Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 41 / OCTOBER 1983 / PAGE 132

Learning With Computers

J.B. Shelton and Glenn M. Kleiman

Computers And Teaching Children To Read

Both authors of this report have long been interested in teaching children to read. Kleiman, previously a researcher at the National Center for the Study of Reading, attended the 1983 International Reading Association Convention. Shelton, a former reading tutor, has visited several schools where the IBM-sponsored program discussed in this column is being tested.

International Reading Association Convention

The International Reading Association (IRA) is the world's largest association of reading teachers and researchers. Its 1983 convention, held May 2-6 in Anaheim, California, reflected the size of the organization. The program booklet required 58 pages to list all the workshops, symposia, institutes, research report presentations, special interest group meetings, and other events. Thousands of teachers and researchers attended, and almost 250 companies exhibited their products.

Three years ago, at the 1980 convention, there was very little about computers. Only a handful of presentations focused on computers, and just a few companies exhibited computer-based products. Things have changed.

Three of the preconvention institutes focused upon computers, as did many conference presentations and symposia. A special interest group has been formed by people interested in using microcomputers to teach reading. The exhibit area included booths from Apple, Atari, Commodore, IBM, and Radio Shack. Perhaps most significant is that computer software was included in many of the exhibit booths, even from some of the major textbook publishing companies. Scott Foresman, Random House, Ginn, Houghton Mifflin, Scholastic, Milliken, Borg-Warner Educational Systems, Developmental Learning Materials, Walt Disney Educational Media, Educational Activities, Hartley, Follett Library Book Company, American Educational Software, Computer Curriculum Corporation, and other companies had computer materials on display.

In a display of IRA publications, there was a new book, Computer Applications in Reading, by George Mason, Jay Blanchard, and Danny Daniel. This book is a valuable resource for anyone interested in computers and reading. It describes college and university centers for computer-based reading programs, school applications in reading instruction, computer assessment of readability, sources of computer services and software, research on computers in reading, and background information about computers. Much of the book is taken up by annotated bibliographies, so it is a good starting point for finding out about computers and reading instruction. It is available from IRA, 800 Barksdale Road, Box 8139, Newark, DE 19714.

A new journal, Computers, Reading and Language Arts, was also being promoted. It contains articles, book reviews, software reviews, and news, all focusing on "the day-to-day use of computers in teaching basic skills in subjects like reading, writing, and spelling." For more information about this journal, contact Modern Learning Publishers, Inc., 6517 Liggert, Oakland, CA 94611.

At the IRA convention, there was clearly tremendous interest in using computers to teach reading. There were discussions of the potential of computers to help motivate children, to provide drill and practice in phonics and word recognition, to administer and score tests, and to improve comprehension skills. Many teachers, administrators, and researchers expressed optimism about the possible uses of computers.

However, there was far more said about plans, potentials, and desires than about how computers are already being used. The presentations, for the most part, focused on the need for teacher training and the process of implementing computers in schools, and selecting and evaluating software – the beginning steps of using computers. Reading educators are just getting started with computers. It will be a few years before presentations at IRA can discuss what actually happens when computers are used in teaching children to read.

Writing To Read

One reading program already being used was shown at the IBM exhibit booth and at a separate display. The program is part of a comprehensive reading instruction package for kindergarten and first-grade children. Developed by Dr. John Henry Martin and called "Writing to Read," this approach to teaching reading is being tested by schools in eight states and in Washington, D.C., with 10,000 children participating. Wake County, North Carolina, with 2,900 kindergarten children in 34 schools, is the largest single participant in the national test. The program runs on IBM Personal Computers, and testing is funded by IBM. Dr. Martin's company, JHM Corporation, is supervising the program and, at the end of a two-year test period, Educational Testing Service will conduct an evaluation.

The introduction of Writing to Read into the schools was threefold: teachers and principals were given a two-day training seminar and a system management manual; parents viewed an orientation film and experienced a hands-on session; and the children were prepared in the classroom for the computer lab procedures.

The Program In Action

At Briarcliff Elementary School in Cary, North Carolina, the reading lab contains four IBM Personal Computers, one printer, eight electric typewriters, and ten tape recorders. Each child spends one hour per day in the reading lab. The computer segment lasts 15 minutes. The remaining time is spent in work center activities – children review their words, use typewriters to write, and listen to, and read, stories.

At the computer stations, the children work in pairs, using IBM Personal Computers with synthesized voice output and color graphics. Wearing headphones, the children listen and respond to the synthesized voice and graphics display.

The computerized lessons are designed to teach children letter-sound correspondences. The lessons use a "phonemic alphabet" which represents each of the 42 sounds of English by one symbol. That is, this approach uses a special teaching alphabet that makes the letter-sound correspondences consistent. For example, "cat" would be written as "Kat," and "through" as "throo." The children are introduced to all 42 phonemes by working with 30 words. The selected words include all the sounds and are represented by pictures – dog, cat, bed, rabbit, fish, and so on. The children learn the 30 words in ten cycles, each with three words.

The symbols for the sounds are displayed around the perimeter of the computer screen (these symbols are letters, letter pairs such as "th," and letters with markings, such as for long and short vowels). A color picture appears on the computer screen, with the word spelled both phonetically (rabit) and in standard English (rabbit). The computer (using a digitized female voice) intones: "Say rabbit." There is a pause for the children to say the word aloud. They are then instructed in the phonemic spelling, sound by sound. The voice requests an "r" and waits for the correct letter on the keyboard to be pressed. Incorrect key presses are simply ignored. When "r" is pressed, the phoneme "r" moves from its place at the perimeter of the screen to midscreen. The voice repeats, "Say rabbit," and the children again recite the word. This sequence continues until the whole word is spelled out. The procedure is very repetitive. As each new word is selected, the computer says the word, asks the children to repeat it, spells the word aloud, and asks the children to take turns spelling it several times. Since phonemic spellings are emphasized, the children must spell "rabbit" with only one "b" – the computer ignores any pressing of "b" after the first one.

After the learning phase, the computer work goes on to a "mastery test." Students are asked to spell the words they have just learned. If they make two errors, the computer takes them back to the learning phase. Following success on the mastery test, there is a "make words" phase, in which all the phonemes the children have learned so far are reviewed and combined into new words. There are also some game activities, such as one where the children must repeatedly type "mouse" quickly enough to keep a mouse pictured on the screen moving away from a cat.

The work-center activities complement and supplement the computer lessons. At the work-journal station, the children use workbooks which provide practice with the three basic words just learned, present additional words that have the same phonemes, and leave room for children to write new words. At the make-words center, the children write and illustrate words. At the classics listening center, they listen to stories on tape and read along with the actual books. This familiarizes them with standard spelling. At the typewriter station, children use IBM Selectric typewriters to write the words they have learned, combine them into sentences and, when they are ready, begin to write stories.

Program Effectiveness

Writing to Read has many similarities to other approaches to teaching reading. For example, it shares the use of a phonetic alphabet with approaches using the International Teaching Alphabet. The emphasis on letter-sound correspondences and on having children say the words and sounds repeatedly reminds us of such structured phonics approaches as the DISTAR method. However, the overall blend of computer and work-station activities is Dr. Martin's own synthesis, reflecting his experience as a teacher and school administrator and his philosophy of education.

Writing to Read has been enthusiastically received by the teachers and children at Briarcliff School. The principal, Mary Jane McReynolds, noted: "Our kindergartners, four months into the school term, are writing sentences. They have to be enjoying, as well as learning from, the computers to show the dedication they do."

Several minor problems, such as the mastery tests being too rapid and the headphones not working well, have been remedied. Kathleen Burt, head of Briarcliff School's Kindergarten program, reports: "We're more than pleased; we have high hopes. You can't separate reading and writing, and this is a logical approach toward teaching them together. It combines many of the best teaching methods we use in the classroom with the technological advantages of the computer."

The Writing to Read approach is an eclectic one, combining phonics, writing, and the reading of classical children's stories. Some educators would object to certain aspects, such as using nonstandard phonetic spellings and having children begin learning letter-sound correspondences before they learn "whole-word" or "sight" recognition of common words. These are classic issues in the teaching of reading, issues that have been debated for many years. We will not enter into this debate here, but we do want to point out that the computer does not settle any of these issues. Computers can be used in any approach to teaching reading. But computers do not tell us how or what to teach, and they do not automatically solve children's reading problems.

Dr. Martin and IBM are to be commended for their efforts to integrate computers into a complete approach to teaching reading, and for subjecting their approach to large-scale testing and evaluation. However, they are using the computer for only one purpose – to teach letter-sound correspondences to beginning readers. We hope to see other methods of teaching reading begin to incorporate computers, and to see computers used to help children develop more advanced reading skills.