by Ashley Seldon ’24
The ongoing pandemic has undoubtedly transformed how teachers instruct, and technology has become embedded into school curriculums more so than ever. Upon entry into a seventh grade classroom, it becomes obvious that the students use their ChromeBooks and Google Classroom for all of their assignments, perhaps to accommodate the virtual students. During their class reading sessions, the teacher would ask the class whether they would like to read the book aloud or listen to an audiobook and follow along. Every time the students opted for the audiobook. This practice can certainly have its benefits when you have a hard time concentrating or want to highlight parts of the text in college. However, introducing a reliance on audiobooks and e-books as early as middle school is bound to be detrimental on the ways students develop in the classroom.
This produces an array of questions on how schools groom children to rely on technology for reading. How will these students approach different texts as they get older? What does this mean for future English teachers? Before these technologies were introduced into the classroom, there was far more interaction with the novels read in class. Students would have paperbacks available, leading to more engagement, including “popcorn reading” where each student reads a small passage. With audiobooks or e-books available, the options for classroom engagement are limited.
This change has been made especially evident in the switch from remote to in-person learning that occurred in the past year. Last year, students would read from e-books, as paperback options from the library were not available during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when returning to in-person classes, students still choose to interact with online texts during silent sustained reading time. This means that a majority of students are reading picture books or comics, and some are even opening new tabs on the computer and becoming distracted by TikTok or online games. This would not be possible with a paper book.
Providence schools use websites like Clever.com, which are helpful to educators because they track the students’ reading levels based on colors and supply the student with books for that reading level. However, it is also easy for kids to select simpler books that are below their reading level. It’s difficult for one teacher to monitor an entire classroom reading at once; this is an excellent resource to help supplement instruction, but it shouldn’t be the main way elementary and middle school students are taught to read, mainly because the Providence school district has the most multilingual learners in the entire state. They represent 29 percent of their school district, as reported by Rhode Island in 2019. The students should be reading aloud or in their heads and trying to connect their primary language to the nuances of the English language. If these children are forced to rely on online systems to read the books back to them, that puts them at a disadvantage in the future. A Stanford study reveals that “Researchers at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education say reading fluency suffered dramatically, especially among second and third-grade students,” (ABC7news). Researchers also found that, a year later, that gap has not improved. Now that schools are entirely in-person, teachers need to ditch the screens and bring kids back to real books. Multilingual learners now have to overcome the gap from COVID-19 last year in addition to the language barrier. For native speakers, it is still ultimately easier to be distracted by a screen and the internet versus using a physical book. It would be naïve to say that technology usage should be discouraged in classrooms completely, but when it comes to critical skills like reading, students should begin by taking more traditional routes to establishing fundamental skills.