Helping Struggling Readers Succeed

“Can you airdrop that text to me so that I can paste it into ReadNRespond? I need to search for a web image that represents the main idea,” Mark says.

Justin reminds him as he examines the co-constructed criteria: “Sure, but remember, you need to upload this to Explain Everything and Vlog your justification of the main idea using hyperlinks and wikis to show your understanding.”

This conversation between two of my seventh grade boys (both of whom had identified learning difficulties) during an integrated iPad literacy pilot project may be incomprehensible to some, yet this language is part of their everyday conversations.

In their 2009 book Digital Literacies: Social Learning and Classroom Practices, Victoria Carrington and Muriel Robinson suggest that middle level students, especially, demonstrate a keen interest in and affinity for technology. More notable is the fact that special-population students’ academic skills often flourish when they use the digital features and apps on the iPad.

Therefore, what better way to capture the interest of readers, particularly middle level special-population students, than through technology? Using integrated technology, educators can help struggling readers develop a love of reading while simultaneously building their reading comprehension and skill levels and promoting critical and creative thinking skills.

At a time when collaboration is key to students’ development and fundamental to their learning, why are we telling kids to stop talking and turn off all electronic devices? Instead, we should be celebrating these virtues by guiding their talk; providing exciting, critically driven and socially relevant topics to examine; giving students choice; and using technology and carefully constructed expectations as teaching and learning tools to support and enhance their literacy skills.

Getting My Feet Wet

I first began using technology in my classroom when I got tired of seeing my seventh grade students half-heartedly engaged in book talks with their peers, learning few literacy skills along the way. I pledged that I would ensure every student was accountable for reading and understanding each portion of the book and that each one was engaged in the process.

With that goal in mind, I created the enhanced literature circle—a traditional literature circle with a twist. The enhanced literature circle required students to redefine their thinking and understanding of the text by turning each section of the book they were reading into a movie segment.

After reading the section and discussing the key elements of the book, students filmed themselves acting out the key events from the text. Student-led discussions were far more engaging because group members were discussing the key story elements they wanted to film. Their enthusiasm was further fueled by the fact that their filmed segments were combined into a full-length movie, which was showcased at a local movie theater.

A group of boys in my class that year were identified with learning difficulties and struggled with reading. Their initial attitudes toward reading were negative; however, as a result of this project, not only did their attitudes improve but their reading gains were unbelievable.

Add the iPad

Today, my focus is on promoting student engagement, critical and creative thinking skills, and reading comprehension of special-population students through the use of the iPad.

I used my literacy background and an abundance of current research to design an integrated iPad literacy program (IILP). I have been astonished with the results of this program, particularly for my special-population students, who have demonstrated tremendous growth in their reading and comprehension levels as well as their critical and creative thinking skills.

The IILP consists of five key components:

  1. Read, Record, Reflect
  2. Work on Writing
  3. Word Work
  4. Strategy Identifier
  5. Guided Reading.

Read, Record, Reflect. Students read a leveled e-text with the focus on fluency and expression using such apps as Brush of Truth, Attainments Learn to Read, and Raz Kids (for the special-population students).

When they finish reading to themselves, the students choose a partner to read to. That partner uses the video camera function on the iPad to record their classmate reading the e-book aloud. The students review the video together and reflect while completing the fluency/expression checker. The process repeats itself with the other student being filmed.

This component concludes with the opportunity for the partners to present the main idea of the text using a storytelling app such as Sock Puppets, Say Anything, Explain Everything, or Toontastic, thus checking for understanding.

Word Work. At the Word Work center, students work on spelling and vocabulary words using a number of different interactive apps, including Sentence Builder Teen, Vocabulary Tracker, Word Dynamo, Mad Libs, and Shake a Phrase. Students manipulate the words in such a way that they are deconstructing, analyzing, examining the interconnectedness with other words, and using the words in context in authentic and engaging ways.

Working on Writing. At this center, students work on current class writing assignments in a number of different ways. Generating ideas using writing organizational apps (iBrainstorm, Inspiration Maps, and Educreations) based on social justice issues from videos, web-based texts, and blogger opinions, students use a graphic organizer app such as Tools4Students to record their ideas.

Next, students draft a written piece based on global issues on a writing app (Book Creator) or share ideas and provide feedback on Kidblog or Quad-Blog. Apps such as AutoRap, Writer’s Hat, Write About This, Comixer, and Creative Genius on the Go help special-population students further develop their creative writing skills.

Strategy Identifier. This component helps students identify and analyze the reading and thinking strategies they are using to engage with the text. Using several different tools (apps, websites, digital videos), students listen to leveled texts read by expert readers and then mimic the reading to identify reading strategies. Students then participate in a number of different activities to further enhance and practice reading and thinking strategies.

For example, students might discuss their predictions, inferences, or main ideas of the text through apps such as Telligami or Puppetpals or create an infomercial on the best reading strategies to use when reading a text.

Guided Reading. Students work on the iPads with differentiated digital texts to improve their reading and writing skills. Apps at this center might include ReadNRespond, CompareNContrast, Trading Cards, and Question Assembly.

The final element is the opportunity for students to reflect through Vlogging (video blog). During Vlogging, students video themselves discussing the strategies they used, determining their learning goals, and addressing areas for improvement. All Vlogs are uploaded to a private class YouTube channel to be used for further reflection and assessment.

The Learning Journey

This program has been implemented in more than 80 classrooms, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Educators are overjoyed at the change they see in their students’ engagement, work ethic, reading skills, comprehension levels, and critical and creative thinking abilities.

Our students need our help to learn the 21st-century skills they need to flourish in society. It is up to us to take our students on a learning journey of a lifetime.

Keri Ewart is a teacher at Ray Lawson Public School, Brampton, Ontario. @keriewart

Published in AMLE Magazine, February 2015.


  1. I love this concept so much! iPads can be a really interesting way for anyone to learn. With the proper usage and correct apps, I think this can improve engagement, scores, and even motivation. The apps will allow students to realize that some topics are not as hard as they first thought they were. Thank you so much for sharing! I will for sure be using this in my future classroom.