Promoting K-12 Literacy through ICT

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Promoting K-12 Literacy through ICTs

Adam Staple, Memorial University of Newfoundland


Successful development of the basic literacy skills of reading and writing poses a problem for K-12 students and educators worldwide (Genlott & Gronlund, 2013). One 2004 study reported that over 8 million grade 4-12 students in America struggle to read, write, and comprehend text adequately (Williams, Rouse, Seals, & Gilbert, 2009). Other U.S. studies from the same decade are similarly dire, indicating that approximately one quarter of grade 8-12 students read below basic proficiency levels; that there has not been significant change in literacy proficiency when compared to data from 1992; and that an estimated six million students may be academically “left behind” (Jacobs, 2008). In Canada, data from a 2004 study in Ontario indicated that nearly half of all grade 3 students failed to meet prescribed standards in reading and writing (Sun, Zhang, & Scardamalia, 2010). Worldwide, a 2012 benchmark comparison of literacy found that even the highest ranked countries barely met a 20% “advanced” literacy rate, with most students lagging below this level (Genlott & Gronlund, 2013). This deficiency in literacy development is particularly problematic given that there is a strong correlation between strong foundational literacy skills and later school success (Moody, 2010). Suhr, Hernandez, Grimes & Warschauer (2010) have specifically identified a “fourth-grade slump”, or a slowdown in reading and writing skill development as children transition from learning to read to the more abstract task of “reading to learn”.

Compounding the problem, the concept of literacy itself is continually evolving (Tanti, 2012). Literacy practices students learn at school are increasingly at odds with their out-of-school social and cultural practices, and fail to meet students' future social, educational and professional literacy needs (Lotherington & Ronda, 2010). Most schools, however, still view literacy development from a traditional as opposed to contemporary perspective (Owston, Wideman, Ronda & Brown, 2009). Continuing to ignore this changing and multiplicitous nature of student literacy will lead to more students becoming disinterested in increasingly outmoded in-school literacy practices (Jacobs, 2008).

Role of ICTs

One ICT that has had an impact on K-12 literacy pedagogy, particularly in early grades, is electronic books or e-books, whether accessed via traditional computers, tablets, smartphones, or dedicated e-book readers (Felvégi & Matthew, 2012). The audio-visual and interactive enhancements of e-books have the potential to enhance students' reading motivation, and can provide needed and helpful accommodations for at-risk students with language related exceptionalities (Felvégi & Matthew, 2012). In addition, the e-book enables reading without teacher intervention, as multimedia supports take the place of an adult mediator, encouraging independent reading (Roskos, Brueck & Widman, 2009). One study involving kindergarten students reported gains in word recognition, writing, and phonological awareness (Shamir & Korat, 2007). Another study involving five-year olds found increased comprehension and vocabulary gains by students who used e-books versus students who used traditional books (Moody, 2010). In a study using e-books as a shared reading and writing activity, researchers reported increased student motivation and engagement while promoting fluency, vocabulary, and critical reading skills (Almaguer & Pena, 2010). From an administrative standpoint, e-books can potentially reduce expenses as extensive libraries can be produced and stored at less cost than possible with traditional print formats (Felvégi & Matthew, 2012).

While e-books can improve reading skills, other ICTs can also enhance writing skills, as the affordances of digital composition can enable multi-modal writing (Burnett, 2009). One researcher noted that compositions produced using word processors were of better quality than compositions produced on pen and paper (Hansen, 2008). In a study involving Grade 1 students using various ICT tools to write and refine text, researchers found that students wrote longer and clearer texts with more elaborate structure and language when using ICTs (Genlott & Gronlund, 2013). Grade 4 students in a Massachusetts study who used ICTs at school had higher writing scores on comprehensive tests than students who did not use ICTs (Suhr, Hernandez, Grimes & Warschauer, 2010). Similarly, Grade 4-6 students who regularly used e-portfolios showed measurable improvement in writing skill, while also allowing for development of critical thinking and independent learning skills (Meyer, Abrami, Wade, Aslan & Deault, 2010).

Blogs, in particular, offer schools a cost effective and versatile tool to address literacy outcomes in areas of talking, listening, reading, and writing, while offering students the opportunity to write effectively for a specific audience and display their writing to an extended audience through social networking tools (Tanti, 2012). Blogs advance literacy through storytelling and social dialogue, and encourage creativity and self-expression (Huffaker, 2005). Blogs provide students with the opportunity to develop their ability to draft, proofread and edit texts, construct complex sentences, raise language awareness, and use different language patterns (Tanti, 2012). In addition, blogs are flexible and can be used effectively with any age group (Huffaker, 2005).


Despite the advantages of using ICTs to promote literacy, there is a danger that use of multimedia-filled e-books can overload a student's cognitive processes, preventing a meaningful connection with the text and rendering the literacy experience shallow and ineffective (Roskos, Brueck & Widman, 2009). Lower quality e-books may contain distracting hypermedia features, including animations, video, and sounds, that are unrelated to the story (Moody, 2010). Distracting e-book features that do not support story content may hinder full comprehension, conclusion drawing, and critical thinking, and “often merely amuse without contributing to learning” (Shamir & Korat, 2007, p. 127). In addition, some students may rely too heavily on the multimedia supports provided by e-books, such as word highlighting, text-to-speech, pronunciation, and so on, thereby hindering their own literacy development (Felvégi & Matthew, 2012).

To combat these possible distractions and hinderances, researchers suggest that e-books be carefully chosen and designed to effectively use multimedia to support student understanding and explorations of written text (Shamir & Korat, 2007). Other research suggests that for literacy skills to be developed through ICT use, a teacher should monitor student activities and keep them on-task (Hillman & Moore, 2004). Grade 3 students in one e-book study exhibited greater vocabulary gains when a teacher provided additional instruction and mediation than when students used the e-books on their own (Moody, 2010). Without this active teacher presence, gains in student literacy may be hindered or simply not occur (Rowsell & Walsh, 2011). Ultimately, effective ICT integration depends largely on how the teacher implements the technology in the classroom (Cviko, McKenney & Voogt, 2012).

Works cited

Almaguer, I., & Pena, C. (2010). Electronic books: fostering emergent literacy in early childhood education. International Journal Of Instructional Media, 37(3), 291-300.

Burnett, C. (2009). Research into literacy and technology in primary classrooms: an exploration of understandings generated by recent studies. Journal of Research in Reading, 32(1), 22-37. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9817.2008.01379.x

Cviko, A., McKenney, S., & Voogt, J. (2012). Teachers enacting a technology-rich curriculum for emergent literacy. Educational Technology Research and Development, 60(1), 31-54.

Felvégi, E., & Matthew, K. (2012). eBooks and literacy in K–12 schools. Computers in the Schools, 29(1-2), 40-52.

Genlott, A., & Grönlund, A. (2013). Improving literacy skills through learning reading by writing: The iWTR method presented and tested. Computers & Education, 67(1), 98–104. DOI: 10.1016/j.compedu.2013.03.007

Hansen, C. C. (2008). Observing technology enhanced literacy learning. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 8(2), 108-121.

Hillman, M., & Moore, T. (2004). The web and early literacy. Computers in the Schools, 21(3-4), 15-21. DOI: 10.1300/J025v21n03_03

Huffaker, D. (2005). The educated blogger: Using weblogs to promote literacy in the classroom. AACE Journal, 13(2), 91-98.

Jacobs, V. (2008). Adolescent literacy: putting the crisis in context. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 7-39, 278.

Lotherington, H., & Ronda, N. (2010). Gaming geography: educational games and literacy development in the Grade 4 classroom. Canadian Journal Of Learning And Technology, 35(3).

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Moody, A. (2010). Using electronic books in the classroom to enhance emergent literacy skills in young children. Journal of Literacy and Technology, 11(4), 22-53.

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