Can technology actually help children learn to read? The case for computers in the classroom

Child on Computer
Child in a school library

An untold amount of writing has been dedicated to the use of technology with young children. Can it help the development of young children? Does it get in the way? What does it look like to overuse technology? What about this “digital divide” we keep hearing about? How do we make sense of children’s use of technology as parents and as educators?

Today I am going to summarize for you one case for using technology to help children learn to read, by a set of authors who specifically studied the use of technology in elementary school classrooms. I’ll look at technology with younger children in another post.

If you would like to read the full report which I am discussing in this post, click here: Technology and Teaching Children How to Read. This article is from 2004 and is still cited as a useful guide to understanding the uses of technology in reading instruction.

There is no doubt that interaction between children and parents or teachers is an essential component of any reading instruction program. But to support independent self-instruction or exploration on the child’s part, computers can do a few things to help out. Here are the things the authors cite as capabilities of computers in reading instruction.

  • Present information and activities to students
  • Assess students’ work
  • Respond to students’ work
  • Provide scaffolds, such as access to word pronunciation and definitions, that help students read successfully.

But what does this mean? It means that computers can help students do a variety of things. Students can…

Look at a word and hear it said at the same time, or see a picture, and develop vocabulary. Listen to text read aloud while reading it on the screen, and develop a sense of reading fluency. Respond to a question on the screen by selecting a picture, and develop conceptual associations. Respond to comprehension questions and receive immediate feedback. Use an online dictionary to get the definition for a word they don’t know. Play games that stimulate literacy development through play and visual effects.

Is it true? Well, the authors of the article cite a variety of scientific studies that show that technology in the classroom can help improve the skills that make up the foundation of early literacy, reinforce the instruction of the teacher, develop vocabulary, and improve word identification skills.

But the jury is still out on the best ways to use computers in the classroom. The technology has to be used in conjunction with classroom literacy instruction to be effective, so teachers and technology specialists need to work together to find the right solutions.

So what does that mean for librarians and our patrons? I think it means that we could identify and use apps on our in-house computers and tablets that might benefit all kinds of literacy development, and that this might be a great support for students who receive after-school tutoring or who are homeschooled.

And for parents? Be encouraged if your child’s school is using reading software in the classroom, because there actually are ways the computer can support learning.

At home, if your child likes games on your computer or device, look for apps that build actual literacy skills, like awareness of words or vocabulary, or that read stories to them with words on the screen. I’ll look at literacy apps and their reviews in another post.

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