Category Archives: technology

What is Accelerated Reader? Is it appropriate for my kindergartener?

Accelerated Reader (called A.R. by most students) is a computer software program that can be purchased by school districts.  It is designed to encourage reading by children.  A child selects a book from more than 25,000 titles (fiction and nonfiction), reads it, and then takes a quiz on the contents.  The books in the database are classified according to their reading level.  When a child masters a certain number of books at one level, she is encouraged to choose books at the next level.

Because each child is reading at his or her own level, children are competing with themselves, trying to better their previous reading levels.  One student might be reading Junie B. Jones books while another student in the same grade might be reading Harry Potter books.  Teachers usually set individual goals for students based on the number of books read, their quality and their difficulty level.  Often school time is used for quiet reading of A.R. books and students are assigned A.R. reading for homework.Two students taking reading tests on portable NEO computers.

When a student begins an A.R. program, he is assessed to find his reading level.  He is offered hundreds of books to read in this range.  When he finishes reading a book, he takes a multiple choice test (usually ten questions) on that book online using a classroom computer, a media center computer, a NEO 2, a tablet, Apple apps, or other electronic equipment.  Immediately the student receives his score which is converted into points using this formula:  (10 + reading level) x (words in book ÷ 100,000).

How do students know the reading level of a book?  Some libraries have three-ring binders listing A.R. books and their reading levels.  In my neighborhood school, books have colored dots attached to their spines, and nearby, a prominent chart lists the colors and reading level they signify.  Students look for books with their color on the spine.  But other media centers have other ways of differentiating reading levels.

In my neighborhood school, students accumulate points to “buy” a cap and later buttons to attach to the cap.  The more buttons, the more reading the child is doing and the more success the child is having.  Hats are usually not allowed in the school, but students who earn A.R. hats can wear those hats and do so proudly.  Other schools reward students in other ways.

Teachers receive feedback from the program, allowing them to intervene in a child’s learning if he is not making progress.

Students in my neighborhood school each have a Neo 2 assigned to them.  This is a portable electronic device that they can keep in their desks and use to take A.R. tests.  Additionally, they can use the device for other software programs, such as computing math facts.  The Neos allow a student to take an A.R. test at almost any time of the day without forming a queue at the classroom computer.  Students who finish assignments early are often allowed to work on their Neos.

Is the A.R. program appropriate for a kindergartener?  The child must be able to read a bit in order to take the quizzes.  And if she does poorly on a quiz and wants to take it again, she can’t.  She must move on to another book.  But if your child can read, it’s a way to encourage more reading and to prove to you and her that she is understanding what she reads.

–Mrs. K

Accelerated Reader was a popular program in the school where I taught.  There were competitions each month and each quarter to see who had earned the most points.  A school winner was announced at the Honors Assembly.  High scores were posted, and occasional ice cream parties recognized achievement.

Many teachers and parents liked the program because it got children reading.  A child who detested “reading for fun” would read an A.R. book.  The competitive nature of the program encouraged some kids to read more and more.  Teachers required a certain number of A.R. points to be earned as homework.  Because the A.R. books were good, teachers and students assumed the child was reading quality books.  I noticed kids talking about books and recommending books to each other.  They remembered the name of the author and then read his entire collection.

One criticism of the program is that the test questions are based on the ability to remember trite facts, not to comprehend the information.  For example a typical question might be “What was the name of Tom’s cat?”  A student who did not have the skill to remember details would do poorly, even though he may have truly understood the symbolism and irony of the story.  Another criticism is that a student could choose easy books, not challenging books.  Fifth graders were reading “picture books” to earn 2 points, rather than chapter books worth 12 points.

Even so, I think A.R. is a good program.  My children did not read for pleasure.  I forced them to read 30 minutes a day.  Had there been an Accelerated Reader program in their school, I know they would have been motivated to earn points.  Reading a picture book is better than reading no book.  Reading twenty picture books and earning perfect scores on the tests might encourage students to try reading something a bit more challenging.

Accelerated Reader is not a free program.  Each test must be purchased by the school district.  It requires a lot of work to set up, but once it is implemented, it is great.  More books/tests can be added every year.

If your child does not have A.R. in his school, talk to the media specialist or the principal.

–Mrs. A

Reading Rainbow app attracts young readers

Do you remember watching Reading Rainbow as a child?  It’s the American PBS television series encouraging young children to read.  It was broadcast for 23 years, from 1983 to 2006, winning 26 Emmy Awards for “Outstanding Children’s Series.”  Today it is still watched on video in schools around the country and is available for sale.

Well, times change.  A year ago the Reading Rainbow app was released with new books reviewed, new toddler reading iPad miniadventures for host LeVar Burton and updated music.  Within 36 hours of its release, it became the number one educational app.  The Reading Rainbow app has been viewed 2.5 million times since then, with 50,000 digital books a week going into homes of subscribers.

Burton, who owns the rights to Reading Rainbow and has developed the app, says he has proven that kids will read on electronic devices.  The app contains a combination of animated characters, video field trips, music and of course, books—hundreds and hundreds of books.

The cost to subscribe is about $10 monthly.  The app is available on Apple operating systems of 5.0 or later.  Like the TV series, the app targets elementary school-aged children.

How about you?  Has your child tried this app?  Do you recommend it?  Or do you recommend another app to encourage reading for young children?  Please take a minute to let our blog readers know.

How many minutes a day does your preschooler spend “untethered”?

New baby showing grandma how to use a cell phone.Let me review, for a minute, the e-history of many American children today while you think about your own child.  Is your child’s history similar?  Should it be?

Before children are one-year-old, they are playing in front of a TV and turning their heads occasionally when the music or bright colors attract them.  In their cribs they are listening to music meant to increase their intelligence.  When moms give them milk, they are aware their mothers are not looking at them but rather at a phone or tablet or television.

By two, children have developed favorite television programs, often cartoons.  Their daily schedules might be based on a TV schedule—up at a certain time to watch a certain TV show.  Or Mom might be using the TV as a babysitter while she gets ready for work or fixes dinner.  baby looking at an iPadWhen traveling, children might watch videos in the car on a portable DVD or tablet.  They might see Mom and Dad wearing ear plugs and demand the same.  They might cuddle with Mom and Dad in bed watching a movie.

By three, children are learning how to use some electronic devices.  They know how to turn on the TV and how to operate the remote.  They know how to turn on smart phones and tablets, tapping on their favorite icons to play games.  They can not only play games, but they can excel at them from practice.  They might own some electronic devices meant for preschoolers, and own a dozen or more game cartridges.  Their thumbs might have mastered the directional controller on the keypad.  One-third of three-year-olds have a TV in their bedrooms and watch it two hours a day.

child taking iPad out of toy chestBy four, children might own DVDs and video games designated for little kids.  They might have games for X-box and Wii, or use apps their parents have ordered for their children’s entertainment.  They probably know how to take pictures using a mobile phone and have Skyped Grandma in another city.  With quick dial features on some phones, they might initiate phone calls.

By five, children might have “saved” TV shows to watch at another time.  They might be mastering video games or visiting virtual worlds to play dress-up.  With an adult’s help, they might be learning to read, add, and subtract at online sites.  They might receive birthday cards online.

All this and they haven’t started kindergarten yet.

According to Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of the just published The Big Disconnect, all this electronic activity comes at a price, including

  • A growing number of children with less imaginative and less creative play.
  • Children preferring passive play such as watching TV or using electronic devices where there is a single goal set by the game’s designer.
  • Children with shorter attention spans.
  • Children with less patience learning new skills and with an inability to handle the discomfort of learning.
  • More impulsive children.
  • Children with more difficulty transitioning from one activity to another.
  • Fewer children making eye contact.
  • A growing number of children unable to “read” their own emotions or the emotions of others.
  • Children with less empathy.
  • Children showing signs of addiction.  Dopamine, a neurotransmitter which brings pleasure to the brain, is released when children use tech devices.

And what about reading?  According to The Big Disconnect,

  • Children are born without reading pathways in the brain.  From years of repeated practice, those pathways develop and deepen.  If technology is used instead of an adult and child reading aloud a book together, those circuits in the brain may not develop properly, and the child may not be able to reflect deeply on what is read.  The same thing happens when audio books read aloud to children.
  • High tech use by preschoolers is leading to lower reading comprehension.

Although most of The Big Disconnect does not focus on children’s ability to learn to read, the research presented, as well as the anecdotes from the author’s psychological practice, present a cogent argument that technology is rewiring the human brain, and in particular, children’s brains.

Technology is not only inevitable, but it is useful, says Stein-Adair, author ofThe Big Disconnect.  Yet she admonishes parents to use technology willfully, not absent-mindedly, with young children.  Nothing replaces cuddling with a child, listening to a child, and playing with a child.  Unplug your child to give her a better chance at becoming a well-rounded human being, urges Steiner-Adair.

How about you?  How have you handled technology with your children?  Have you noticed the effects mentioned above?  Are you a teacher of young children who has seen a change in children in the past ten years due to technology?  Let us know what you think.

Guest blogger: Mrs. A on the development of “Play, Pop, Play”

Several people have asked Mrs. K and me questions regarding our most recent book, Play Pop Play.  As the illustrator at Comicphonics.com, and the person who developed the idea for the book, let me tell you how it came about.

Where did the idea come from?

"Play, Pop, Play" book app cover

Our third most recent book app, “Play, Pop, Play” is at http://goo.gl/JMrT3 .

My husband, Paul, and I have three grandsons.  Our oldest just turned three.  Whenever we get together, the first thing he does is take Papa by the hand, dragging him from place to place.  “C’mon Papa.  Let’s play tent.”  “Let’s play cars.”  “Let’s look at bugs!”  Last Christmas, he and his Papa sat together in a tiny little tent, in the corner of the dining room and hid from the rest of us. As I watched a six foot two grandpa and a two-year-old squeezed into a tiny tent, the story line began to form.

Do the characters in the story look like real people?

"Pop" Paul and grandsonYes.  If you know my husband, Paul, you will certainly recognize him in the book. He is tall, follicly challenged, and has a mustache and glasses.  Tom, the little boy in the story, is just like our little grandson—blond, impulsive and go, go, go!

You are the artist?

Yes. I do the illustrations, and my sister, Mrs. K, does the text.  We live in different states and communicate via computer.  I scan the sketches into the computer, email them to Mrs. K and we begin a dialogue.  Eventually the drawings get more developed and detailed, and we decide on a beginning, middle and ending.  Then the art and the words come together, and with the help of Mrs. K’s husband who finagles art and words onto a single page, and our App-man, Mrs. K’s son, the app appears on line.

How much time does it take from start to finish?

I like to have a lot of ideas simmering at the same time.  I keep a separate sketch book for each book idea and add to the books as the ideas surface.  I guess it is sort of like reading several books at the same time.  It’s nice to go back and forth. At any time, I might have three or four projects going at once.  For this particular book, the idea was conceived in December.  On a long car ride from NY to NC, I made lots of rough sketches and listed ideas.  (No, I was not driving.)  I then let it go for a while, conferred with Mrs. K, and after a period of time, looked at my sketches again with a fresh perspective.  I scanned more detailed sketches to Mrs. K, and she began work on the words.  More time elapsed before I began the final artwork.  By then it was May.  The app appeared in the Apple store in June.  But meanwhile, three more books are in various stages of readiness!

Are you satisfied with your work?

Never!  But I am thrilled to be doing what I am doing.  I’m always trying to improve my work and it is great being part of comicphonics.com!

With so many apps available for preschoolers, how do I know which are the best ones to use to teach my child to read?

The best apps to teach reading share many of the same characteristics as the best apps to teach math or to teach games.  Here are some traits to look for, although you will not find each of these traits in every app.

baby looking at an iPad

To enlarge, click on the picture.

  • The app should be age or developmentally appropriate for your child.  It should seem like play but allow the child to gain self-confidence both in mastering the media and in mastering the material presented on the app.
  • The app should be interactive.  Most apps are passive, limiting a child to clicking or scrolling down, but that’s about it.  The best apps allow children to solve problems or to develop curiosity.  Some apps allow coloring, drawing lines and highlighting, with the child deciding how.
  • The app should be intuitive to use.  Using computers is often hard for preschoolers since interaction depends on mastering a mouse and a keyboard.  But pads are intuitive, allowing for swiping with a single finger to move from page to page.  Once the child tries the process a few times, he understands it.
  • The app should allow for repetition.  Young children like to have their favorite books read to them over and over.  They might also like to go to their favorite apps over and over.
  • The app should take advantage of the technology.  A book about a pet might show the word “dog,” but an app might show the printed word, offer a picture of a group of dogs wagging their tails, and create the sounds of panting and barking.
  • The app should be open-ended: divergent, not convergent.  Usually an app encourages a child to hit an icon which might be right or wrong, a dead end for the child.  But if the answer allows the child to continue in a manner she prefers, or to get to an answer in a round-about way, the child has some input into the outcome.
  • The app should extend a child’s skill or make up for a child’s shortcomings.  If a child cannot print yet, or has poor printing skills, a good app would produce the desired letters without the child needing to “write.”  Or for an ESL child or a child with speech problems, a good app might “read” the words aloud so that the child can hear the words pronounced correctly.
    child taking iPad out of toy chest

    To enlarge, click on the picture.

  • The app should be fun and engaging.  Stories should move in time order so that they are easy for a young child to follow.  There should be an obvious beginning, middle and end.  The vocabulary and sentence structure should be comfortable for the child so he gets it the first time he hears it.  The art work should make the child laugh.
  • The app should foster socialization.  Apps that store child-taken photos of a trip to the zoo allow for later sharing with preschool classmates or with family.  Apps that allow a child to film a Barbie fashion show or Grandpa snoring beg to be shared.  SKYPE allows for sharing over great distances.

Spend some time investigating apps for your young children.  Teach them how to access the apps you have selected.  And next week do it again, because the apps—like your child—are always changing.