Can’t Stop Reading!

Special Education students find joy in learning through digital literacy environment.

GUEST COLUMN | by Judy Hackett and Cathy Kostecki 

credit-myon-nsseoHow do you get your most struggling readers to engage in high-quality text? Research shows two key parts in motivating students to want to read are 1) to provide a variety of high-interest text; and 2) to allow them to create their own selection of books that are accessible at any time of day. For some students, weekly trips to the library to choose a new book are the most exciting part of the week—while others dread the trip and quickly become discouraged because they can’t find a book that not only fits their individual reading level but their personal interests as well.

We used to see this struggle every day with our students at Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization (NSSEO), a special education co-op located in the Chicago suburbs. Today, our most reluctant readers are empowered to access books on their own using technology. Thanks to our newly adopted digital literacy environment, we can’t get them to stop reading.

For the first time, many of our students are actively engaged in digital books that match their interests and reading level.

For the first time, many of our students are actively engaged in digital books that match their interests and reading level. In order to build a promising future for students, we need to provide them the tools to be successful in the classroom, throughout their educational journey, and into adulthood. Motivating students to read, establishing a love for reading, and allowing children to feel confident in their reading ability are important first steps into developing a successful adult.

Digital Text Increases Engagement

At NSSEO, we have students learning in three different schools based on their unique educational needs. Each school takes a specialized approach to a social and emotional learning curriculum. A majority of students require customized “sensory diets,” which include frequent breaks, social/emotional instruction, whole-body listening skill training to help stay focused in class, and support from paraprofessionals to address academic and vocational goals.

Because of this, many students have struggled to develop a love for reading and printed text. Technology has played a huge role in increasing student engagement levels by providing on-demand access to a wide variety of high-quality text. Today’s generation is unique in that navigating digital programs using iPads and laptops comes naturally to them. In addition, kids often associate technology with games or fun, so when students see the devices their enthusiasm and engagement increases.

Reading Books That Students Choose

Students in NSSEO schools are proud of their ability to access our digital literacy environment to learn independently. They’re motivated to read because they get to choose books they are interested in—not ones the teacher chooses for them. Within seconds, a student can navigate the digital library, choose a book, and begin reading with little to no help from a teacher. (Click here to see a video featuring NSSEO learners engaged in reading.)

Being able to personalize student libraries based on individual interests and reading levels provides a level of personalization most of our students have never experienced at school before, and they become empowered and excited when learning about topics they’re interested in. For example, one struggling reader was very interested in cars. Using our digital literacy environment, he was able to access dozens of books about cars, and was exposed to similar books about trucks, trains, and other modes of transportation. Teachers are also able to customize their lessons to fit whatever genre of books the student is interested in.

Many of our students struggle with decoding language when reading. Our digital library features a setting where students can have books read to them by a voice that doesn’t sound like a computer. By hearing a story or nonfiction book aloud, our students are able to experience written language without having to decode passages. This gives students access to content that they may not be able to read and understand by themselves. For many, this is the first time they’ve been in control of their education, an empowering feeling for struggling readers.

NSSEO’s digital library and literacy environment gives every student in every classroom unlimited access to engaging digital books and a personalized library. As their love for reading grows, they truly do find joy in learning. Coupled with developing greater enthusiasm for learning is the focus on independent choices and empowerment that are life skills critical for their future as life-long learners.

Judy Hackett has been an educator for 36 years and is the current superintendent of the Northwest Suburban Special Education Organization (NSSEO). In 2016, she was named Superintendent of the Year by the Illinois Association of School Administrators. 

Cathy Kostecki is the assistant superintendent for human resources and instructional services at NSSEO.

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