Can a computer program differentiate reading instruction?

Melody Arabo

Editor’s note: This article is part of the series The Right Tool for the Job: Improving Reading and Writing in the Classroom, which provides in-depth reviews of promising digital tools for English language arts classrooms.

Many educators struggle with finding resources that can help educators teach reading skills in a comprehensive yet individualized way. In a typical elementary classroom of thirty or more students, children can range in ability so much that instruction must be drastically differentiated to meet each pupil’s needs. As a third-grade teacher, I am constantly on the hunt for tools that can minimize my preparation time and maximize instructional time with kids. Lexia Reading Core5 is a promising reading program that can help teachers meet those goals.

Overview

According to its website, Lexia Reading Core5 “supports educators in providing differentiated literacy instruction for students of all abilities in grades pre-K–5” (as defined by Carol Tomlinson, differentiated instruction is “an approach to teaching that advocates active planning for student differences in classrooms”). The site also includes embedded assessments that deliver “norm-referenced performance data and analysis without interrupting the flow of instruction to administer a test” (norm referenced is a type of test that reveals whether the test taker performed better or worse than other test takers, not whether the test taker knows more or less than necessary for a given purpose). Lexia Core5 (hereafter Core5) is intended for elementary grades and is designed to be fully aligned with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Each skill matches a particular strand of the CCSS standards, which are clearly stated alongside lessons and activities. Though designed as a stand-alone curriculum, it can also be used as a supplemental program to reinforce reading strategies. According to a site representative, over 2.6 million students used Core5 in 2015–16.

Core5 is an adaptive program that operates like a game. Students begin with on-grade-level activities, and the program adapts to become more or less challenging based on their performance; as students master activities, they go up levels. Each level has interactive online activities, which students work through on their own. Helpfully, assessments accompany each online lesson, and additional paper-and-pencil assignments are also provided to reinforce what the student has learned once he or she completes the online portion.

For example, I selected level fifteen from the demo, which is a beginning fourth-grade lesson on the Great Barrier Reef. I was greeted by colorful, cartoon-like graphics of the deep sea. I then chose a category from a menu, which includes Root Meanings, Sight Words 7, Passage Fluency 4, Multiple Meaning Words 2, and Passage Comprehension 4. It is unclear what the numbers represent, but I chose to work on Multiple Meaning Words. The next screen indicated that this is a vocabulary activity connected to standard L.4.4a, which asks students to demonstrate understanding that words can have multiple meanings. I was provided an example with two fill-in-the-blank sentences with three potential words that seemingly could fit into either sentence. The kind woman’s voice that narrated the activity told me that “bat” is the only word of the choices that will make sense in both sentences. Then it was my turn to try. Sentence one was, “I put on my________at night.” Sentence two was, “I am your number one_________” The three words I had to choose from were “toy”, “fan”, and “light.” Though I knew that “fan” was being used in two different contexts correctly, I chose “toy” to see how the questions will adapt. I was prompted to try again with the two remaining choices. I again chose the incorrect answer. After telling me I was “not quite” right, the narrator explained how “fan” makes sense in both sentences. The next question was easier. Instead of three words to choose from, I was provided one word and two fill-in-the-blank sentences and was tasked with deciding in which sentence the word fit better. The computer adapted to my level of performance.

For teachers, there are a wealth of scripted lessons to help guide instruction, suggestions for when a student is struggling with the online activity, and recommendations on how to integrate the activity into classroom instruction. Additionally, a supplied scope and sequence explains target student skills for all grades in six “areas of reading instruction,” which include identifying and manipulating syllables (“phonological awareness”), recognizing word parts and roots (“structural analysis”), vocabulary, and comprehension. A color-coded PDF chart summarizes this scope and sequence, which I would likely print and post with my reading material as a reminder and as a way to check student growth and progress. This high-level information is very helpful to a teacher, and I like the fact that it’s organized and explained succinctly.

Pricing

Unfortunately for most educators working with restricted budgets, Core5’s resources are not free. Although standard pricing information for classroom subscriptions is not published on the site, a representative shared that Lexia's base price for a subscription student license for one year is $40 per student (and the program can be purchased school-wide for $9,900 annually, which includes professional development for teachers and staff). A homeschool version is advertised at $174.98 per student (and $109 for each additional student in the same family). Though exact classroom costs are unknown, we can plausibly expect that, with a classroom of up to thirty-two students, Core5 may be too expensive for the typical elementary teacher and would need to be funded by the school or district.

For an in-depth evaluation of this tool and its potential usefulness to educators, see my next post here.

Melody Arabo is a third-grade teacher in Michigan, a National Education Association (NEA) Master Teacher, a Michigan Educator Voice Fellow, the 2015 Michigan Teacher of the Year, and a 2016 Teaching Ambassador Fellow for the U.S. Department of Education.