Reading First ... Technology Second? the Federal Early-Literacy Program Gets a Big Boost from Tools Used for Professional Development and Personalized Student Instruction. but That Potential Is Too Often Going Unrecognized

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BREWSTER ELEMENTARY, a rural K-6 school of almost 500 students, just north of Yakima, WA, could reasonably be considered a school at risk: Fully 92 percent of its students qualify for Title I funding; 83 percent use English as a second language. For eight years running, Brewster has been using the HOSTS Learning system, with funding help from the federal Reading First program.

Though it doesn't formally approve particular reading programs, Reading First--whose goal is to ensure that all children are capable readers by the end of third grade--requires that programs provide instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and reading comprehension. HOSTS, which stands for Help One Student To Succeed, does all that and more, offering mentoring intervention, an online instruction management tool, and professional development consultations. The program is a hybrid of professional development, assessment, and direct instruction.

At the beginning of each school year, Brewster Principal Eric Driessen screens his students, using both a standardized test and a HOSTS assessment. He discusses the students' needs with the program coordinator and the school's reading coach; typically about 60 students are chosen for the program. Those students then receive half an hour a day of extra reading instruction from a mentor; the mentors are all volunteers from the community. Margaret Reynolds, a retired teacher, has been mentoring third- and fourth-grade students in the program for four years. She says she's seen great improvement in almost everyone, in no small part because her students know that someone cares. "It gives them more confidence," she says. "You can see that they're enjoying it more. There's somebody who's interested in what they're doing."

The program coordinator, it so happens, is the principal's wife, Liz Driessen. Liz talks with virtually everyone in the community--attending organizational meetings and visiting businesses, middle schools, and high schools--in the effort to recruit mentors. "Sometimes," she admits, "I feel like a used-car salesman."

Whatever the strategy, it seems to be working: She garnered more than 100 volunteers this year, and that doesn't even include the money, goods, and services donated by businesses. She thinks that the strength of the program is its personalization--the 1-to-1 mentor-student structure and the individual learning plans. Technology has a key presence as well. Each student's assessment results are entered into a computer, and the program generates a long-term plan that includes weekly objectives. Students are also tested on the computer and receive feedback. All the effort is paying off richly. Eighty percent of Brewster students who go through the program end up passing the state assessment in reading--these are students who were previously failing.

What's happening at Brewster Elementary illustrates the role technology can play in Reading First. The question is, What role is technology playing in Reading First to realize the program's objectives, which are, direct from its website: "to select, implement, and provide professional development for teachers using scientifically based reading programs, and to ensure accountability through ongoing, valid, and reliable screening, diagnostic, and classroom-based assessment"?

Unfortunately, in too many instances, not as prominent as the role it should be playing. For example, Kathleen Doyle, Reading First regional coordinator at South Cook Intermediate Service Center 4, says she knows of no Reading First funds in her six South Chicago districts that have been allotted to technology. Doyle says the Illinois State Board of Education "wants kids to be able to read books first." In California, Jeff Cohen of the state's Reading/Language Arts Leadership Office says his office doesn't track that kind of information, but that "each district will be somewhat unique."

Larry Berger, CEO of Wireless Generation, which makes wireless assessment tools that are used by many Reading First schools, says a lot of his customers don't even consider their handheld products to be technological devices. …