Take a peek inside a fourth-grade reading classroom …

Anthony struggles to master literal comprehension skills. Maria, on the other hand, has already mastered those skills and is ready to move on to interpretive comprehension skills. Carla, an English-language learner, is still trying to learn standard English structures, expressions, and vocabulary. David’s vocabulary skills are on grade level, but his reference skills need work.

As educators, we know that our students learn differently. Yet, out of necessity, instruction often focuses on teaching to the middle, rather than teaching to the individual. How can one teacher possibly meet each student’s unique needs, and those of 20 other students, during a single class period each day?

At Meadowlane Elementary School in urban Hialeah, Fla., we have found that technology can be a tremendous aid to help teachers effectively address the individual needs of each student in the reading classroom. Technology alone, however, is not the answer. It is what you do with the technology that counts.

We implemented computer-based curriculum courseware in our reading instruction in 1994. We used it primarily to help third, fourth, and fifth-graders achieve mastery of the skills we thought they needed to learn. As is turned out, the skills we thought were important were not necessarily the skills the state of Florida considered important. In 1999, when Florida began to assign school performance grades through the Florida School Recognition Program, Meadowlane Elementary received a “D.”

Clearly, what we were doing was not working. So, we dramatically changed our reading curriculum and our use of technology. In 2000, our school performance grade leaped to an “A” owing, in part, to significant improvement in students’ reading skills.

What made such dramatic improvements possible from one year to the next? It was a combination of things. Our teachers reviewed Florida’s Sunshine State Standards for their grade level and rewrote the reading curriculum to align with the standards. They modeled the curriculum on Bloom’s Taxonomy, which identifies six major levels of the cognitive domain: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Our teachers now ask students to think at higher levels in everyday classroom reading. They also designated more time for reading during the school day, and they improved their use of our comprehensive courseware system by using it to identify and address the individual needs of each child.

Meadowlane Elementary enrolls 1,400 students in grades pre-kindergarten through five. Eighty-one percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and nearly 27 percent have limited English proficiency. Our school is part of the Miami-Dade County Public School System, which serves more than 350,000 students speaking more than 87 different dialects.

In the past, teachers would present reading, writing, and language-arts skills to the class and hope that what each child needed was in that group of skills. Today, we use the SuccessMaker comprehensive courseware system from Pearson Digital Learning as an integral part of our reading curriculum to provide each student with the individualized instruction he or she needs to achieve success.

Kindergarten, first, and second-grade students work on SuccessMaker reading courses for a minimum 12 to 20 minutes a day, depending on their needs. Third, fourth, and fifth-graders work on the courseware a minimum of 12 to 25 minutes a day.

Our school has four to five computers in each classroom, a computer lab with 25 computers, and two mobile computer labs. About 80 percent of students’ courseware use is in the classroom.

The reading courseware content aligns with standards developed by national professional organizations, including the International Reading Association and National Council of Teachers of English. We also align the courseware with the reading curriculum our teachers developed and with the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Teachers integrate the courseware into their daily instruction to teach, assess, and expand the realms of reading. Using this technology tool, teachers can provide students of varied learning rates, interests, and abilities with thousands of hours of multilevel, individualized instruction. They can also support students’ learning with features such as audio self-recording and playback, digitized speech, video, animation, graphics, music, and multimedia glossaries.

With the courseware, appropriate learning paths are based on student input. The software automatically locates the level at which the student is ready to learn and presents instruction at a level that is neither too easy nor too difficult. A retention-check feature automatically activates at intervals during the learning process to ensure retention of previously presented skills.

Using the management system, which is seamlessly integrated with the courseware, teachers and administrators can continuously monitor student progress and receive instant, targeted feedback on student achievement. The management system’s reports can show overall performance in a course; identify skill objectives in which a student has difficulty; show a global overview of group progress; and forecast the time needed by individual students to reach instructional goals.

Our teachers use these data to implement targeted intervention and remediation strategies to meet each student’s needs. Teachers also share these reports with parents during mid-year conferences to clearly illustrate their child’s progress and growth.

Using comprehensive courseware, we have helped diverse students of all ability levels achieve measurable learning gains in the classroom and on high-stakes tests. We have also realized success schoolwide. After earning an “A” performance grade in 2000, our school earned a “B” in 2001 (missing an “A” by only one point!) and an “A” again in 2002.

As accountability demands for student progress continue to grow, we must focus on the needs of the individual student. Only by helping the individual student can we be successful in our roles as educators and administrators.

George Kovachy has more than 40 years’ experience in education. As a teacher, he taught grades two through eight. He has worked in the district office and has been the principal of three different schools. He became principal of Meadowlane Elementary in 1974 and retired in June 2003.