English as an additional language teacher, Justine Lam, at Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne has been using the online reading tutor program, Reading Assistant, for two years.
She spoke to the Learning Capacity Podcast about how successful it has been, not only for English Language Learners, but also for students struggling with reading. In this podcast episode Justine describes how pleased the teachers, students and their parents have been with Reading Assistant. And also how teachers play a very important role; it's not just the computer alone.
Listen to the podcast.
- Teaching EAL (English as an Additional Language)
- Computer-based reading interventions
People & organisations mentioned
- Presbertrian Ladies College - Melbourne (PLC)
Previous podcast episodes on SoundCloud
If you would like to read the complete podcast transcript, here it is:
Episode 74 of The Learning Capacity Podcast
English as Additional Language Teacher, Justine Lam, Shares Success Stories With Reading Assistant
Colin Klupiec: Justine, your title describes you as an Individual Differences or EAL teacher. Can you tell us what the EAL part is all about?
Justine Lam: Yes. It stands for English as an Additional Language or dialect.
Colin: So that seems to suggest to me that there could be students that already have two languages, and English then just gets tacked on. Do you have many of those?
Justine: Yes, we have many. We have a high percentage of students who have come from China, or Malaysia, or Singapore, so English is not their first or second language. It could even be their third.
Colin: Wow. So is that a situation where you've got students who already have two Asian languages, or is it an Asian language and then a non-Asian language?
Justine: Mostly it's an Asian language, so it could be Chinese, for example, and Mandarin and they may know Cantonese as well. Or they could be studying Malaysian or Singapore and they even may have Malay or their own Chinese dialect.
Colin: Okay. So reading in English is obviously going to be pretty important for them. Now, Reading Assistant is a program that assists struggling readers by acting in the same way as a parent or a teacher might, assisting them as they go.
When you first heard about that as a concept, did that seem to be a little bit unbelievable to you, as in could that actually be possible?
Justine: Yes. I've always read with students next to me, whether it is a classroom teacher or and EAL teacher, and when I heard about Reading Assistant being online and a computer-aided program, I thought, "How could this be?"
So yes, it was quite an amazing journey for us to investigate how this program could support any EAL learner, or any struggling reader, actually. And, yes, I'm very impressed with what the program does.
Colin: You're in your second year of using Reading Assistant. Now that you've actually had a chance to see it working, see it in action, actually watching students using the program, how has that altered your view of computer-based intervention for reading?
A success for all stakeholders
Justine: First of all, it's been a fantastic resource for our Individual Differences Department, and it's been a success for all stakeholders, and students, parents, and teachers alike. And I just think it's one of many online computer-based programs we use to support students here, and it's just another opportunity for our students to further their learning in the reading aspect.
Colin: Does it look a little bit unusual watching students reading to a computer?
Justine: Yes. When we have visitors coming to the school, or even just teachers walking past, they see a group of girls on the computer, with headsets, reading aloud, and the computer correcting their errors, they are quite surprised. They usually come in and have a look, and there is an opportunity for me to explain what's going on.
So it's a quite dynamic environment, and the girls are totally engaged into the program that they don't even notice anyone coming in.
Colin: So if they're all reading aloud, I'm assuming that you've got a few students sitting within earshot of each other. If they're all sitting in a room together and reading at the computer, how does that work? Does the computer get a little bit with confused hearing all those voices?
Justine: Yes, it actually does. So we started with only 15 students in my classroom, and then as the program expanded to 30 students, and sometimes 20 at the same time. I've had to move into a bigger classroom. Sometimes even the girls spill outside of the classroom because the noise is too loud, or too sensitive for the microphone to be caught.
So it does get quite...the noise level does increase, so it is better with a smaller group. And it does confuse the computer sometimes in gaining the sound of each child's voice. So it is better with smaller groups in the classroom, definitely.
Colin: I'm curious again, just thinking about this idea of having lots of students who have maybe a couple of languages already, and with a strong focus on Asian language. The character set between English and Asian languages is obviously very different, and I guess there's a scale or a spectrum of reading ability, from "I can't read at all" to "Well, I can read very well," and everything else in between.
With a student who is using or learning English as an additional language, how much English do they need to know before they can start getting benefit out of Reading Assistant?
Justine: The program we only offer from grades three to six at PLC, and with the program, when I first got into the program, I have a wonderful lady called Kerry, who helps me, who has facilitated and mentored me through the program. It is recommended that they need to be at least reading 25 words per minute, roughly about that, with 25 word count per minute before they are able to access the program successfully.
Reading Assistant complements & supports classroom program
So with an EAL learner, we've moved that up to grade three. Just by grade three, many of the girls are able to do that. So this is actually a program that compliments and supports the classroom program.
So before they actually start the Reading Assistant program, they must do a pre-test, which is a program that is already installed. And once they've done the test, which takes about 30 minutes or so, the program puts them on a level reading age, which is appropriate to their reading ability.
Colin: I'm assuming you would use a similar test then for non-EAL students.
Justine: Yes, absolutely. We have a few girls on the program. Since we've expanded it this year for some struggling readers on the program who are not EAL, and their requirements will be, again, 18 to 25 words per minute so they can come into the program.
Colin: Do the non-EAL students participate from the beginning? Was that always part of the plan, or did you see that as an added benefit after having used it with your EAL students?
Justine: Yes. Well, when I first came upon the Reading Assistant, it was for struggling readers, but then I saw the potential for the EAL girls. So we trialed with the EAL girls. After that was successful last year, I did open that program for the struggling readers. The classroom teachers saw the benefit in the EAL students who were participating, and recommended the non-EAL girls.
Colin: There's research suggests that there's a very strong relationship with good language and comprehension skills, which can be achieved or assisted through reading. And some of us might not think of it that way.
Certainly, I didn't when I came across of it first. I think that's probably because when I was taught comprehension at school, all those years ago, we were actually taught explicit comprehension skills.
You're using Reading Assistant with EAL and non-EAL students. What kind of benefits are you noticing between those two groups? Are there any specific commonalities?
Justine: I think for the EAL students, the biggest benefit they've had is in listening to the program read a story or a text with the correct pronunciation, intonation, and learning of new vocabulary in order to understand the context of the story, be able to answer the questions at the end, the quizzes.
And that's been the benefit of mostly EAL students. With the non-EAL students, because they already have the support of speaking in English as their first language, and with their family situation, or even just their prior knowledge, the program has assisted them more so in the reading comprehension side of it.
So reading a text, learning some vocabulary, and being able to understand. They've been able to reread the stories as many times as they need to in order to answer the questions at the end.
Colin: So it seems like the program is able to self-select itself into the learner's requirements. Is that what I'm hearing?
The teacher is part of the process, it’s not just the computer
Justine: Yes, it is. So, at the beginning, once they've done the pre-test and the computer puts them on their level of their reading ability, they go through selecting books. Usually, it's what the computer-generated level that the test came up with for the student.
But I, as a facilitator of the program, I listen to them as I walk around, or I have coaching sessions with them one-on-one when I look at their results through the teacher links, the teacher assessment. That way I can see if they're progressing well. If they're progressing well, they will continue.
If I can see some comprehension issues, or they are having some problems with their quizzes, I would actually change it through the computer side of it, and override the computer generated level to the student level.
So they can actually choose the type of books that to their interest or more to their level. So the computer gives a general level, but I, as a human, actually can change those parameters according to the student's progress.
Colin: Wow, okay. So there's come automation or some artificial intelligence built in, but you still get the opportunity to become very much a part of the process.
Justine: That's right. Yes. It’s a great program that we can put them on, but generally, at the end of the day, the teacher really has to still guide the program so it's matched to the student's learning and progress.
Colin: I guess the success of any product relies heavily on the feedback that you get. And I guess you've got a few different stakeholders there, students, parents, and teachers. Let's go through each of those. How do the students feel about it?
Students are excited
Justine: Well, the students are really excited when they come in. They have three sessions a week because what's the timetable allows. They come out of the classroom usually during their literacy blocks, when the teachers are completing reading comprehension or reading sessions in the classroom.
They come out and they are just super excited to come in, get their headsets on, log in, get on to their books. They come out really proud when they've met the goals for each book, which gives them some points, like a game.
And then moving on to the next book, and seeing themselves improve, as well, as the complexity of texts continues. So they're very excited.
Sometimes in the classroom, if there is an opportunity for them to go on the program during class, the teachers also have access to the passwords for them to access that because we only want it to be a school-based program rather than a home-based program because we want to be able to monitor their progress.
Parents really like it
Colin: Well that just sounds like a complete gold for parents and teachers. How are the parents responding to that?
Justine: Well, the parents are really... When we introduced the program to the parents last year as a trial, they were very excited. Especially with the EAL parents because they are not able or have limited English to be able to support their children at home with their reading, sitting next to them and making sure they're reading the correct words.
So they find that a challenge, so when they heard about this program, they were actually quite amazed at a computer being able to do more that I. They were very excited. And so we showed them a short video to see how it was like.
And once they had a basic concept of it, I had another meeting at the end of the year just to share with them their particular child and how they progressed, because the computer also is able to allow teachers to record some of the stories that the children have read. So they can actually hear their child reading in real-time.
Teacher astounded by the progress
Colin: You mentioned earlier that the teachers, or that you had teachers actually suggesting which students might benefit from the program. Now that those students have been on the program, what sorts of comments are you getting from those teachers who initially made the recommendation?
Justine: Last year, I actually recommended the particular students to be in the program as a trial. And because it was just so successful and many teachers saw a great progress in their students' reading and comprehension, and language in general, they actually recommended the girls to be on it this year.
So different girls they thought that would benefit, especially the non-EAL girls. And just recently, just last term, one of my six girls who were put on the program, she's EAL, but not high needs as such. She's been here for a few years. And the teacher was just astounded by her progress in just one term of being on the program, in her reading ability.
So this was compared to English assessments they do in classroom such as Probe and other reading assessments. She just saw her jump from term one top term two, just by being inthis program for one term.
So this was compared to English assessments they do in classroom such as Probe and other reading assessments that they use. She just saw her just jump from term one to term two, just by being in this program for one term.
Measuring improvement built in to Reading Assistant
Colin: We've talked a bit about improvements. So you've made quite a bit of mention of improvement, but how do we actually go about measuring that? Are we talking about a term of improvement or an equivalent year of progress? Can you give us some insight into that?
Justine: Yes. So from the teacher's login page, you can access the student's amount of books they've read, or how long they've been on a particular story, how many questions they're getting correct at the end of the quiz for each book.
When the students come on the program, the pre-test gives them a reading age level. For example, a year 4 EAL student could be reading at a year 2, for example, which is a level for Reading Recovery or just benchmark levels.
And then during the program, as they are on the program three times a week for the term, every time I go into that student's profile, I will see the books that they are reading, that they're getting the quizzes correct. The computer actually keeps records of that, and if they're progressing consistently well on that particular level, level 2, the computer generates it up to a year 3 level, and then year 4, and so on.
So if they're getting consistent correct answers to the quizzes, for example, or in their words count per minute, the computer generates then to move them up a level. So every three or four weeks or so, I will have a look into their profile, and that will them me whether they moved up in their reading level. Does that make sense?
Colin: Yes, that makes complete sense. Presumably then, the follow-on from that is that you could continue that indefinitely, I suppose. So would you consider leaving a student who is doing really well on the program, actually on the program so that they could perhaps be reading ahead of their year?
Justine: Yes. A particular child that started last year in year 4, she was in year 4 and she was reading at level of 2.5 or so. And now, we're into our second term, because there's only two terms, she's already up to about a year 5 level.
So I've seen that jump. So she will stay in the program because it's only a two-term program per year, so it's just best for her to continue the program until it finishes. And this is good evidence for her classroom teacher to readjust her reading level in the classroom. Now, we can't take 100%, though.
I'm still wary of the levels because sometimes because it's computer-generated and the quizzes are multiple choices. We still need to be mindful that there could be some guessing going on. So even though she may have jumped from a 2.5 to a 6 within one and a half terms, we can't say she's actually on a level 6 reading level, per se.
We still need to back that up with classroom assessments, such as Probes and other assessments that the classroom teacher uses. So I'm looking forward to seeing how she does in the classroom assessments.
Colin: Well, let's just pretend for a second that the data that you're getting is actually reasonably accurate and that she is starting to read well beyond her years. Would that make you sit back and think that there was benefit in doing that for the larger student body, or are we taking that a bit too far?
Ideal for whole school to do Reading Assistant in the literacy program
Justine: When I first heard about this program, I heard that it was done in New Zealand for the whole school at the same time, and I think that would be ideal. I think the program would be fantastic for all students to be able to participate once a day, really, for 30 minutes. I think it's recommended 20 to 30 minutes for the lower grades, and 30 to 40 minutes for the upper grades.
So I definitely think that if the school had this as a priority, it would be fantastic in the literacy program every day. And even some parents who have been very excited and enthusiastic about the program last year, this year they wanted to be able to access the program at home.
So when the program finishes in term three, they want to be able to purchase the program to continue at home. And I think that would be absolutely fine. So in an ideal world and an ideal school, if all the students were able to access the program from prep to six, it would be a great benefit to their reading for sure.
Reading Assistant can scale effectiveness of teachers
Colin: Because we're not suggesting here that we should remove teachers from the scene, but we are looking for ways to scale our effectiveness. Isn't that right?
Justine: Absolutely. And that's why this program was taken up, first of all, by me because the time that it takes to sit next to a child to listen to them read is quite...it takes quite a bit of time, as every teacher would know.
Sometimes you'll be doing it during lunchtime to be able to get through the class to hear them read. So it doesn't replace the teacher, though, because that's that immediate feedback, but it definitely for my EAL program and our program in general, it's a good program to be able to get to as many students as possible to support them in this area.
Colin: I guess when we're using terms like "scaling effectiveness", there's the concept of competitive advantage that comes in, and phrases like "reading beyond their years".
Thinking about a computer-based reading solution, I can already hear the skeptics chiming in, and I think that's fair enough. Having seen what you've seen so far, though, what would you say to the skeptics?
Justine: I think, try it, really. It's worthwhile to trial it first, and then you will see them quickly engaged with the text. They become enthusiastic about it. And it's not a drag to come into class to do this. They are having fun.
They're competing against themselves to be able to read to next level, read the next book. They tell me actually when a book is too hard or too easy. They're taking responsibility for their learning, actually, when they're on this program because I'm consistently watching them and giving them feedback.
So I think we have to understand that it's not a replacement for a teacher. It would never be. But it's definitely a support.
Colin: Well, it certainly sounds like a very positive program. Justine, thanks so much for your time.
Justine: Thank you.