Technological Integration Dramatically Boosts Literacy Skills at CES

Hannah F. shares what she learned in Epic!, an iPad app provided to students at Calais Elementary School through a statewide pilot to boost literacy, with Paul Hambleton, Chief Academic Officer of the Department of Education (left). Kari Cole's kindergarten class is divided between centers of traditional and digital learning. (Photo by Lura Jackson)

By Lura Jackson


Taking a look at our modern society, it’s easy to see that we are no longer reliant or dependent upon the written word in its physical form. Computers, smart phones, and touch screens have largely replaced books and letters in our daily interactions. While it can be argued that there are both positive and negative aspects of this change, at Calais Elementary School [CES], teachers are working hand-in-hand with the state to explore how technology can capture the interest and bolster learning for the modern child. Thus far, the program – which is part of the statewide MoMEntum [sic] program, now in its pilot period at nine schools – has already demonstrated significant results in improving literacy skills. A team including Commissioner of Education Bob Hasson, Jr. visited CES on Wednesday, November 8th, to speak with teachers and see the program in action.

Among the classrooms that Hasson’s team visited was Kari Cole’s kindergarten class. At the time, the class was divided into several “centers”, each of which was focused on a different activity. Some of the children were engaged in traditional exercises like cutting and pasting to create collages and coloring with crayons. On the other half of the room, students were independently using iPads to explore apps, one of which was Epic! and the other of which was eSpark. The iPads and the associated apps have been provided to grades K-3 as part of the MoMentum program.

Students using eSpark engage in learning activities tailored to their personal strengths and areas where they need improvement. During the observation period, student Hannah F. was sorting the syllables of words into proper order. It took her only a few seconds to arrange “Strawberry” into its appropriate form. After a short time – Ms. Cole said that the students have about ten minutes a day with each app – a bell rings in the classroom, and Hannah switched to Epic! She quickly selected a digital book about animals that live underground, and the program began to read to her as she moved through it at her speed. 

“I love Epic!” enthused Hannah, providing the exclamation point to her statement without reservation. She rapidly finished the book, and, when asked what she had learned, she recounted several animals that lived in burrows, including hamsters, crabs, and foxes. She rated the book five out of five stars and began looking for another that suited her interests.

“Epic! is nonfiction, so it builds background and information beyond just developing reading skills,” said Paul Hambleton, Chief Academic Officer of the Department of Education, as he observed Hannah. “They’re learning vocabulary as well as concepts related to ecosystems, such as how some things live in holes.”

While some classrooms in the state have switched to using primarily digital forms of learning with their students, Ms. Cole feels it is imperative to teach them hands-on skills, too. “I still want to work on the pencil grip and letter formation, that kind of stuff,” she said. “There are so many apps that are wonderful for the older grades, but I think we still need to focus on those skills in kindergarten.”

From Ms. Cole’s perspective, one of the best benefits of the eSpark app is how it is individualized for each learner. “It definitely gets those high flyers going and it reinforces the kids that need more practice in certain things to focus on those skills they need.” 

The digital interaction that modern kindergartners have compared to those of earlier generations may seem like it creates a divide in experiences, but, in some ways, they aren’t that far apart. Ms. Cole describes how students engaging in Epic! will share their favorite stories with their friends, elaborating on the parts they liked the best. “I can’t get over the conversations they have,” Cole said. For Hambleton, it is a similar situation to the one he encountered while serving as a teacher in a middle school and holding literacy circles. “It would be an incredibly noisy classroom,” Hambleton recalls, “but I would invite my principal to come in and see it, because they were talking about the stories they were reading.”

The results of the program, which began in January of 2017, have already been noteworthy. Even just between February and May, CES recorded an improvement of more than 160 percent in literacy skills for its participating classes. “100 percent would be unrealistic to expect, but 160 percent was just phenomenal,” said Principal Sue Carter. Carter said it is not only the technology that makes the program work through individualized support of each student, but the support for the teachers, too.

Every month, teachers have been participating in skills-building workshops, including Leveraging Learning. The workshops help teachers understand how to use iPads as tools for problem solving rather than focusing on specific apps. Teachers working with older students can convey that viewpoint through assignments, 3rd grade teacher Vanessa Flood explained. “It changes your mindset about how you can use the iPad… There’s no magic app that you’re going to go on that’s going to teach you for me. It’s ‘Here’s the assignment, you use your iPad and you show me the way you can solve it.’”

“I’m very encouraged by the students’ engagement in their learning when they use the iPads,” Commissioner Hasson said after his tour at CES. “I’m super heartened by the collegiality and the professionalism of the teachers, and their sharing and commitment to it.”

The pilot program will end in June of 2018, at which point statewide results will be available for the department to review. Based on preliminary results, the state will aim to continue and expand the program in some capacity.