Technology Tools To Support Reading In The Digital Age

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Technology Tools to Support Reading in the Digital AgeTechnology Tools to Support Reading inthe Digital AgeGina Biancarosa and Gina G. GriffithsSummaryAdvances in digital technologies are dramatically altering the texts and tools available to teachers and students. These technological advances have created excitement among many for theirpotential to be used as instructional tools for literacy education. Yet with the promise of theseadvances come issues that can exacerbate the literacy challenges identified in the other articlesin this issue.In this article Gina Biancarosa and Gina Griffiths characterize how literacy demands havechanged in the digital age and how challenges identified in other articles in the issue intersectwith these new demands. Rather than seeing technology as something to be fit into an alreadycrowded education agenda, Biancarosa and Griffiths argue that technology can be conceptualized as affording tools that teachers can deploy in their quest to create young readers whopossess the higher levels of literacy skills and background knowledge demanded by today’sinformation-based society.Biancarosa and Griffiths draw on research to highlight some of the ways technology has beenused to build the skills and knowledge needed both by children who are learning to read and bythose who have progressed to reading to learn. In their review of the research, Biancarosa andGriffiths focus on the hardware and software used to display and interface with digital text, orwhat they term e-reading technology. Drawing on studies of e-reading technology and computer technology more broadly, they also reflect on the very real, practical challenges to optimaluse of e-reading technology.The authors conclude by presenting four recommendations to help schools and school systemsmeet some of the challenges that come with investing in e-reading technology: use onlytechnologies that support Universal Design for Learning; choose evidence-based tools; providetechnology users with systemic supports; and capitalize on the data capacities and volume ofinformation that technology provides.www.futureofchildren.orgGina Biancarosa is an assistant professor in educational methodology, policy, and leadership at the University of Oregon’s College ofEducation. Gina G. Griffiths is a doctoral candidate in communication disorders and sciences at the University of Oregon’s College ofEducation.VOL. 22 / NO. 2 / FALL 2012139

TGina Biancarosa and Gina G. Griffithsechnological advances aredramatically altering the textsand tools available to studentsand teachers. Since 2007, thenumber of devices available fordisplaying digital text has increased exponentially.1 The first e-reader to take hold inthe market, the Amazon Kindle, sold out twodays after it was released in November 2007.2By June 2011, Amazon reported selling moreKindle books than hard- and soft-back bookscombined.3 Meanwhile, the first large-scalerelease of a touchscreen tablet, the AppleiPad in April 2010, further expanded optionsfor readers to access digital-text media withits inclusion of the application “iBooks.”4 Bythe time the iPad 2 was released in March2011, more than 15 million units had alreadysold, and by June 2011 that number was 27million.5 Analysts forecast that 89.5 millionunits, including both tablets and e-readers,will sell worldwide in 2014.6These technological advances have createdhigh hopes among many teachers, administrators, researchers, and policy makers, whobelieve that the digital devices offer greatpromise as instructional tools for literacyeducation. Simple applications of existinge-reading technology such as changing fontsize on-screen, using text-to-speech featuresto provide dual input of text, or using theInternet to collaborate on learning activities may substantially improve the learning of many students.7 At the 2011 annualInternational Conference on Computersin Education, researchers from aroundthe world met to exchange ideas on moreadvanced uses of e-reading technology, ranging from providing individualized feedbackthrough artificially intelligent animatedavatars, to fostering critical thinking skillsthrough computer-supported collaboration,to predicting students’ interest or frustration1 40T H E F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE Nbased on brain-wave signals and mouse-clickbehavior.8Yet with the promise of these advances comeissues that can further exacerbate the literacy challenges that are identified in otherarticles in this volume, such as gaps in theliteracy skills of students of different socioeconomic status. Nonie Lesaux, for example,highlights the importance of higher-levelconceptual skills and knowledge for literacy,and she stresses the need to narrow gaps inthose areas by providing all students withadequate opportunities to develop suchknowledge.9 The new e-technology, however,may inadvertently widen such gaps. Parents,for example, increasingly use technologyto provide their children with learning andreading opportunities—and today’s parentsare the fastest-growing population of consumers purchasing e-reading technology. Butparents are not equally able to provide thoseopportunities for their children.10 As figure 1depicts, ownership of tablets and e-readers issurging, with sales doubling over six monthsin 2011 and doubling again in the final monthof 2011.11 But as figure 1 also illustrates,purchasing patterns indicate a wideningeducation-based gap in access, a gap that alsoexists when purchasing patterns are disaggregated by income level.12 The resultingtechnology gap closely resembles the demographically based literacy-skills gap outlinedin the article in this issue by Sean Reardon,Rachel Valentino, and Kenneth Shores, thusraising the worrisome possibility that newtechnologies for developing literacy skills willpose further difficulties for students fromlow-income families.13And even if policy makers and educatorsaddress gaps in access to technology, expertswarn that achievement disparities maycontinue to widen unless students are given

Technology Tools to Support Reading in the Digital AgeFigure 1. Changing Percentages of Tablet and E-reader Ownership by Education Level35Tablet ownersAll adults30Adults with college degreesPercentage25Adults with some collegeAdults with high school diplomas20Adults with some high eader owners30All adultsAdults with college degrees25PercentageAdults with some collegeAdults with high school diplomas20Adults with some high es: Pew Internet and American Life Project.sufficient opportunities to learn how to usethe technology to accomplish a wide range ofgoals. Although demographic gaps in accessto technology at home are being narrowedby students’ improving access at schools,libraries, and community technology centers,serious gaps remain in students’ ability to usetechnology in sophisticated ways.14 Highachieving students are not only more likely touse technology for interest-driven activitiessuch as researching topics or collaboratingonline to create new media, but are also morelikely to have adult guidance in its use.15Lower-achieving students are more likelyto use it for socially driven activities such aschatting or playing games with friends usingsocial media, following pop-ups, or surfing through links of celebrities and sportsfigures.16VOL. 22 / NO. 2 / FALL 2012141

Gina Biancarosa and Gina G. GriffithsSuch differences in the way students usetechnology may not only do little to shrinkknowledge gaps, but may in fact exacerbatethem. Students need more than access totechnology; they need to learn how to apply itstrategically to advance their literacy skills—especially the conceptual and knowledgebased capacities that become crucial in laterliteracy tasks. In her article in this issue,Susan Goldman describes how having tonavigate vast amounts of unfiltered information at various levels of complexity and indifferent forms can complicate learning forstudents who are already struggling to masterstrategic approaches to reading and criticalthinking skills.17Although the need for students to masterliteracy skills and knowledge is not new tothe digital age, the urgency of that need isamplified by technology. The question is notthe narrow one of how to fit technology intoliteracy education, but the broader one ofhow to transform literacy education to meettoday’s changing demands.The good news is that technology can be a toolfor mitigating many literacy challenges. It isalready being used in new and promising waysto address the full range of skills, both procedural and conceptual, required for improvingstudent literacy. That is, technology can bemore than a tool for drilling students on skills;it can be a tool for acquiring the vocabularyand background knowledge essential tobecoming a skilled reader. Although technology is no panacea for literacy problems, it canbe part of the solution. For its promise to berealized, however, its tools must be embeddedstrategically within cohesive, evidence-basededucational programs.In this article we examine how teachersare using reading technology to address1 42T H E F UT UR E OF C HI LDRE Nthe literacy challenges highlighted in otherarticles in this issue. Though many earlyliteracy technologies have thus far focused onbasic reading skills, we explore how technology can build knowledge and support higherlevel reading strategies and behaviors. Weaddress key systemic issues facing educatorsand policy makers in their efforts to makereading technology a tool for improvingliteracy rather than yet another source ofinequity, and we conclude with recommendations about how to maximize the benefits ofinvestments in e-reading technology tools.We begin by clarifying terminology.Defining E-reading TechnologyIn both popular media and research, termssuch as e-book, e-reader, e-text, and tabletare not always clearly and consistently differentiated and are often used interchangeably.The lack of clarity in part reflects the rapidadvance of technology, with newly releasedoptions almost immediately being modifiedor merged together with other options. Suchchange contributes to confusion as distinguishing features become vague or obsolete.This slippery terminology can be perplexingfor educators, parents, and policy makerswho need to make well-informed decisionsabout these technologies. Although we focuson the digital text, we note, as Goldmanindicates in her article in this volume, that itis often augmented by other digital mediaand so is increasingly difficult to isolate fromother media.In this article, we use e-reading technologyto refer to the hardware and software usedto display and interface with digital text.Hardware includes devices, such as e-readersand tablets, as well as smartphones, laptops,and even desktop computers, that displaydigital text. Software includes a range of

Technology Tools to Support Reading in the Digital AgeTechnology can be more thana tool for drilling studentson skills; it can be a tool foracquiring the vocabularyand background knowledgeessential to becoming askilled reader.applications and programs that allow readers to interact with the text, either locally onthe device or over a network; it may or maynot include instructional features. Althoughmany forms of e-reading technology may beused for more than reading, we focus on thetechnology’s role in literacy instruction. Andalthough many other technologies, including audio players, video players, interactivewhiteboards, and clickers, may be used forliteracy instruction,they cannot store anddisplay digital text.18 We confine the terme-reading technology to those that can.Nascent research on these other technologies, although promising, is thus beyond thescope of this article.19Using such a broad term makes it hard todraw generalized conclusions from research,because each device and application hasspecific features and limitations. Thus, claimsmade about one form of e-reading technology with specific features may not apply toanother form. For example, when researchersconduct an efficacy study using tablets witha specific instructional application, it maynot be possible to generalize their findings tosmartphones or laptops, even with the sameapplication, not least because of the vast differences in screen size.Research on E-readingTechnology as a ToolToday educators are in the precarious position of having to respond to the many newe-reading options for curriculum and teaching practices with virtually no empirical guidance on how to do so in a way that supportslearning. Most research as yet is small-scalein nature, focusing on feasibility and efficacyin tightly controlled contexts rather than onwide-scale use. We review a variety of smallscale research studies on e-reading technology as a tool for improving literacy outcomes,and then look at two large-scale studies andoffer a final cautionary note about the overalllack of a consistent or large-scale body ofevidence on e-reading technology.Tools for Compensation and Instructionin Basic SkillsE-reading technology has shown promise indeveloping early reading skills and in givingreaders with visual impairments or languagebased disabilities access to texts. One of itsmost widely used features is text-to-speech,in which either a human or computergenerated voice reads digital text aloud forusers. Sometimes synchronized highlightingof the text draws readers’ attention to theword or words being read aloud.The research is relatively robust on thebenefits of text-to-speech for readers withimpairments that might otherwise precludeequal access to text and for young readersstill acquiring basic skills like phonologicalawareness or decoding.20 Also promising arerecent innovations in text-to-speech involving the translation of visual information otherthan text, such as pictures or tables.21Ofra Korat has bee