All Articles Education Voice of the Educator Personalized literacy: Insights from champions in the field

Personalized literacy: Insights from champions in the field

7 min read

Voice of the Educator

Personalized learning is the latest buzzword in the field of education technology. At the recent ISTE conference, it was clear that with the rapid amount of technology adoption in the past three years, the ability for companies to impact student learning in new and innovative ways is growing exponentially as technology truly becomes a ubiquitous partner in the educational process.

For those of us who work in this dynamic space, it’s clear that we are working with a new paradigm altogether. This generation of digital natives responds less favorably to the old drill and kill, one-size-tries-to-fit-all approach to learning, while gravitating toward the personalization that technology fosters.

Focusing on the gains in literacy underpins the entire educational spectrum — and using personalization can truly help every student become a proficient reader. Not only does technology facilitate personalization for each student, it allows educators to play an active role in individualizing instruction for their students, regardless of their unique abilities or learning styles.

Statistics show that 66% of students who are not reading on grade level by the end of the third grade end up either in prison or find themselves unprepared and unable to support themselves and their families. We can and should offer all of our children better opportunities for their futures. The ability to read proficiently is a critical element of a students’ overall academic — and lifelong — success. It is imperative we ensure each student has the opportunity to learn to read, so they can transition to that all-important next stage of reading to learn. When we personalize the literacy experience for an individual student — and from an early age — by matching their specific interests and Lexile reading level to a set of ‘just right’ books, we engage and encourage them to read, building their confidence as learners in the process.

When we speak about personalizing literacy, we focus on transforming how students can access books. We feel strongly that they should have unlimited, anytime access to a complete library of books that meet their needs and interests. Student should grow their reading skills with optional scaffolds and a recommended set of “just right” books, and students should be able to track their reading growth. This helps students take ownership over their learning and is in itself extremely reinforcing.

To emphasize the impact that personalizing students’ reading experiences can have on their literacy rates, I’ve asked a few leading educators to share their professional insights. Below they share their visions for their own schools and districts, and how they are truly changing the way their students are reading and learning.


Kenya Jackson, director and principal

Personalized literacy is the ability to access a wide range of text for a specific purpose, mainly to benefit one’s own knowledge, enjoyment or usefulness. At View Park Preparatory Accelerated Charter Middle School, we gather student data such as reading surveys, test scores and student work samples to help us determine what students prefer to read, what they can read and how we can support them with texts that are difficult. In doing so, we implement differentiated literacy options. For example, students use a variety of online reading programs; in addition, they close read fiction and non-fiction text in their core classes. Also, all students engage in Drop Everything and Read (D.E.A.R) for 30 minutes per day before the lunch period begins.  For D.E.A.R., students are allowed to select a novel or magazine of their choice. By empowering all students with choice and by supporting and challenging their understanding of different texts, we are fostering a love of reading and learning.

Peter Watts, director of blended learning

This generation of 21st century learners thrives on personalization. They love to personalize their entertainment, whether it be an iTunes playlist or recommendations of what movies to put in their queue on Netflix based on their viewing habits. It is no surprise to me that this generation must also have a personalized education. One size fits all doesn’t fit today’s’ learners and they must be challenged at their own pace, on their own personalized instructional level if we are going to see true engagement in the classroom. At ICEF Public Schools, we recognize the need for personalization, and we have taken the challenge head on. Our classroom structure and instructional pedagogy of learning is all based on personalization. In our reading and English classes, our model is based on the rotations of blended learning we call “concentric circles” of instruction. Within this rotational model we have trained our staff on elements of the “Daily 5” and students are encouraged and helped with identifying and reading “good fit books” based on their own Lexile reading levels. So, yes, it means that no matter what, “data” still drives instruction. This allows students to be challenged with text that is just right for them. It’s as if our students in collaboration with our teachers are being helped to identify their own “personalized playlist” of reading.

Todd Tyner, principal

Through the SRA reading kit in the late 1970’s, I learned to implement skills that saw me through college, such as author’s intent, synonyms/antonyms, comprehension, etc., despite having spent significant time reading titles that didn’t interest me, simply in the name of completing a program. In order to teach the wonders of reading, students must be given choices.

Personalized literacy is a game changer. Internet access has expanded, maximizing children’s’ interest. This spring we introduced a digital literacy program to students and parents at a Family Literacy Night. As the adults discussed topics like common core, college and career readiness and others, not one student paid attention. They had their own fascination as they read about the subjects they desired. In terms of actual interest in reading, today’s students are miles ahead of where we were, and choice is the key to their buy-in.

The outcome has been one of the most exciting things I have seen in my 16 years in education. Kids are sharing titles in the hallways. They are excited to read from home, in the car and at school; not concerned about how far along they are in a program. That is what reading is about!


The ability to personalize a student’s reading environment is the differentiator when it comes to engaging students in their learning, enabling them to be accountable for their education and celebrating successes. By leveraging technology, teachers can meet the needs of all their students in new, unprecedented ways. To continue to inspire our teachers, who in turn encourage and inspire their students, we must continue to further explore the opportunities that technology and the new tools that it makes possible present to us. Our collective goal must be a national community of readers and lifelong learners.

Todd Brekhus is the president of Capstone Digital, parent company of myON. He was named EdTech Digest’s 2013 Visionary of the Year and one of Lamplighter Awards’ 2014 Visionaries of the Year. Before joining Capstone, Todd held a variety of executive positions. Todd spent eight years in education as a teacher, department chair and technology director. He currently serves on the board of the Educational Division of The Software Information Industry Association.

Kenya Jackson is a director and principal as well as a member of two Principal Leadership Cohorts — School Leaders Network and Teach For America Leadership Cohort.   She has worked in an urban charter and public schools in New York City and Los Angeles for 14 years.

Peter Watts is the director of blended learning for ICEF Public Schools,  a blended learning consultant for various charter management organizations and Partners for Developing Futures Fellow in Los Angeles, Calif..

Todd Tyner is the principal of Mound School, a science and global citizenship magnet school in Ventura, Calif.