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Teacher question: I would love to know what you think about the movement in personalized learning in K-8 schools. A few schools in my district have been moving to this approach for math instruction and I’d be interested in hearing your ideas of how this would look in reading and writing instruction. Thanks!

Shanahan’s response:

Your question reminds me of the first time I tried to cook chicken.

I was in a hurry so I figured if I turned up the heat, I could cook it faster… and that works — but only on the outside of the chicken. The inside, I discovered, was almost as red as when I started. Raw chicken is neither tasty nor healthy and I ended up having to throw the whole unappetizing mess away.

Trying to eat chicken before it is ready is a bad idea.

I feel the same way about instructional approaches. “Personalized learning” for teaching reading is an idea whose time has not yet come. No matter how tantalizing the exterior, the insides are still too raw.

The basic idea of personalized learning is a good one and pioneers in this area have made some excellent advances in mathematics instruction (especially in the arithmetic part of that). When it comes to teaching, technology has a great future — something that I’ve been told repeatedly since I was first charged with designing lessons that could work on an IBM “mag card” set up in the early 1970s.

There are definitely some very specific skills that computers can do a great job with. For instance, according to the What Works Clearinghouse, there are several computer programs that can teach decoding effectively, and there are some experimental programs that can teach summary writing.

The notion of “personalizing” instruction is that the program will assess the students and then guide them through a curriculum aimed at teaching those skills that were assessed, monitoring student progress and adjusting the instruction as you go.

We don’t yet have a very complete idea of what it is that people need to learn to become readers or writers or speakers of other languages. Oh, we know the kinds of things that one has to learn Readers benefit from learning letter sounds, spelling patterns, and high frequency words, for instance. We can’t say with any certainty whether a given protocol will result in success. You teach a collection of phonemes to one child and he is a reader. You teach the same sounds to another, and though he masters the sounds, the result is different.

Accordingly, teaching literacy is more reciprocal than linear. A program might teach a youngster the letter “b” and its associated phoneme /b/ thoroughly and well and may not allow him/her to take on the challenge of “m” and /m/ until mastery is accomplished. That’s personalized but it is not necessarily going to result in success. And, if that is true with letter sounds, imagine the complications of teaching reading comprehension.

I have no doubt that personal learning approaches will get more and more sophisticated, flexible, and effective over time. Unfortunately, there are lots of cheerleaders out there who are touting this stuff already (sort of like me cooking the chicken in a hotter oven with the idea of getting it done faster). No matter how good the salesperson or how exciting it seems to be on the bleeding edge of technological progress, these aren’t the things that cook the chicken.

There is a reason why there are not yet any peer reviewed studies showing the positive impacts of personalized teaching in reading. Because no one has a program that is sufficiently effective to take most kids very far in reading. That could change, in fact, it is likely to, but until it does, I’d be careful about investing much in such an approach. (The studies that are there don’t say much about how well the kids are learning — and they use words like potential and possibility a lot.)

One more story: Many years ago, parents of a learning-disabled middle school student were suing the school because their son was not doing well. They wanted to enroll him in a private high school for kids like him, and they wanted the school district to pay the cost of tuition (at that time it would have been more than $100,000). Both sides agreed to forego the courts and to have a mutually acceptable judgment from an expert in the field — me.

I studied the case carefully. The boy had been tested thoroughly when he entered the school, so they had a clear idea of what he needed. They purchased a commercial computer program aimed at teaching kids like him (it doesn’t matter what the program was, but it had a lot of research support showing its potential effectiveness and it was easily the best personalized learning tool available at the time). Now, however, after two years of working on that program, he was retested and found to be reading even lower than he started out.

How can such an effective program have such a terrible result?

I asked the boy. He said that when it started, he really liked it. During ELA time, he would go to the library each day and log in and do the reading and the exercises and he thought it was fun and interesting. But over time, as he spent each day with the computer by himself working on his reading, he grew lonely and discouraged.

The “personal” in personal learning means individual or unique. In other words, each student will be taken through the lessons in their own way, a way tailored to their needs based on their past performance. In that sense, personal is an accurate description of the instruction.

Unfortunately, as many teachers are finding out during these days of confinement, this kind of personal does not mean warm, reassuring, or intimate. This young man was suffering from what Dan Willingham recently labeled “Zoom fatigue.” The student felt lonely and isolated from his peers (and from his teachers). He lapsed into a kind of learning lethargy and the school didn’t notice.

Reading and writing are language activities and a major purpose of learning language is to connect with other human beings. No matter how successfully technology is able to personalize or individualize teaching, at their heart reading and writing are social rather than individual pursuits and effective instruction must proceed on that basis.

My opinion of personalized learning in reading?

Turn the heat down to 350° and make sure it cooks all the way through before serving. It just isn’t ready yet.

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About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
September 24, 2020