A Computer Program That Teaches Early Readers
When it comes to teaching young children to read, there are many theories about what works and what doesn't work. This is a topic that both parents and educators are passionate about—we know how important it is for our children to have strong literacy skills, and we also know that many kids are struggling with their ABC's.
Passionate is a good word to describe local teacher Barb Pringle who has specialized in teaching, alternate learners for 35 years. I first met Barb a number of years ago when my son was having significant difficulties with his reading. I felt he needed some kind of creative approach to learning, but I had no idea what might work for him. My interest was piqued by Barb's claim that her A.W.A.R.E. learning program would make reading and spelling logical and predictable. My son and I were not disappointed.
In her program, Barb has evolved analogic "stories" crafted to tap into students' knowledge base, so each letter's sound and behaviour become predictable. One of the main features of the program is that it is logic-based rather than memory-based. Because it makes sense it's easy to remember. Best of all, the "analogic rules" can be applied to any new words the student is trying to spell or read. For kids with difficulties, if you take the struggle out of trying to read each word, the comprehension falls into place naturally. They no longer have to put so much effort into decoding each word, and the sentences actually start to make sense.
I recently paid a visit to Barb Pringle to find out about her latest project. For the past seven years she has been coordinating the production of her program onto CD-ROM. The result is a program for beginning readers—not just those kids who are having difficulties but those who are ready to learn to read. It's called ALPHabiTunes, which stands for "Animated Letter Personalities, each with a Habit that teaches its Tunes." The program itself teaches the kids. They can go at their own pace as each letter is mastered, but the program is constantly assessing their progress and reporting to the teacher. ALPHabiTunes has provisions within the program which won't "let" the students fail.
This isn't a hit-or-miss game where kids can sit and madly click the mouse in the hopes of finally getting the right answer in order to move on to the next level. In a world of high speed, glitzy, special effect saturated computer games, I wondered how kids reacted to this more gentle, low-key approach. Apparently they love it. Perhaps they know that this stuff will help open up the magical world of reading. Probably not, though—it's more likely that they're simply having fun and are turned on to learning.
According to Barb, it's difficult for young children to learn language using language itself. Their comprehension is limited. Her program makes use of the oldest language in the world: body language. This is something that even very young children can understand. Using stories and behaviours which are based on the letters' shapes, kids learn how each letter behaves. They don't have to try to remember because it all makes sense to them. As Barb explains some of the details to me, she becomes as animated as her letters dancing across the computer screen. Amazed by the intricacy and creativity of her work, I ask how she came up with this program. “By figuring out how to teach in a way that's meaningful to the kids," is her quick reply. "Stories about letters are engaging, logical, believable and thus memorable," she says, "and if something doesn't make sense, the kids will nail me." So over the years her program has evolved, and many kids who appeared beyond help have benefited from Barb's unique approach.
An independent study was carried out by Dr. Ian Cameron of the University of Victoria's Faculty of Education to assess the effectiveness of the ALPHabiTunes program in teaching sight-sound correspondence to beginning readers. Over a two-year period, the program was tested in more than 30 local elementary schools. There were three groups, each one doing some kind of learning:
the experimental in which students worked on the ALPHabiTunes program for about one hour per week over six weeks;
the control group in which teachers were asked to teach whatever reading-related activities they thought appropriate;
and the placebo group in which classes were asked to spend at least 15 minutes per day on sight-sound activities using the same letters as the experimental group.
When comparing results for the three research groups involved, Dr. Cameron noted:
"In the second year, the program became a victim of its own success. Teachers who taught the experimental classes in year one were so enthusiastic about the results that it was difficult to find schools willing to provide control or placebo classes in year two."
According to Barb Pringle, Dr. Cameron did not recognize the value of her computer program as an effective teaching tool when he was first approached to assess it. How could a computer program actually teach spelling and reading? However, his report concludes that "results indicate this program is effective. Teachers of the experimental classes reported that students enjoyed using it... and that it was easy to run... One particular strength identified by the teachers was that the program really does provide individualized instruction, so students who have mastered a certain letter can move on to the next letter and then to the next module." This means that kids can learn at their own pace, which eliminates the boredom of the quick learner and the frustration and lack of skill mastery of the slower learner.
So with these kinds of positive results, one might assume that the next obvious step would be to get the ALPHabiTunes program into the school system. However, it's not as easy as that. There are many beliefs around teaching beginning readers, and there are a number of programs already in place. Teachers may be hesitant to try something new when they already have their own preferred methodology. Funding in schools is also an issue, especially as schools tend to budget for practice programs which are less expensive than actual teaching programs. And as Dr. Cameron has concluded: "This program can make a real contribution to the teaching of beginning reading."
Barb sees the homeschooling environment as an option for ALPHabiTunes, but believes the ideal setting is the classroom especially because, as Dr. Cameron explains, "...phonics is a grind for kids. But kids thought it [ALPHabiTunes] was great... they loved it!"