Technology and associated software affords early readers the opportunity to practise reading in a non-threatening, supportive environment, where the quality of feedback has been shown to be particularly beneficial.
TextHelp’s Fluency Tutor (www.texthelp.com/UK) is a sophisticated reading programme that records a user’s reading of a text and offers a quick quiz to test their understanding of what they have read. This enables a teacher to mark a learner’s efforts online against a range of indicators such as mispronunciation, hesitation, omission, substitution, repetition, transposition and self-correction. The pupil can review the comprehensive feedback provided by the teacher at their leisure. The system tracks a user’s achievements as they move through increasingly sophisticated texts, presenting progress via a range of information charts.
Other systems, like Pearson’s Rapid Reading programme (www.pearsonschoolsand fecolleges.co.uk/Primary/Literacy/AllLiteracyresources/RapidReading/RapidReading. aspx) offer speech recognition, providing real-time feedback to a user as they read a text into a microphone connected to a computer.
The software corrects mispronunciation and word errors, improving spoken English and building vocabulary. Such a system can be motivating for learners who benefit from synchronous feedback and the opportunity to practise in private.
It should be noted that the effectiveness of a reading programme lies within the appropriateness of the chosen texts. Technology can motivate learners by recording, measuring and feeding back progress with decoding and comprehension skills, but may not necessarily confer enjoyment in reading. As Leung (2005) points out, reading must be purposeful and is a multi-layered, multi-modal process. Thus, chosen texts should be engaging, relevant, visual and explore a variety of genres in order to genuinely meet the needs of 21st century learners.
Digital game-based learning (DGBL)
Most children in many parts of the world who have grown up with computers and gaming consoles and increasingly ‘smart’ mobile phones are highly conversant with the notion of using them for ‘digital play’.
Some educators are capitalizing on their children’s involvement with this type of technology by integrating video games into their lessons. Tech-savvy teachers, who have in most cases grown up gaming themselves, have also begun to embrace children’s interest in ‘digital play’, creating language learning opportunities through the use of computer games within an educational context – this is sometimes known as digital games-based learning (DGBL).
Digital games, in particular, are proving popular because they can be successfully used to facilitate teachable moments: curriculum content, core skills and language acquisition. Such games can be highly engaging to the user, featuring strong narratives via a range of rich-media types such as text, audio, video and animation. They also tend to incorporate elements of problem solving that promote pupil collaboration.
When children work together to solve problems there are opportunities for teachers to develop well-structured language learning activities. Ironically, the engaging nature of digital games can sometimes be a distraction from the overall learning objective, because pupils get caught up in the notion of ‘solving the problem’ or ‘winning the game’.
At times, therefore, teachers may need to place specific restrictions on their learners in order to maximise the potential of using digital games for language learning. However, they will also need to develop activities ‘which promote the practice of language but which do not take the fun out of playing the game…’ Mawer and Stanley (2011: 15).
Hampshire Ethnic Minority and Traveller Achievement Service (EMTAS) embarked on an early intervention in reading initiative, aimed principally at preschool children from families where English was not the first language of the home. Evidence shows that many children from ‘bilingual’ homes start school in the advantageous position of ‘living within’ two or more languages, including English. However, some children can start school with under-developed speaking and listening skills in English, partly due to under-exposure to English in the home and the community, as well as inexact modeling from parents and peers.
Working with the School Library Service, EMTAS sourced ten well-known books aimed at pre-school and nursery age children (children aged between three and five). The project set out to record readings and retellings in English and ten other languages commonly spoken within local communities. Recordings for each book were made by bilingual assistants, using Mantra Lingua’s TalkingPENs and their removable Talking Stickers.
Each bilingual book was subsequently made available for loan through local children’s centres, so that a parent and child could orally share a book in English and the home language, using the supplied TalkingPEN. During the preparation of the ‘talking stories’ it was also possible to record general ideas for parents (English and home language) on how to share a book with their child. This was reported as being immensely useful by some parents.