A subtle way to help poor readers improve;Literacy software
Computer-based learning packages are expensive. However, many teachers would say they are worth the money if they help pupils to make learning gains - particularly those who have not responded well to traditional teaching methods.
One piece of software that claims good results with pupils is the Academy of Reading, which its Canadian publisher, Autoskill, describes as the "most comprehensive interactive multimedia reading program available".
At pound;2,750 for five users and pound;3,750 for 10 users, it is not cheap, but Julian Sibbald, head of learning support at Bournville Secondary School in Birmingham, is one who believes that the benefits of the software justify its cost. His school was one of four invited to try the package last year. Installed on one multimedia PC, eight key stage 3 special needs pupils used the program, along with a control group.
Before pupils started using the Academy of Reading, they did an hour-long test to classify them into one of three reading subgroups: A (auditory visual), where what pupils hear differs from what they write, O (oral), for those who have poor pronunciation and difficulty with verbal expression, and S (sight scanning), for those who miss out words and write and see letters back to front. Subgroups A and O each account for 35 to 40 per cent of pupils, with 10 to 20 per cent in S.
This is one of the two theoretical elements on which the package is based, the other being "automaticity theory", which encourages pupils to improve their accuracy and develop a consistent response speed.
After completing the test, pupils were given individual programs. They had clear criteria for success and received regular feedback, both at the end of each exercise and in their personal "results room".
Julian Sibbald says the pupils clearly enjoyed using the software and stayed well motivated during the six-month trial. Most importantly, all of them significantly increased their reading accuracy and comprehension.
Following this result, the school installed the program on a second PC for Year 7 special needs students. As in the trial, they used the Academy of Reading for three 35-minute sessions each week during English and other lessons. Many pupils volunteered for extra sessions before school and at lunchtimes.
"I was really taken aback by the degree of motivation, determination and enjoyment this group demonstrated throughout a very long period," says Julian Sibbald. These pupils also recorded impressive improvements in accuracy and comprehension. The confidentiality of the system appealed to students who were encouraged by the cartoon guides and certificates that can be printed out after reaching certain levels.
The feedback the program gives to pupils and the teacher is one of its strengths, but Julian Sibbald points out that monitoring even a small number of students is time-consuming. The same drawback faces teachers who choose to use the system's ability to send pupils personalised messages.
Although the program maintains pupils' attention well, Mr Sibbald says that teachers' role in motivating pupils is still important. "It's certainly not just a plug-in and play thing - the students have to be monitored very carefully."
After using the program for nearly two years, Julian Sibbald says that he believes it is a useful tool. "The pupils who had been on the system were much more articulate about their own learning than those in the control group.
"There is something subtle going on - as well as the improvements in raw reading ages, it is teaching special needs pupils about their own learning and involving them more."
Another positive effect is that pupils become more confident and capable about using information technology.
Bournville School now uses the program on a suite of multimedia computers, allowing more students greater access.
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