How Technology Can Help (and Hinder) with Reading Development
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, March/April 2018 Issue
By Martha Beach
Jasmine is in third grade. She loves camping, fishing, and hiking in the woods with her older sister. She is a confident, enthusiastic, supportive friend and team participant. Yet, when it comes to reading, her confidence slips away. She has trouble going from the end of one line down to the next, often skipping lines and losing her spot, and has trouble turning pages quickly and carefully.
Jasmine’s self-esteem plummets each time the teacher asks her to read aloud. She understands letters, phonics, and spelling, but she struggles with overall comprehension. Because she finds no enjoyment, she lacks motivation to continue reading, and her skills do not improve.
Students like Jasmine are likely digital natives: they’ve grown up with technology and they find enjoyment from tablets, phones, laptops, social media, games, and videos. These kids are familiar with how tech works and they know how to troubleshoot if it doesn’t. And for those who struggle with reading, adding technology is hugely beneficial. From voice dictation programs to reading apps that help kids with dyslexia, there are many ways that technology can boost learning and enjoyment for students like Jasmine.
Jasmine is a pseudonym for one student that Leah Fox, an education and human development specialist, once taught. Leah published a report in 2014 titled “Effects of Technology on Literacy Skills and Motivation to Read and Write” that outlines how, by strategically using technology in tandem with traditional methods, she was able to help Jasmine improve her visual fine motor skills and overall comprehension. By the end of the five-week study period, Jasmine’s enjoyment and motivation for reading had grown.
“For younger kids, there are so many programs that are great for phonics learning, for those with dyslexia there is Lexia,” says Deborah Rooney, an education specialist based in the Boston area. “With some programs, teachers can even monitor virtually what they read and how long they spend on it. They can track it,” adds Rooney, who has been working in schools and in her own private practice for 25 years.
A 2007 study titled “Electronic books: children’s reading and comprehension” published in the British Journal of Educational Technology found that “features such as word pronunciation, narration, sound effects and animations, which support the text, all help to remove the effort from decoding individual words and allow the child to focus on meaning,” so overall comprehension and enjoyment of reading increases.
Andrea Zorzi, a librarian with the Toronto Public Library, agrees that the tools available to help struggling readers are great. “For reluctant readers or kids who are dyslexic or suffer from some other learning impairment, there are tons of great technological resources they can use to improve their print literacy, as well as their general print motivation and or willingness to learn to read,” she says. “Plus, if kids are reading—whether it’s text in a video game or subtitles in a Japanese anime—they’re reading. Whatever gets them engaged with a narrative can’t usually hurt!”
But as much as reading apps and games can help teach kids, it can also hinder their enjoyment if they are introduced too soon. “What I used to see occurring in first grade was that everyone used to be at a different point in knowledge of phonics and letters,” explains Rooney.
Now, everything starts in preschool, which is great if the student is ready for it. But some children require additional support or simply need time to enjoy storytelling, not worry about spelling. “Most kids now entering kindergarten know what used to be taught in grade one,” says Rooney.
Amanda Halfpenny, a librarian with Conseil scolaire Viamonde (a Francophone school board in Ontario), also notices some reluctance to read for fun: “They don’t find pleasure in reading and storytelling because they’re getting phonics shoved down their throats [at a very young age],” she says of students at her school.
Additionally, the prevalence of technology can change a student’s expectation about reading. “Kids who are used to reading in such a fun and interactive way on a tablet don’t have the patience to sit and read a print book for an hour.” Part of that is due to shorter attention spans in general.
“They are so distracted by all that other stuff going on that the apps don’t leave any room for imagination,” says Halfpenny. Reading apps and games have colours and graphics. “They don’t learn that reading is fun or has imagination,” she says. Also, authors today are even writing shorter books to appeal to fast-moving youths.
All of the swiping and tapping on screens also means that kids are not practicing how to hold pens and pencils properly or turn pages with dexterity and ease. Halfpenny notices a decrease in fine motor skills and knowledge of how to handle books. “With younger kids, you can tell by how they interact with a book, how they hold the book and turn the pages—some kids even walk on the books!” Halfpenny says, noting lack of dexterity can be frustrating for the student themselves.
“Fine motor skills are a double-edged sword,” says Rooney. “Some kids have much slower output because of slower motor skills. The ideas and knowledge are there but they can’t get it out there fast enough.” They can get stuck in a loop of relying on the technology instead of practicing to increase fine motor skills.
Overall, technology is an added bonus to aid in reading development, especially for those who are struggling. “It’s a great perk. It’s wonderful. But there’s still a lot to be said about old school methods, like practicing fine motor skills and memorizing spelling,” says Rooney.
She questions whether technology is helping these kids get to where they need to be as adults. So many digital tools exist now that students don’t always need to learn the most basic skills. Programs such as Grammarly and NoodleTools eliminate the need for extended grammar knowledge and ability to write proper citations.
“They need to be able to write a note or a cheque and they need those fine motor skills,” says Rooney. “They need to learn how to spell if they want to be the boss!”
Hopefully, the right mix of technology and traditional learning skills will help get kids on a healthy, easeful and enjoyable path to a lifelong love of literacy and reading.
Martha Beach is a graduate of Ryerson University’s journalism program. Currently, she is a freelance writer and factchecker in Toronto.