Adapting to the new reality in literacy, using technology to promote a blended approach to literacy education by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Adapting to the new reality in literacy, using technology to promote a blended approach to literacy education by Dr. Sam Bommarito

Words and phrases like coronavirus, COVID-19, the new normal, self-quarantine, social-distancing, and cancelation of all school classes are quickly reshaping the landscape of the world, including the world of literacy education. As a leader of both a local and state-level literacy organization, I found myself having to announce the canceling of end of the year events and advising members to take all the precautions necessary to slow the advance of the pandemic. There is a groundswell of people caring about others and trying to figure out ways they can best help. I have friends whose children are in the medical field, working in E.R.’s, the de facto front line of the current situation.  My friends are rightly concerned, but quite proud of what their children are doing.

My wife and I are both in education- she works in the Parents as Teacher program at a local district, and I continue to do a variety of literacy work, including spending one full day a week at an elementary school. Both of us are at an age where we are considered part of the high-risk group who should be strictly limiting their contact with others. Where does that leave us as educators?  What viable options are there for us? Both of us are about to join other educators who are using technology to try to reach our students. Next week I will be doing virtual lessons with the students I tutor individually using Go to Meeting, and I will also be continuing to help the 1st through 3rd-grade students I work with using the Raz-Kids program.  I want to talk a little about what I’m going to try to do to carry out this cyberlearning. I want to be sure it is done in a way that maximizes the development of lifelong readers and writers (as per the title for this blog).

I’ll start with the reminder that technology is a tool, and like all tools, its impact depends on how it is used.  Seymour Papert, a pioneer in the use of technology in education, viewed computers as “tools of the mind.”  His book Mindstorms is still worth reading even today.  Some of my colleagues fear that doing cyberbooks will not result in authentic reading. Today I’ll make the case that cyberbooks can and should be part of the “new normal” that is beginning to develop in the world of literacy. Let’s talk a bit about what the new normal is starting to look like at the Bommaritos.

The past two days in the Bommarito household have been spent learning the ins and outs of getting in contact with people using Zoom and/or Go to Meeting. We’ve both done practice runs, contacting each other, and some of our educator friends who are in the same boat. We are learning to set the screen image up, learning how to have a face to face conversation using the new tools and gadgets. Still learning. It has been a “keep the faith,” do what you can do kind of endeavor. At the moment, we can contact folks using e-mail, they open the e-mail on their device of choice. The device has the Zoom or Go to Meeting already downloaded. They click on the link, and voila, we are now face-to-face and talking.  This morning we learned that it might be possible to skip the e-mail part and do a direct phone contact. Stay tuned on that- and BTW, if any of my techi friends out there already know whether or not that is possible and how to do it, please do chime in with a comment. After all, this has evolved into a learn by doing situation.

So, we can now have face to face conversations with folks in real-time. What to do, what to say. I’ll tell you about my plans for next week. I’ll be contacting the parents and kids I work with individually.  They will be there along with their child. I’ll be trying out doing my lesson face to face with them. In my case, I’ve gotten a license for Go To Meeting, and I will be contacting them with that software. I will be talking to my kids about what they are reading. So, what are they reading (and why)?

They all have Keep Books. I’ve given them a whole collection of Keep Books. You’ll remember that Keep Books are the brainchild of Fountas and Pinnell and can be ordered on-line in sets from Ohio State University.


Keep Books are predictable texts. As you can see from the picture, they are small and inexpensive. They are rich in high-frequency sight words, the kind of words found on the Dolch List or Fry List. Every week since we started, each child has gotten to pick a Keep Book to read for the week. They get to put their name in the book. They add it to their shoebox library. They bring that library to their sessions, and the session always begins by asking them to pick the favorite keep book so far and read it to me, reading like a storyteller.  They know when they read that I will always be checking to see that they know which word is which. For each of the three children I’m working with, one critical problem they had at the start was that they had no real concept of what a word was. Before I started working with them, they were memorizing their little books and/or making up stories using the pictures from the book. They now know which word is which they pay attention to the letters in each word and they know how to figure out their own words. They are proud of the fact they can do that.  When they miscue (and they sometimes do!), my typical prompt is to say, “does that look like xxxx? Are those the right letters for xxxx?. That prompt usually results in an immediate self-correction. Keep Books are not the only books they are reading and rereading.

A second significant set of books they are reading and rereading are books from the Raz Kids program. This is what the kids see when they log on:


The “LEVEL UP” room contains books at their current decoding level. I ask them to read at least two of these each week. The reading room includes books at various decoding levels. Once they’ve done at least two books from the level up room- I let them know they can choose any texts they want from the reading room. Starting this week, I’ll be asking them to record themselves reading one favorite Raz Kid book. The program allows me to review those recordings while looking at the actual text they read from. I’ll be talking to each of them about their favorite Raz Kids book so far

Then there is their collection of books they made using Language Experience (I write down what they say. Together we find creative commons pictures on-line to add to their book. Here is one sample:


Finally, I ask students about their favorite trade book.  Recently one of the boys I’ve been working with since the start of the year was able to read the entire Eric Litwin book Pete the Cat I Love My White Shoes.


The bottom line to all this is that the students I work with individually have a very large collection of books that they read and reread. They have a choice about which ones to reread. They know that when they read, they should “make it match, don’t make it up.” They know they should be reading like storytellers. Most of all, they are learning the importance of having favorites. They are reading from a variety of different kinds of books, including cyberbooks.   In the next few weeks, I’ll be trying to replicate the lessons I’ve been doing with them in person using my face to face on-line program.  BYW, yes, there is a systematic phonics component, using analytic phonics lessons based on their rereading of favorite books.  I will let you know how all this goes.


Doctor Sam Bommarito (aka, the guy learning to teach again, using the “new normal”)

Copyright 2020 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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