Making Reading Your Own

Todd Brekhus extols the benefits of students developing their own personal digital libraries

Making literacy more personal to kids, especially to second-language learners, begins with providing learners with their own personal libraries. It’s hard to think about literacy without a library of great content and great books. So, when a student is able to have his or her own personal library — especially one that’s digital, with an array of books at their fingertips for fast access — that’s a strong and positive beginning. Students are able to open up and read books they’re interested in, books at their level. Digital books now have the capability for authentic audio recording, so the students can hear how a word sounds as they are reading.

Research shows that having access to a personalized library of content that’s matched to and fit for individual students is paramount. Second to that is the opportunity students have to connect with the books they read, and thus the skills of reading, in new and innovative ways. There must be different tools and resources available to students as they are reading a book to help them with comprehension or to take more ownership of their learning by having the ability to check their own reading growth. For example, having access to digital books allows for short quizzes and exercises at the end of a book to help students make more immediate and direct connection to what they are reading and learning.

Technology affords these and other new tools to deepen learners’ reading abilities and their knowledge of content. Tools such as highlighters or note-taking icons that allow students to write “inside of the books” can turn these digital books into a student’s own personal copy. These notes are how they learn and retain more information — no two notes in a book are the same. So each time they go back to the book and read those notes, images pop up in their minds, a layered understanding of a book that grows each time students review their notes. The idea that this large space of a digital library can become personal to a student and contain a variety of content across different genres or types — fiction or nonfiction — opens up a whole new world for each one of them.

Then there are the opportunities for collaborative learning. The latest technological tools in digital books allow students to share their notes with classmates and teachers, encouraging continued collaboration among learners and educators that extends well beyond class and the school day. This extends to the home, with students’ families and with their communities.

Non-Fiction Content
Reading nonfiction content is also critical to foster a love of reading and learning.

When we think about learning to read, we often think about hearing great stories and characters. We may also think of picture books we read as kids, or the rhyming books or the simple, beginner books. But the reality is that kids are curious, especially young kids. They’re curious about and interested in things that are true and real: things that crawl; things that have weird looks; the way the weather works; the way our geography is; all kinds of facts. By tapping into their spirit of inquiry, nonfiction works open up a range of personal learning opportunities for early readers.

Nonfiction content can be presented as picture books, or as graphic novels, or in other engaging ways to make intriguing content come alive for kids. Such presentation is especially important in deepening levels of understanding and comprehension in subjects like history, social studies, and STEM.

Learning Ownership
A really important resource for students who read with digital books is the ability to see and measure their reading growth. As they read and learn more, they can watch the bar graph continue climbing. In this gaming age, kids care about leveling up, about doing better. They are interested in how they’re doing, and to measure their success, they need access to support and adjustment tools, similar to those we use today in education. Watching their own graphs rise is incredibly uplifting for kids and truly spurs them on to continue. It encourages them to take ownership of their reading and overall learning. And research shows that motivated learners read more frequently and for longer periods of time. That’s powerful.

One of the beliefs behind myON is that students should take ownership of their learning. The personal growth chart is essential for every student to be able to see their own growth and their own trajectory toward growth. They can share this success with their families. Obviously, our main focus is providing the right content for the right kids. We’ve been growing our ever-expanding library of digital books, recently hitting 8,000 titles, in order to appeal to all types of readers, ages three to 18. The importance here, again, is choice. Every child has a personal digital library of content matched to his or her interests, levels of books, and reading ability.

It offers choice, the ability to personalize a digital book with a student’s own notes, and the opportunity for learners to share and collaborate with their peers and teachers, while tracking and measuring their own success in reading and learning.

We’re also advancing the system to be more of a literacy tool to partner with students for them to dive deeper into literacy and to make literacy very personal for them — creating their own vocabulary lists, letting them see their own personal vocabulary growth, letting them see their own highlights and texts. This lets students better articulate their ideas around a text. And that’s where we’re heading in the future: to expand the personal aspects of literacy when it comes to more than just reading but also includes writing, listening, and speaking.

Advancing ELLs
It becomes even more necessary for English language learners (ELLs) to have access to a personalized literacy environment, as the challenge with most second-language learners is that they haven’t had exposure to much oral-reading fluency, like native speakers. Without a strong connection to oral reading and the oral tradition of the English language, it’s difficult for a student to connect with reading and even more difficult to master the ability to read fluently.

Vocabulary is another area where second-language learners often struggle. That’s why audio capabilities in digital books are critical to this group; giving a student the choice to have books read aloud to them if need be is critical. The student can hear the book read aloud and then can read the book over and over again. In many cases, learners can even hear books written in their native languages.

Research shows that access to digital books can accelerate reading growth over time. ELL students and beginning readers shouldn’t be limited on how many times they can read or share a book with another student. Digital books don’t limit readers. There are no check-in or check-out limits. Multiple students can read the same book at the same time. They can share notes and thoughts across devices. Students with web-enabled devices can download books with simple access to the internet. Technology makes it easier to gain access to books and to have tools to ease second-language learners into reading, which is something that can be very intimidating. With technology-driven books and tools, these students now feel emboldened.

Technology has truly transformed how students can read, which is underscored even further for ELLs. The technology tools that students have access to, in addition to having digital content and audio narration, have made reading much easier than it was in the past. myON is working with a school in Turkey where a student read 200 books with the system. He saw his scores go through the roof. The next year, he jumped three levels in his Oxford University book and scored higher on other reading tests, progress that may have been much slower reading print books. So, there are a lot of opportunities for self-learning which can clearly impact students who are driven to want to read, read better on their own, and have a personalized reading experience without waiting for someone to teach them.

The key is to move ELL students forward in reading centers through the process of collaboration. A digital system personalized for students creates new models for sharing and encourages collaboration for learners as they seek to find out what each other is interested in. By reading books together and sharing their thoughts on information learned from reading or listening to books, the learning process becomes enhanced through the shared experience. When the teacher assigns the same book, students can share their highlights, drawings, and notes from the text, allowing a small group or an entire class to see ideas collaboratively. This scenario creates a truly dynamic system that fosters literacy growth and allows ideas to flow freely.

Teaching reading to students — whether they are emerging readers, English language learners, or older beginning readers — is not easy. However, technology has made it much easier than in the past, both for the teacher and the learner.
ELL teachers and support staff can benefit from the following.

Find great reading content — If teachers can provide every one of their students 500 or more books at their levels, books that students are interested in, they are off to a great start. This is where technology is key. A library of digital books can help teachers customize reading lists for every student in the class, or for reading groups. But the content has to be vast, diverse, and personal for the students to grab their attention and interest.

Audio with text — Ideally, if every one of those books could have human-recorded audio with text highlighting to go along with that audio, that is powerful.

Let students monitor their growth — All kids want to improve, especially second-language learners, and they need to see if they are getting better so they can continue to self-grow. Providing students with tools to monitor and measure their own growth while they’re reading will allow everyone to see their improvement.

Collaboration — Being able to collaborate with classmates and peers and being able to share and connect through a book is a motivator for students and a great way to personalize literacy by using technology.

Embrace what technology can bring to reading instruction — Technology-based reading systems with extensive digital libraries and supportive tools can be a great companion for a librarian or a teacher’s personal librarian. If teachers, librarians, and other staff embrace these systems and what they can offer, there’s no limit to how they can use them to help students excel.

Technology has afforded us, in education, the ability to have a fluent oral reading of English-language texts and a confident approach to text — to read it, listen to it, hear it, and repeat the words and the language. It’s an exciting time for students to have unlimited access to these digital tools as they approach reading and literacy.

Todd Brekhus is an educational leader devoted to introducing innovative technologies to educators and administrators. As president of myON, a division of Capstone, he has developed a personalized literacy platform with more than 8,000 digital texts that support more than five million students in literacy education. Brekhus’s vision for myON is to provide unlimited access to an unprecedented wealth of digital content so every student can read any book at any time. The creation of myON allows teachers to personalize literacy instruction to provide students with amazing content at every level. Brekhus also developed programs such as MarcoPolo for MCI WorldCom and served as president and COO of Learning Elements and vice president and chief marketing officer of PLATO Learning.