Digital learning: Stats on student access, achievement

There is no doubt that technology is changing education. Not only is technology impacting student learning in traditional academic disciplines, but its use is becoming a discipline in its own right.

I was interested in discovering the accessibility of digital learning opportunities to children in the American classroom, and the range of tech knowledge and skills these students possess. I found statistics on both from the National Assessment of Education Progress’s Technology & Engineering Literacy (TEL) assessment. This computer-based evaluation was given for the first time in 2014 to a nationwide sample of 21,500 eighth grade students. The TEL assessment included three components:

  • Questions that assessed knowledge and skills related to three content areas: technology and society, design and systems, and information and communication technology.
  • Interactive scenario-based tasks requiring application of students’ digital literacy.
  • Survey items about digital learning opportunities available to students at home and at school.

Assessment Results

Overall, 43% of the students received scores of proficient or advanced on the assessment. Contrary to stereotypes, the percentage of female students scoring proficient or higher was 3 points more than that of male students.

Results indicated the reality of a “digital gap” between students of different socioeconomic statuses. While 59% of students who are ineligible for the National School Lunch program scored proficient or advanced, only 25% of those eligible for the program scored similarly.

This gap was also reflected in the 11-point difference between urban and suburban students. Interestingly, rural students scored higher than their counterparts living in “towns.” I would have thought that broadband access issues would have had more of an impact on their achievement.


Survey Results

The survey about students’ classroom experiences revealed that 52% had taken a course related to technology or engineering, and 76% had studied related topics in another class. I would have liked more information about the types of courses available to students, as well as whether students took courses by choice or obligation.

The survey revealed that many students, like Garth, teach themselves how to use digital technology:


Below is some data about digital tasks that students engage with at school:



These findings suggest that our schools need to do a better job incorporating technology instruction and use in the classroom to prepare students for college and the workforce. I will be interested to compare this data to future versions of the TEL assessment.


5 tools for developing web literacy

The Mozilla web literacy map conceptualizes digital literacy as a set of three intertwined strands of competencies: exploring, building, and connecting. Each competency has a set of subskills that guide educators in selecting meaningful activities to develop students’ web literacy. Below are five activities that relate to one or more of the skills highlighted in the web literacy map.

Exploring: Search– Search SharkCapture

This module is part of Common Sense Media’s Digital Passport curriculum for 3rd-5th
graders. It teaches students how to use high-quality keywords to find information on the Internet. Students play a game to guide their “Search Shark” to the best keywords swimming in the ocean. Included with the module is a lesson plan for educators to use when introducing the activity.

Exploring: Credibility– The Credibility Challenge

This lesson plan from the Annenberg Institute teaches upper elementary and middle school students how to evaluate the credibility of websites. Students apply their new knowledge about URLs, authorship, and sponsorship to critically examine the credibility of websites of diverse quality.

Building: Coding–

CaptureCreated by engineers from Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter, these tutorials teach the basics of computer science for students of all ages, including pre-readers. Students learn the logic behind coding by creating authentic products such as interactive visuals and computer games. The teacher dashboard allows instructors to monitor student progress.

Connecting: Sharing
– Kidblog

This platform allows students to learn the basics of blogging and begin sharing their ideas online under the moderation of their teacher. Potential projects include book clubs, math problem-solving journals, science notebooks, and digital portfolios.

Connecting: Privacy– Data Trail Timeline

This activity tasks middle and high school students with identifying ways that their personal information is collected through participation in everyday activities (both on- and off-line). Students construct and share timelines that include each of these data points.

Bringing background knowledge into focus

Duke et. al. argue that disciplinary and world knowledge is one of 10 essential elements of effective reading comprehension instruction. Students’ relevant background knowledge influences their success in comprehending texts, and their reading comprehension can be enhanced through study of disciplines such as science and social studies. “Reading, writing, and language are best developed when they are put to work as tools to help students acquire knowledge and inquiry skill in a specific domain.”

CaptureAccording to Hansel and Pondiscio, students’ dearth of background knowledge is a major factor contributing to disappointing reading test scores and the growing achievement gap between the rich and the poor: “Test after test shows relatively little growth and large gaps…but the root of the problem is not our children’s poverty—it’s the poverty of our ideas, of our high-stakes accountability policies and of our curricula.”

In 2013, a national survey ascertained the following average daily instructional times devoted to each of the core subjects:


  • Reading/language arts: 89 minutes
  • Math: 54 minutes
  • Science: 19 minutes
  • Social studies: 16 minutes


  • Reading/language arts: 83 minutes
  • Math: 61 minutes
  • Science/social studies: 45 minutes

Hansel and Pondiscio note that schools serving low-income students tend to devote even less time to science and social studies instruction. These unbalanced time stamps are likely the results of high-stakes testing in language arts and mathematics.

Although an emphasis on literacy in isolation may result in quick reading gains early on, gaps in comprehension become apparent in later grades. Hansel and Pondiscio advocate for accountability policies that “incentivize schools to patiently invest in building students’ knowledge and vocabulary.”

Otherwise, according to Duke et. al., “the possibility exists that by emphasizing generic reading instruction at the expense of disciplinary learning, we may be, as the saying goes, cutting off our noses to spite our faces.”



Duke, N., Pearson, D., Strachan, S., & Billman, A. (2011). Essential elements of fostering and teaching reading comprehension. What research has to say about reading instruction, 51-93.

Hansel, L. & Pondiscio, R. (2016). To boost reading, stop blaming teachers and start building knowledge. Education Week. Retrieved from

Robelen, E. (2013). Math, science instruction probed in national survey of teachers. Education Week. Retrieved from


Maximizing the impact of read alouds

I was really excited to read the Beck and Keown article on text talk because I teach a course called “Think, Read, Discuss” that centers on a read aloud. I picked up a lot of ideas from this reading that I am looking forward to bringing into my classroom this fall. This post covers my takeaways from the Beck and Keown article integrated with tips from a couple other sources. Advice from my own experience is included at the bottom.


Text choice

Children’s aural comprehension is more developed than their reading comprehension. It is important to choose texts that challenge students with complex events and unfamiliar ideas. Balance should be maintained between informational and narrative texts. It can be helpful to organize texts into topical units to help students build background knowledge and learn to make intertextual connections. Examples of informational units include animals and holidays. Narrative texts can be grouped into themes such as family traditions or friendship.

Vocabulary development

To promote retention, it is best to go deep and not wide by selecting 2-4 focal words per story. Guidelines for choosing words include unfamiliarity, importance for understanding the story, and relevance in daily conversation. Begin by explaining how the word is being used in the story and offering an explicit definition. Then, allow students to practice using the word by thinking of an idea they can express with a sentence that includes the word. After students share their sentences, have classmates explain each other’s responses in their own words in order to reinforce the definition of the vocabulary word. Encourage students to use new words after the reading by displaying them on chart paper and keeping track of instances when students use the words.

Questioning strategies

Plan questions that are analytical in nature. This helps students to develop understanding of the story as a whole, rather than merely retrieving factual details. Help students construct meaning as you read by asking questions as you go, rather than waiting until the story is finished. Young students have a tendency to over-rely on pictures or background knowledge to answer questions. Help them stay focused on the story by not showing pictures until questions are answered. When children ground their responses in background knowledge, bring them back to the text for evidence to support their answers, rereading relevant sections as necessary. Repeat and rephrase student answers to help students develop vocabulary and encourage them to add on to each other’s thinking.

What I’ve learned in the classroom

  • It can be difficult for young children to maintain attention during read alouds. When possible, incorporate sound effects and hand motions to keep the story engaging.
  • Read alouds are valuable not only for teaching vocabulary and promoting comprehension, but also for developing oral language. Have students turn and talk before answering questions so everyone gets practice articulating their ideas. Require students to answer in complete sentences. Rephrase answers when appropriate to reinforce correct syntax.
  • Try to keep discussion student-centered. Promote active listening and engagement by teaching students hand signals to indicate agreement, disagreement, and a desire to add on to their classmates’ thinking. This also helps to prevent redundant answers and allows you to pinpoint students who can share a different perspective.
  • If multiple students are struggling with a question, break it down. Guide students to relevant factual knowledge from the text and use scaffolding questions to help them make inferences.


Beck, I., & McKeown, M. (2001). Text talk: Capturing the benefits of read-aloud experiences for young children. The Reading Teacher, 55, 10-20.

Edwards, L.E., Chard, D.J., Howard, L. & Baker, S.K. (2008). Making the very most of classroom read-alouds to promote comprehension and vocabulary. The Reading Teacher, 61(5), 396-408.

Gold, J. & Gibson, A. Reading aloud to build comprehension. Reading Rockets. Retrieved from


So you want to start a word study program…

The first chapter of Words Their Way (Bear et. al.) sets the purpose for word study: Children need hands-on experience examining and categorizing words by sounds, spelling patterns, and meaning in order to develop their decoding skills, spelling, and vocabulary.

Effective word study is data-driven, differentiated, systematic, and well-organized. Below is some practical advice taken from chapters two and three of Words Their Way:

  • Before beginning instruction, teachers must determine their students’ instructional levels. This can be done through informal observations or via a spelling test that includes words from various stages of development. By examining data from each student, teachers can place them into “buckets” to differentiate instruction based on the various features they need to study (e.g. letters and sounds, spelling patterns, affixes).download
  • The Words Their Way method of word study centers on “sorts,” that task students with categorizing words by feature or meaning. There are four primary levels of sorting that vary based on student independence. The first two are best for novice sorters or introducing new features; the second two levels are geared towards experienced sorters or assessment.Teacher-directed closed sort: The teacher models sorting two or three words while explaining why each word fits into its particular category. Then, students work as a group to finish the sort.
    • Teacher-directed ‘guess my category:’ The teacher models sorting a few words without explaining the pattern. Next, students work together to determine the categories and finish the sort.
    • Student-centered closed sort: Students are given categories and work to sort a set of words independently.
    • Student-centered open sort: Students work independently to determine the categories and sort their words by pattern.
  • Words Their Way recommends focusing on one sort per week. A routine of consistent activities helps minimize time spent on planning or giving students directions. Here is a sample schedule for upper elementary:
    • Monday: Introduce sort and have students sort independently.
    • Tuesday: Have students resort words and write a list of their words organized by categories. Then, have them complete a “speed sort” by sorting their words as quickly as possible.
    • Wednesday: Have students complete a “blind sort” with a buddy. One partner reads words aloud without showing the card while the other picks the correct category. Then, partners swap roles.
    • Thursday: Have students complete a second speed sort. Then, have them go on a “word hunt.” Students look through texts to find words that are examples of the pattern they are studying. They add these words to their written sorts.
    • Friday: Assess students’ knowledge through an independent sort or a spelling test.

I use sorts as the primary word work activity in my kindergarten classroom. Here are a few tips from personal experience:

  • If you teach young students, precut their sorts and put the cards in baggies for each student. This is a total pain, but it’s less frustrating than watching them spend all of the first day cutting their own sorts.
  • Find opportunities to integrate the word patterns students are learning into other parts of the day. For example, I try to find guided reading books that match the features students are studying so they can apply their decoding skills in context. If your school has Reading A-Z, you can download books that are categorized by phonics patterns.
  • Give students opportunities to practice using their words in writing. This can be as simple as having them write sentences or a story that includes their words.

Best practices in vocabulary instruction for English language learners

English language learners (ELLs) are the fastest growing population of students in the United States. Nationally, 1 in 5 students are learning English as their second language. How can teachers tailor vocabulary instruction to meet the unique needs of these students?

0402teacherWhile most research suggests that teachers should generally focus vocabulary instruction on word learning strategies (e.g. context and structural clues), Blachowicz and Fisher explain that ELLs cannot effectively use these techniques without first establishing a solid base of known words: “There needs to be a critical mass of knowledge, including word knowledge, for incidental word learning to occur…studies suggest the importance of learning  core vocabulary in order to facilitate and supplement learning from context.”

The U.S. Department of Education recommends several best practices for teachers to support ELL students’ vocabulary development. The department emphasizes depth over breadth—instructors should focus on 5-8 words that are reinforced over the course of several lessons. Instruction should be anchored in a brief informational text that connects to students’ prior knowledge and contains the target vocabulary words. Student-friendly definitions should be accompanied by visuals such as images, videos, and diagrams.

Students should take an active role in constructing meaning of new vocabulary by building word maps that include definitions, synonyms, antonyms, examples, and non-examples. Other activities include written responses to questions that require understanding of the word meanings, and representations of the words through drawing or acting.

ELL students benefit from partner and small group conversation that enables them to practice using new words before speaking in front of the class. Effective discussion prompts include questions about the anchor text and opportunities to relate new vocabulary words to personal experiences.


Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Kieffer, M. J., Linan-Thompson, S., & Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014-4012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from the NCEE website:

Blachowicz, C. & Fisher, P. (2008). Vocabulary instruction. Handbook of Reading Research. New York: Routledge, 503-523.

Cole, M. (2014) Speaking to read: Meta-analysis of peer-mediated learning for English language learners. Journal of Literacy Research, 46(3), 358-382.

National Council of Teachers of English. (2008). English Language Learners: A Policy Research Brief. Urbana, Illinois: Author. Retrieved from







Building blocks of literacy

In the Elementary Literacy chapter, we begin to look at some of the elements of reading instruction. The authors place these “building blocks” into three categories: decoding, fluency, and comprehension. Nevertheless, they emphasize that these processes work interdependently as students read. I created a graphic that attempts to represent the relationships between these building blocks as parts of a “literacy house.”

literacy-graphicWhen one enters the first floor of the house, the first elements that are encountered are book handling and phonological awareness. These types of skills can be caught concurrently and they are prerequisites for concepts of print and phonics, respectively, which are depicted as connecting rooms. After one has a solid grasp on phonics, the next decoding skill, or room, is structural analysis.

Fluency is represented by the staircase that connects the decoding floor to the comprehension floor. Decoding skills are necessary for fluency, which enables comprehension. The three sequential rooms on this floor indicate the different levels of comprehension ordered by relative difficulty. Background knowledge (“ways of taking”) is symbolized as the roof which encompasses, or mediates, the entire house.

This image is a work in progress. There are several issues that I was unable to resolve. For instance, I couldn’t find a place where vocabulary seemed to fit. Also, this model aligns closely to the learning to read/ reading to learn framework which some theorists in the “era of engaged learning” find outdated. I toyed around with using other elements of the house to represent comprehension (e.g. walls, roof), but ultimately settled with this design that depicts tiers of comprehension and also clearly shows the relationship between fluency and the other building blocks. I will be interested to see how I am inclined to modify this graphic as the course progresses.