Nov 09 2022

Improve K–12 Literacy with Next-Gen Reading Tools

Audiobooks and augmented reality are engaging students in reading assignments and exposing them to more advanced texts.

Learning to read and improving literacy once hinged on traditional hard-copy books, but in 21st-century learning, there are far more tools at educators’ disposal. From audiobooks to augmented reality, next-generation reading tools help student readers and writers maximize their literacy education, with guidance from innovative K–12 leaders.

These tools chip away at an alarming nationwide trend, in which a third of children in the earliest grades are missing reading benchmarks as a result of pandemic challenges and other factors. In addition, many districts are increasingly concerned by learning gaps and “unfinished learning,” also due to the pandemic.

All eyes are on low standardized test scores, which can directly impact a school’s funding and ability to create progressive opportunities for kids.

As educators seek solutions, a conversation is building about the role of next-gen tools in solving the problem. Some wonder what kids are gaining or missing by using technology for reading enhancement.

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The State of Literacy in the Classroom

Educators have seen steep declines in reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, considered to be “the nation’s report card.” Reading scores dipped in more than half the states, and not a single state showed sizable reading improvements. Only 31 percent of 8th graders met the reading benchmarks, showing a clear impact from the pandemic.

However, for students and educators, it’s always been about much more than a score.

Amanda Jones, a middle school librarian in Denham Springs, La., says, “The past few years have seen a push toward getting back to the foundations of teaching implicit reading instruction and a push for the science of reading. While I wholeheartedly agree, I sometimes see that promoting the joy of reading can get lost in the shuffle.”

She says providing positive reading experiences and student choice in selecting books remain the most important parts of improved literacy.

Bringing back a love of reading goes hand in hand with literacy, but educators are battling decreased interest in leisurely reading. A 2019-2020 National Assessment of Educational Progress survey reveals students between the ages of 9 and 13 report the lowest levels of reading for fun since the mid-1980s. However, next-gen tools are reinvigorating some of that passion, working with technology instead of against it.

The Impact of Low Literacy Scores on Standardized Testing

When students struggle to read, their standardized test scores are often lower for other subjects as well. For example, a student who is strong in math but struggles to read the directions might not be able to demonstrate his or her abilities.

RELATED: Tech-savvy librarians provide value to modern learners.

This is the challenge for Library Media Specialist Karina Quilantán’s emergent bilingual students.

“Coming from the Rio Grande Valley, our students are predominantly Spanish speaking. Additionally, many who come directly from Mexico enter the United States with low reading levels due to their language barriers,” says Quilantán, who works for the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District in Texas. “This causes a ripple effect in that their language barrier affects their testing scores, and testing scores determine their interventions.”

These interventions include a variety of extra training for testing, including in-school intervention programs, after-school tutoring and periodic progress assessment through weekly assessments, marking period exams and benchmark testing.

“It seems that the majority of our time is focused on assessing the students rather than teaching them,” she says.

This is especially hard on librarians, whose space is meant for “meaningful inquiry, research and intrinsic learning,” but often becomes a testing hub, she notes.

The Role of Next-Gen Tools in Literacy Improvement

Some educators, parents and community members question whether audiobooks are an “easy way out” and whether they really improve literacy. Quilantán has seen audiobooks’ exceptional effects on literacy for students, improving fluency, vocabulary, oral language and comprehension skills, she notes.

“They are legitimate reading material and are a great resource that cater to second-language learners and students with visual impairments and learning disabilities. Listening to audiobooks not only helps with listening skills but also assists students in learning more about language contexts, conveying tone and having the opportunity to listen to experienced readers read out loud,” she says. “I have witnessed firsthand how audiobooks or read-to-me books paired with print material can increase a student’s understanding of the text they are reading.”

Karina Quilantán
I have witnessed firsthand how audiobooks or read-to-me books paired with print material can increase a student’s understanding of the text they are reading.”

Karina Quilantán Library Media Specialist, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District

This directly connects to developing a love for reading. She explains that understanding a book leads students to search for more books they like, improving confidence and literacy.

Jones points to science in explaining the similarities between a hardcover book and an audiobook. A study published in The Journal of Neuroscience found that both media types activated the same parts of the brain. She hopes educators will allow students to make the best choice for their students.

Augmented Reality for Books Creates Stronger Readers

Librarians and educators will do what it takes to turn a hesitant student into an avid bookworm. For some, augmented reality is the ticket.

“Reading via augmented reality makes the experience more interactive. It can be a tool to hook a reluctant reader,” Jones says.

Print reading communicates visuals solely through text. Augmented reading uses apps to bring the visuals into a physical space as a 2D or 3D image. This can be done through projection mapping or spatial augmented reality.

Some apps require a headset while others are group experiences in public spaces, much like watching a theater production of your favorite book. Readers might experience action in a comic book or navigate difficult diagrams in a textbook, according to the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.

“Depending on the book, students can scan certain images using downloaded apps on a mobile device, and images will come to life as 3D visuals or videos,” Quilantán says. “This adds an immersive experience to books that are traditionally viewed as static. Not only does this increase engagement, but it helps students visualize their reading and boosts their imagination.”

UP NEXT: Leverage ed tech for inquiry-based learning in K–12 classrooms.

Next Steps in the Future of Reading Technology

While many schools would be happy to have more resources for audiobooks and augmented reading experiences, some are looking beyond those to the future of next-gen tools for reading.

Quilantán says this includes “immersive reading” and the ability to change font size, highlight text, integrate digital overlays and more. “If we can continue to embed these capabilities as part of a learner’s daily routine, it can change their reading experience,” she says.

Until all of these are available to students, educators will continue to fight for student literacy with the tools they have available. “I think we also need to consider where our students are academically and what we can do now to ensure they are information-literate, critical thinkers, communicators and prepared to either create or use the next generation of technology.”

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Olha Romaniuk/Getty Images

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