Home » Ebooks, Ebooks in Education » E-books are not the answer to a literacy crisis

E-books are not the answer to a literacy crisis

28 March 2016

From The Washington Post:

When librarian Jennifer Nelson arrives at the tiny library at Crewe Primary School each morning, she is confronted with a cart of first-generation iPads. The detritus of attempts to infuse technology into one of the poorest and most rural schools in Virginia, the tablets are hopelessly obsolete, worth little more than the cart on which they reside.

The White House recently announced the launch of Open eBooks, an app giving access to thousands of free e-books to any educator, student or administrator at one of the more than 66,000 Title I schools or any of the 194 Defense Department Education Activity schools in the United States. It’s an admirable endeavor and recognizes that we have a literacy problem. However, it brings to mind Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous line: “Water, water, every where/ Nor any drop to drink.”

On that list of Title I schools: Crewe Primary. The whole of Nottoway County, Va., is a high-poverty tract; there is no public transportation, no fiber-optic Internet available for the county’s 16,000 residents. In Southside Virginia, the commonwealth’s poorest region, most schools don’t have broadband; Crewe Primary School has DSL but little more than 40 usable iPads (not counting the old and obsolete ones) for its 318 students.

. . . .

Even if our poorest schools had broadband and ample devices, believing that free e-books are the key to ending our literacy crisis is dangerously misguided. Technology is repeatedly touted as a cure for the United States’ educational woes, promising everything from banishing boredom to widespread reform. Interactive whiteboards were the hope a few years ago, and Google Earth was supposed to make our children masters of geography. There is more technology in our classrooms and homes than ever, but too often these expensive technologies yield few gains in learning or gains not commensurate with cost.

Serving as the executive director of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival, in the heart of a literacy desert, has taught me two things: Literacy is an instilled value, and too frequently reading is a luxury instead of a necessity. Reports from the National Center for Education Statistics are clear: Children raised in homes that foster literacy are better readers and better students than children raised in homes where literacy is not promoted. Children who see their parents reading and engage in reading with their families have higher than average reading scores, regardless of their parents’ occupational status.

If a love of reading is not learned in the home, even technologically advanced schools are hard-pressed to make up that deficit.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post and thanks to Nate for the tip.

Ebooks, Ebooks in Education

30 Comments to “E-books are not the answer to a literacy crisis”

  1. So, the moral of the article is to just give up? I understand people get frustrated but there’s no way to ‘fix’ the last generation magically. Doing something, anything, now at least has the chance of affecting future generations.

  2. The only people who consider a first generation iPad useless are people who don’t understand technology to start with. And if they don’t understand the tech they’ll never get a handle on literacy because modern literacy is about tech, when all is said and done.

    We live in a technological society. Accept it. Use it.
    Or go live in a shack in the Montana wilds.

  3. Too bad they weren’t able (or didn’t bother to check) on book availability in our poorest schools as well. Heaven forbid they discover that books are not the answer to their literacy crisis either …

  4. Most ebooks don’t require “broadband”, much less a fiber optic link.

    A typical ebook is just a couple of hundred K. Dialup will work just fine.

    Plus, I’ll bet that the overwhelming majority of kids in these schools have cell phones. Those will also work fine.

  5. Odd article. It rambles about tech for a while, then, at the end, blames the problem on individual family attitudes, which may have been a better focus for the piece. Given the writer’s background as an education exec, burying the real issue inside an ebook rant seems ill advised and yet, gives us a hint as to why this problem still exists.
    Will ebooks solve it? Probably not but, if you start making headway on the real problem, those ebooks can be part of the solution.

  6. Did anyone expect a few free books (e or otherwise) to overcome the results of crushing poverty? Just because a single program doesn’t work in every location doesn’t mean it was a bad program.

  7. Our job as educators is not to throw technology out there, like turkeys out of a helicopter (“Fly my pretties!”), but to address the problems with every and any tool we have at hand.

    Sometimes handing a kid a worn comic book is what it takes. Sometimes introducing them to wattpad is what it takes.

    (But I’m not sure this person IS an educator. She’s a director of a book festival, which is not at all the same thing. Book festivals are about selling books… TO educators. Agenda, much?)

  8. Any teacher will tell you that the literacy problem is a direct result of parenting.

    If parents don’t care to do their part, it makes it harder for a teacher. Parents can’t be bothered to teach one or two children to read. Do they think a teacher with 20 kids has a chance?

    It doesn’t have to cost much. Sesame Street and Free books at the library. Unfortunately, some parents can’t be bothered. Nobody likes to hear the truth. They’d rather blame the teachers because it isn’t PC to blame the parents.

    When I taught, I had a cart of old laptops that were out of warranty, so our IT department wouldn’t support it. (The laptops were given to the school as part of a grant a decade earlier.)

    Schools want teachers to USE technology but don’t GIVE teachers the technology.

    I have a background in IT, so I bought my own Cat 5 cables and routers and set up the computers in my classroom. The IT guy looked the other way since I didn’t have permission to do what I needed to do.

    It’s a shame teachers have to be underhanded to, you know, actually TEACH their students.

    • I have students without internet access at home, for various reasons (discipline problems, poverty). I cannot use tech for anything with a grade attached. Can I encourage reading and using what IS available? Oh heck yes. Tech is a tool, one of many, as the Other Diana and Camille have pointed out. And if parents won’t encourage their kids to pick up any tools, how can the kids build literacy? The author of the original trips over that important fact, but seems too worried about the bright shiny tools to notice the large rock in the path.

    • “If parents don’t care to do their part, it makes it harder for a teacher. Parents can’t be bothered to teach one or two children to read. Do they think a teacher with 20 kids has a chance?” By all means, blame the parents. Even if they also grew up in homes without books or parents who could read to them. This is *not* a one-generation problem. Technology might help if handled properly, but it isn’t a cure.

      • You’re right that the scope of the problem goes beyond seemingly indifferent parents.

        I taught English at a poor, rural high school. Most of the parents wanted their children to be successful; they just didn’t know how to help them, due in large part because they got the same poor education their kids are getting. When someone comes in from the outside telling them, “Your culture is wrong. You have to do it my way or you don’t care about your kids,” parents go on the defensive, and if you don’t have their support, your program won’t succeed.

        Rather than just focus on giving kids books, schools may be more successful by giving parents books to read with their kids. Focus on community or family literacy instead of just student literacy.

        • Can we get a “like” button here?

          As I said above, you’ve got the tools you’ve got — that includes the kid’s environment and all the previous teachers and the political situation. Nothing works in a vacuum, and nothing works if you just blame everything else in the situation.

          “Not my fault” is not a plan.

          What is a plan is to leverage what is there, to work with what is there. Giving parents books to read to their kids (and sometimes, for kids to read to their parents) is a great way to make headway.

  9. The last bit about the home environment raises an interesting point. I was raised in a house with shelves of books in most rooms. Access to the books was completely unrestricted. When ebooks become dominant, those open shelves of visible, accessible books will become rare. Children will still ape their parents and, for example, read on their tablets if their parents read on theirs. But unless something like family-share libraries become the norm, the books immediately available to the children will be selected for the children. I wonder if that will make a difference?

    • While I get your point, I share books on my Kindle with my child. Yes, I select them now, but in a couple years, she’ll pick them out. (She does ask for books she particularly wants, though.) We do have tons of “real” books she can choose from, too. I can see in some cases that parents would totally control what their kids read, but that happens in many cases even without ereaders.

      • I think there is a subtle difference between the act of sharing and the non-action of not restricting access. I worry that individual devices with individual libraries might eliminate the benign neglect that has enriched so many children’s lives in the past.

        There have always been and always will be parents and other adults who protect children to the children’s detriment. But might we be accidentally creating another group who don’t bother taking specific action to see children have the opportunity for exploration? When the technological default is no access without explicit adult permission, how much less access will there be?

        I foresee being very busy in my self-appointed role as a bad influence to nieces, nephews, and neighbor kids. “Hey, kid. Wanna read some Proust?”

        • Too many worry about childproofing the world rather than doing the harder job of actually world-proofing their child.

  10. Agree that this person seems confused about the problem. A first generation iPad is perfect if the problem you’re trying to solve is access to books. If the kids know how to read but aren’t able to go to the public library, and their school library is under-supplied, then loading up an iPad full of ebooks is genius. It’s a great way to solve the access problem. You can allow them to read during quiet time, or recess.

    And if you want them to take the iPads home? Well, if the kids have homes where valuable tech would just get taken from them, then an item with low street-value makes sense. You also don’t have to worry about wi-fi if the books are already downloaded.

    If the problem is that the kids aren’t being taught to read and schools are doing the “fly my pretties!” (I like that!) by throwing tech at kids instead of teaching them the fundamentals, then that’s a different problem.

    As much as I would love for kids to love reading, to me it would be enough of a victory for them to be able to read books and articles aimed at their age level. The iPads don’t need to make them love books so much as give them practice with reading. I love that teachers are finding ways to route their kids around the damage of low-literacy homes.

  11. Maybe the book fort from the other day should be sent to parents in the area. If they read 50 Shades then that will improve the literacy rate of the area. As long as they don’t read that particular book to the kids.

  12. If schools fed the kids who needed it breakfast, and spent the first couple hours of the day with everyone comfortably reading what THEY wanted to read, they could overcome a lot of the problems at home.

    What schools spend time on every day is a joke. You read when you are provided a place and a time – and it is addictive.

    Have a teacher quietly reading out loud in a corner for the kids who need to start with audio, and have something the wiggly kids can do quietly while listening, and you have the whole bunch.

    Assuming the reading material isn’t the boring instructional stuff.

    Giving priority to reading BY READING seems to have escaped all these people. When we homeschooled, we were the public library’s best customers.

    • In junior high school — grades 8 to 10 and many years ago — homeroom was 30 minutes: attendance, announcements, then reading. You could read anything you wanted. You just had to keep a log countersigned by the homeroom teacher.

      • A mere half hour? With half of that going into attendance and announcements (some teachers LOVE the sound of their own voices)? It takes MANY kids longer than that to settle down.

        You need immersion. You need to read until you’re physically tired of reading. 15 minutes a day is comic books.

        I would think that would make kids think they ‘tried reading and didn’t like it.’

  13. I get the idea, but there are some kids who WILL love to read, even if their parents don’t. Even if that’s one kid per school, that’s worth it.

    That said, my kid’s school, which is pretty squarely middle-class, has TERRIBLE internet access. It’s really disgraceful that that is so neglected in so many schools, because access is needed for so many things.

  14. I now accept my illiteracy and lack of intellectual development is the result leaving the campus behind before Wozniak and Jobs released the Apple.

    And I didn’t even know my Gen-1 iPad is obsolete. The shame is overwhelming. I blame everyone. I’m going out back to throw rocks at bottles…

  15. I gained a love of reading in first grade. Back in the stone ages, most kids didn’t learn to read until they started school. Kindergarten was mostly a private thing (only one district we lived in had it for public school children), so the first exposure to education for most was in first grade.

    My teacher read to us every day. We did lessons on the letters, colors, numbers and basic matching skills and such. I remember asking her where she got the books she read from. She said they were written by people called authors. I was hooked, and all I ever wanted to be was an author.

    My parents weren’t readers. The most I ever saw my father read was the odd newspaper story, and my mother mostly read those true romance magazines. I don’t remember there ever being a book in the house (that I didn’t bring in), though my grandmother had a small shelf with about ten books that belonged to my grandfather.

    But I had school libraries, and then the public library. I brought home as many books as they’d let me, and devoured them.

    Throwing tech at people won’t work. There has to be a change in the education system that focuses on skills first, rather than passing tests to advance. It worked for countless generations and it will still work.

    • Reading is so often presented to children as a chore. Of course they won’t like it! We need to instill a love of story in them.

      How many kids became avid readers because of Harry Potter?

      • Instill it? No.
        Kids are born loving storytelling.

        We need to *stop* beating it out of them.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.