Laptops: A Tool to Improve Reading Comprehension

How one South Texas school district is taking middle school reading comprehension to another level

By: Maridale Still, Cynthia Cummings, Tilisa Thibodeaux, L. Kay Abernathy


Nearly six million middle school students today are reading below grade level—a shocking number. The National Center for Education Statistics' 2017 report, The Nation's Report Card: Mathematics and Reading Assessments, shows minimal improvement in reading scores for middle school students on recent assessments. School districts are extremely concerned about these literacy deficiencies and are struggling to find methods to improve reading comprehension. Laptops are one solution for schools looking to encourage collaboration and engage students in the classroom during literacy and core subject instruction.

Middle school reading deficiencies can affect student success in all subject areas. If middle school students cannot read, they struggle with comprehension in each core subject classroom, from social science to math. Creating an environment that promotes collaboration and active learning in middle school classrooms can facilitate improved comprehension, but it is an ongoing process for school districts.

Laptop usage has sparked educators' interest with its versatility and ability to provide technology on demand. Since many students are already plugged into technology 24/7, it makes sense that using these familiar technology tools in the classroom will further motivate and engage students. Laptops can be utilized to promote collaborative and active learning for academic instruction, encourage students to work together and solve problems collaboratively, and bring the learning process to life before their eyes. This approach makes real world content more accessible and applicable for students.

At a South Texas school district, laptops are proving to be more than a classroom furnishing. These mobile devices are a successful digital tool providing document sharing, collaborative problem-solving, and access to real world content at the touch of a student's fingertips. The additional benefit of document sharing, etextbooks, and less paper usage is reduced expenses for school campuses.

Assessing Middle School Reading Deficiencies

The results from the National Center for Education Statistics' National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2017 Reading Assessment found that 24% of eighth grade students nationwide scored below the basic level of proficiency, with only 36% of the same group of eighth graders performing at or above the proficiency level. Educators and administrators have been alarmed by these results and have begun to seek other teaching methods for improving student literacy and comprehension.

Old and New Methods of Reading Instruction

Past methods of middle school reading instruction involved using hard-cover textbooks and paperback novel series, which often made collaborative work among groups of students more difficult. Computer-based technology has also been used previously in many middle school classrooms via desktop computers in conjunction with software programs such as READ 180, Accelerated Reader, and Scholastic reading programs. However, usage was limited since bulky desktop computers could not be moved, and the limited number of computers often prevented easy collaboration and sharing among classmates. Since their earlier classroom computer use, many software reading programs have added mobile applications for use with more portable classroom devices like laptops.

Laptop usage for literacy instruction can be a positive approach and potentially improve middle school reading comprehension and proficiency. Understanding that technology has altered the way we live, work, and communicate, it is important that schools hone in on these technological resources to improve reading instruction. Student use of laptops in an educational environment contributes to collaborative and active learning environments in the following ways:

  • Provides access to online search engines for real world content (news stories, periodicals, ebooks, journal articles, etc.)
  • Allows use of educational apps, digital tools, educational games, and activities specifically designed for literacy instruction to heighten students' literacy learning experience
  • Encourages collaboration as students work in teams to solve problems and develop research skills
  • Enhances inquiry-based learning through online research

Research Study

A school district in South Texas addressed the challenges of middle school students' poor reading assessment results by providing every middle school student with a laptop. This district was interested in confirming that laptop usage enhances reading comprehension. The study addressed teacher perceptions concerning laptop usage and its effects on reading instruction to promote collaborative and active learning environments.

Teacher participants consisted of middle school instructors who were directly involved in classrooms where laptops were being used for reading instruction. The participation number was comprised of 12 teachers from each of the seven middle school district campuses, totaling 84 potential participants. From the total number of teachers, 70 participants (83%) responded. Data were collected using a survey distributed through Survey Monkey that featured a Likert scale format and open-ended questions, which provided teachers the opportunity to share perceptions and experiences. The survey questions were developed to reflect the 2016 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) student classroom standards.

Interpreting the Results: How do Laptops Help Students?

A high percentage of teachers agreed that laptops contributed to collaborative and active learning environments. Participants found that laptop use promoted students' active learning and inquiry-based learning through access to real-world content, enhancing collaborative problem-solving, developing online research skills, and usage of digital tools, apps, and resources.

How do laptops help students with reading comprehension? According to teachers with students using laptops in their classroom, these devices can positively support students in the reading classroom in the following areas:

Digital tools—Students have immediate access to their etextbooks online, along with access to a multitude of educational tools and websites, from online encyclopedias to electronic books and research databases.

Apps and resources—Students can access applications and resources such as online dictionaries, thesauri, highlighting tools, and comprehension tools that can bring additional clarity to their learning experience.

Online research—Students can search beyond their etextbooks to engage with and incorporate more real-world content, including news stories and online articles.

Document sharing—Students can share documents with their classmates and instructors at school and at home, taking their collaborative learning beyond the classroom.

Student engagement and active learning—Students develop ownership in their own learning process. By exploring and sharing content from their laptops with other students, they take control of their learning environment and often become more independently motivated.

Inquiry-based learning and real-world content—Students become more engaged when they can make real-world connections that render their learning authentic and meaningful to their existence.

Connecting the Findings

Teachers' perceptions of laptop usage in the middle school reading classroom revealed many factors that contribute to students' improved literacy experience. Some of the teachers' comments and reflections concerning laptop usage include:

Students can collaborate on documents using cloud storage and students develop a sense of ownership for their education. It really transforms the classroom.

It gives my students opportunities to think beyond textbooks and passages, utilizing real world experiences as they learn reading objectives.

Students have the tools they need to collaboratively work together, in real time.

Access to research tools makes research seamless—educates students for group work in the workforce.

It is a wonderful tool we use that allows students to have what they need at their fingertips.

Step Up to Improving Literacy and Comprehension

Finding positive approaches to promote collaborative and active learning in middle school classrooms is an ongoing process for many school districts. Study findings reveal that laptops can be a solution for middle school teachers seeking to encourage and engage students during classroom instruction and improve reading comprehension. The South Texas school district study showed that laptops in the middle school classroom provided many positive benefits that can contribute to students' improved literacy experience.

Laptops are one technology that can assist in improving the middle school reading deficiencies that plague many school districts. Engaging students with this type of familiar technology in the classroom may not only further encourage collaboration and engage students, but could potentially result in improved student performance across subject areas, including social studies, math, and science—ultimately making them more college and workforce ready.


Maridale Still, Ed.D. is an adjunct professor in the Digital Learning and Leading Master's program, Department of Educational Leadership at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.
mstill@lamar.edu

Cynthia Cummings, Ed.D. is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.
cdcummings@lamar.edu

Tilisa Thibodeaux, Ed.D. is an assistant professor in the Digital Learning and Leading Master's program at Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.
tthibodeaux7@lamar.edu

L. Kay Abernathy, Ed.D. is a contributing faculty member in the Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership, Walden University and retired associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas.
lucy.abernathy@mail.waldenu.edu

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2019.

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