6 ways a tech-driven approach will boost literacy rates

In education, we talk a lot about achievement gaps, but especially since COVID we’ve also seen instructional gaps—and literacy has been impacted.
Jason Griffin
Jason Griffin
Jason Griffin is the director of elementary education and federal programs for Craven County Schools in New Bern, North Carolina.

About five years ago we set out to find a program that would help us fill in literacy skill gaps. In North Carolina, students have to take and pass a comprehensive reading test, so we needed a platform to help them achieve that goal. Along with filling in the skill gaps, the software platform would also have to give teachers the tools and resources needed to help improve learning outcomes.

In education, we talk a lot about achievement gaps, but especially since COVID we’ve also seen instructional gaps. As a Purple Heart District where all 26 of our schools are considered “military-friendly,” we also manage a high volume of transient students who move in and out a lot. We also have a steadily increasing ESL student population.

These and other realities pushed us to get out there and find a platform that could help fill the skill gaps and increase our students’ end-of-grade reading scores.

Picking the right literacy platform

When I joined the district six years ago, one of our schools was using Lexia Core5 Reading, an adaptive blended learning program that accelerates the development of literacy skills for students of all abilities. I liked what I saw in the program and felt like the entire district would benefit from using it. We talked to the vendor and then had one of our instructional coaches share the platform with all of our elementary schools.

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From there, we pushed the platform up to the secondary level with PowerUp Literacy, which accelerates literacy gains for students in grades 6–12 who are at risk of not meeting college- and career-ready standards. The first school to test out that platform is no longer low-performing by North Carolina standards. Our literacy platform definitely played a role in that school’s success and now we’re seeing similar results at other schools.

6 Steps to success

We took some deliberate steps when rolling out and using our new literacy platforms. Here are six that we recommend to other districts that are taking a tech-driven approach to boosting literacy rates:

  1. Start training on day one. We’ve been very intentional with our literacy platform and the professional development that goes along with it. We have district elementary coaches, so anytime we have new teachers—whether it’s a beginner or someone new to Craven County—the coaches support the onboarding process. We ensure that when teachers are learning the ropes on day one, they’re also being trained to use our online literacy platform. We also do ongoing training throughout the year. We vary the training each year to ensure the teachers are not just hearing the same things over and over again.
  2. Get buy-in from district administrators and train them, too. When we initially rolled out the platform across the district, we laid out a plan that started with our administrators and included training them on it to ensure buy-in. This included assistant principals, instructional coaches, MTSS professionals and other stakeholders.
  3. Leverage the power of your data. At first, we were mostly focused on usage. Once we determined how many minutes each student should spend on the platform, we started looking at specific skills across grade levels and the district as a whole. Our schools even scoreboard their data from the literacy platforms by sharing their weekly usage of minutes or units earned. They share that information in a weekly “Staff in the Know” email. I then scoreboard that information and report it out to our superintendent’s cabinet on a quarterly basis. That way, everybody from the central office to the schools to the families sees this data.
  4. Encourage teacher collaboration. Teachers look at the results in their Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and discuss common trends if they’re seeing certain levels where kids are struggling. They also have conversations about, “What are you doing differently instruction wise so that kids are getting these particular skills?” Most of that’s done in PLCs but some of it takes place during the afternoons. We’ve worked very closely with our vendor partner on the training, and they meet with our administrators regularly to take that data and share it with the teachers.
  5. Make it part of your district DNA. All North Carolina schools must have literacy intervention plans in place. For districts trying to get a similar initiative off the ground, it’s important to have that plan so your teachers don’t see this as just “one more thing” that they’re expected to do. To avoid this problem, we tie our literacy initiative to everything we do. It’s in our literacy intervention plan, which ties to scoreboarding that information weekly at the school and district levels. It’s part of our everyday business and we monitor every aspect of the program.
  6. Reward student success. We incorporate other things in the buildings with our literacy programs. We have at least one vending machine in probably half of our 15 elementary schools and we’re using that as an incentive with our students. When students level up, they get their certificate and coins to use at the vending machine, which they love. One school has books on a cart and every Friday the principal pushes the cart from class to class while playing music and says, “All right, I’ve got these students who leveled up this week” and they get to pick out a book. We’re always encouraging students to read and we’re also rewarding them for their efforts.

Seeing how far they can go

We’ve made some remarkable progress with student literacy outcomes over the last five years. Nearly 80% of our students are using the program with fidelity and according to our district’s data, 90% of students who met usage targets were reading at or above grade level last year. One of our schools boosted that number to 92%.

Our district has also made up for the learning losses that happened during the COVID years. According to a recent North Carolina Department of Instruction report, our county has returned back to its pre-COVID numbers—something not all districts can say yet. I think our literacy program played a role in making that happen. It helps us meet students “where they are” and see how far they can go.

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