A hardback chapter book and an iPad sit on top of each other on a desk at New Haven Elementary School.
As a fourth-grade teacher there, it’s Kayleigh James’s job to teach her students to use technology responsibly and in tandem with other mediums. The school provides each fourth-grader with an iPad to use during school.
“Technology is a part of our life, so the only way that we’re going to find that happy medium is if we teach them the happy medium,” James said.
For her students, that happy medium is achieved through “the four C’s”: critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. Those skills help them problem-solve. James teaches them to rely first on themselves, then ask a classmate, then talk to her if they still need help.
“We want them to be able to understand how to collaborate with each other because that’s what they’re going to need to do in the future,” James said.
When the Missouri Learning Standards were introduced in 2016, they included digital and media literacy as an essential skill for elementary school children.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education standards define digital and media literacy as being able to “comprehend and analyze words, images, graphics, and sounds in various media and digital forms to impact meaning.”
Schools across the state implement this standard in many ways. For Columbia Public Schools, it means teaching the students how to use devices such as iPads and Chromebooks to complete their schoolwork.
Fifth-graders have their own iPads and are allowed to take them home. For students in grades K-4, the specific devices used varies by school, according to Kerry Townsend, library media coordinator for the district.
“Understanding how to find and use information effectively is cross-curricular and necessary in today’s world,” Townsend said.
Although some students don’t receive their own devices until fifth grade, their digital education begins much earlier.
“Our state testing begins in third grade, and it is digital,” Jana Schmidt, English language arts coordinator for the district, said. “So they have to be able to read digitally and respond digitally.”
This is a big topic, Townsend said, and students “need support learning how to read in this format just as they learn the tools of reading print materials.”
When it comes to reading, James’s students are allowed to listen to audiobooks and read e-books on their iPads, but they must alternate between the iPad and physical books. She said the combination of audiobooks and e-books help students because they can learn new words instead of just skipping over the ones they don’t know how to pronounce.
The iPads also let the students who are less confident at reading appear to be doing so in the same way their more advanced classmates are, James said.
“I have a wide variety of levels, and everybody on the iPad looks like they’re reading the same thing,” James said. “They don’t have to worry about ‘I’m reading a picture book’ versus ‘The person next to me is reading a chapter book.’”
Meanwhile, researchers are working to understand how technology can be used for improvement in the classroom.
“My research question is: Hey Siri, hey Google, hey Alexa, can you help me read?” said Betsy Baker, a professor of Learning, Teaching and Curriculum in MU’s College of Education. In January, she published research on the efficacy of speech-recognition technology as a learning tool in the academic journal “Reading Research Quarterly.”
Baker spent a year in a first-grade classroom observing how the use of speech recognition apps can affect children’s ability to learn to read and write. She did this by facilitating the use of speech recognition technology in the writing process.
Students spoke to a speech recognition enabled device, which transcribed their words onto a screen. The students then copied the words by hand.
To test how well it worked, Baker ran three tests at the end of her time in the classroom:
- The first asked students to read a story they had written and illustrated using the speech recognition method.
- The second asked them to read their story when all formatting and illustrations had been removed.
- The third alphabetized all words the student had used in their story and asked them to identify the words.
Baker said students labeled struggling by school assessments were able to read 97 percent of the words presented in the third test. Such students usually read at a 90 to 92 percent accuracy rate.
The development of speech recognition apps that no longer require training to understand the user’s voice have enabled those who have challenges reading or writing to do so in a safe setting.
“If I’m a student who struggles to read or write, I can pull out my iPad, talk to it and it will tell me what to write. And I’m no longer ‘stupid,’” Baker said.
In the past, educators have used the Language Experience Approach to help struggling readers. Teachers asked students to share their experiences and then transcribed the student’s words for them to see.
Baker said that although this approach is effective, it is tough to implement in classrooms because of the large numbers of students. Speech-recognition technology can produce a similar effect without the need for teacher attention.
Baker has been reaching out to investors about her interest in developing a speech-recognition app equipped with child-safety features.
While still important, teaching kids to read and write is no longer sufficient for kids to be able to communicate successfully, Baker said.
Technology has become an important classroom tool as the entire world begins to communicate differently through online mediums, she said. Kids need to be taught to interpret images and video, texts, emails and social media messages to be successful communicators.
Missourian reporter Carlie Procell contributed to this report.