Pilot program using technology and virtual volunteers to help students become better readers

Today, video games and digital devices, such as phones and tablets, are as much a part of a child’s life as playing jacks or jump-rope or hopscotch was to a previous generation. It’s not uncommon to find a child who can navigate an iPhone or iPod better than adults. Starting this school year, HISD will leverage the fascination and skillset today’s youth have with technology to help some of the district’s youngest students become better readers.

Eighty kindergarten and first grade teachers from throughout the district are undergoing training on a program called TeacherMate®, which uses technology to support and help teachers provide differentiated literacy instruction. “It’s an exciting experience to learn this, because kids are fluent with the technology,” said Horn Elementary kindergarten teacher Nancy McDonald. “The games relate to what they’ll learn in class.”

Developed by a non-profit organization called Innovations for Learning, the TeacherMate® program is designed to work with iPads, iPod Touches, and MP3 players. Students think it’s a computer game, but it’s really a serious practice of their reading skills. When students are assigned to a practice station, they work on playful exercises aimed at boosting reading skills, all interactive and all tailored to each student’s level.

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“The program guides children before, during, and after each exercise. Students hear a story being read, read the story back, and answer questions based on the reading,” said HISD Literacy Director Cindy Puryear. With the student’s reading exercise and answers stored in a cyberspace “cloud,” Puryear added, “It gives the teacher access to hear the child read aloud, to follow their progress, and to customize each student’s learning plan.”

While the TeacherMate® pilot will provide substantive interaction between a teacher and student supported by technology, it also will go beyond the classroom and involve the community. As part of HISD’s Read Houston Read initiative, students in the TeacherMate® pilot classrooms will also take part in a companion mentor program called TutorMate®, which will provide them with “virtual” mentors that read aloud with them each week.

HISD is currently looking for individuals, local businesses, and corporations to provide volunteer employees for 30 minutes each week to work with the students through the district’s new Read Houston Read initiative. Software will connect the volunteer tutor in his or her office or home with the student in the classroom. The tutor and student will read stories and do word exercises.

“Tutors are paired with the same student for the entire school year,” explained Allison Leedie, teacher ambassador for Innovations for Learning. “It adds the component of love and attention from an adult. Students learn to love to read and write and become lifelong readers.”

Read Houston Read is also recruiting volunteers to tutor first-grade students in person once a week. The volunteer effort is part HISD’s Literacy By 3 movement to have every child reading on grade level by the end of the third grade. Any Houstonian can volunteer to be a Read Houston Read mentor by going to readhoustonread.com.

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