Technology-assisted reading: a helping tool in our crisis

Given that South African learners are of the poorest readers in the world, how do we improve their reading skills using technology? This was the question posed by Gerda van Wyk and Arno Louw of the University of Johannesburg in their ICeL paper: Technology-Assisted Reading for Improving Reading Skills for young South African Learners.

Apparently improving the reading skills of learners through technology-assisted reading programs is a controversial issue: those against it argue that reading on a screen will not improve reading on paper and that screen reading is not a “normal way” of reading. However, there are many voices for it, who acknowledge the role that technology can play in administration, evaluation and being adaptible to learner skill changes.

In an attempt to assess the efficacy and appropriateness of this approach for South Africa (SA), the authors conducted a study with grade 2-7 learners from an Afrikaans medium primary school. The 31 learners in the study came from middle to low socio-economic backgrounds. During 15 sessions — over a period of seven months — the learners followed a combination of a computer-based reading program (software: Reading Excellence), visual accuracy and visual memory computer exercises (software: Lector), as well as the application of specific paper-based activities. Groups were small, with continuous personal intervention and communication from the facilitator with each learner. The reading software automated a spelling test, reading technique exercise, comprehension test and language exercises.

Based on continuous assessment of learners’ performance, specifically reading speed, reading comprehension and spelling, overall improvement was significant. Learners were assessed according to their grade: for reading comprehension the lowest improvement was the grade 3s (18%) and the highest improvement was seen by the grade 4s (65%). For spelling, grade improvements ranged from 19% to 65%. While word improvements were notable, most of the learners still read slower than expected for their grade level.

From interviews, the following overall improvements were identified:

  • Parental feedback:
    • Learners use newly learned words at home during conversations.
    • Learners asked for books from the library for the first time.
    • Learners reading for the first time during school holidays.
    • A general increase in school marks.
    • A change in attitude towards reading and excitement about the reading programme.
    • An improvement in reading speed and reading fluency.
  • Teacher feedback: learners’ confidence improved. Grades in unrelated learning areas improved.
  • Facilitators feedback: the better learners helped poorer readers, open collaboration occurred.

The authors quote Osche (2003) as follows: “Perception of one’s own abilities influences achievement or failure.” As factors contributing to the success of the project, they list: individual attention to each learner, and support from the teachers and parents. The software allowed the learners to work on improving their skills privately, and not through reading in front of a class, something that can have very negative effects on learners’ self-perceptions of their reading abilities.

The presentation was very interesting and I hope to engage the authors as they continue with further research in this space. Their conference paper concludes as follows:

“The results of this study indicate the importance of adapting our teaching methods in order to address the reading crisis in the country. Computer-based reading programs are effective and fairly quick in addressing the reading problems of young learners.”

Indeed, there seems to be real potential for making a significant change in education in SA.

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