four times a year).

As a standalone addition to any education environment, technology will always attract an initial ‘wow’ factor which naturally engages students, and in the context of Accelerated Reader also encourages reluctant readers. But to achieve the maximum positive impact and support a reading culture, schools need to integrate Accelerated Reader as part of a wider reading development strategy and examine how the insights gained from the technology can better support teachers, students and parents in other areas.

River Beach deputy head on AR from Renlearn UK on Vimeo.

A very simple example, using Accelerated Reader again, is the Home Connect feature which supports schools with parental engagement by giving them online access to their children’s reading progress – including a ‘book shelf’ which displays all of the books they have read and any associated quiz scores. Children sharing their day's activity at home will always be a challenge but to have a log-in for each child and offering a real incentive for children to read at home, so that they can "take-a-quiz" at school, has to be a winner.

Reading trends change year on year

picaccelreadquiz2Quizzes make 'progress' real and tangibleIt’s not only how a school implements technology which is critical to realising true value. The nature of technology means that it will continue to evolve – and so the companies behind the systems need to ensure that this evolution keeps pace with changing education demands and supports wider technological innovations. Here at Renaissance Learning, we have a team of quiz writers and independent assessors who work tirelessly to create quizzes for the ever expanding list of new titles and popular authors. You only have to read the annual ‘What kids are reading’ report to see how the trends change from year to year (Harry Potter made his exit from the top 10 this year – it was 7th in 2014).

Anecdotal feedback from schools using Accelerated Reader is consistently positive in relation to the system supporting reading development, encouraging reluctant readers, engendering a love for reading and facilitating parental engagement. However, early research by the Education Endowment Foundation (EFF) went one step further to quantify the impact of Accelerated Reader as raising the reading age of pupils by an additional three months (low-income pupils by five months), with further testing now underway in 200 English primary schools (see "£885k to test scaleability of tech-aided literacy service"). Over a 22-week period children made the equivalent of 22 weeks progress but with AR the additional 3 to 5 months progress was in evidence.

So we know that the technology works – yes, it is tried and tested. But to realise true potential, we need to embrace it as part of our teaching and learning strategy. It has to become another trusted tool in our resource bank alongside the drawing pins, Blu-Tack and paper glue - or is that just the teacher in me?

Accelerated Reader
Accelerated Reader User Groups 

Margaret Allen is strategic education manager for primary schools at Renaissance Learning. For more thoughts like this follow her on Twitter@MargaretCAllen 


How the SLT should support Accelerated Reader from Renlearn UK on Vimeo.