All Articles Education Edtech Q-and-A: How to boost literacy access, interest, engagement

Q-and-A: How to boost literacy access, interest, engagement

6 min read


SmartBlog on Education recently interviewed Todd Brekhus, a leader in technology-enhanced literacy solutions for more than two decades, about challenges in literacy education, personalized literacy and future trends in the field. Brekhus spent eight years in the classroom as a teacher, department chair and technology director and now serves as president and creator of myON, a business unit of Capstone. Here are some of his insights, based on his work with educators and school administrators.

As someone who has worked as a classroom teacher and a school administrator and also spent many years designing digital literacy solutions, what do you see as the top three literacy challenges facing students today?

My experiences as an educator and working within the education industry have shown repeatedly that the top three literacy challenges facing students today are access, interest and engagement. There are still so many classroom libraries or even school-wide and community libraries that have just one or possibly a few copies of any given book. This limits students’ access to content that might unlock their love of reading. If we can work to provide every student with unlimited access anytime, anywhere, to thousands of titles — if every child in a classroom can access the same book at the same time — we can allow literacy to grow in new, unexpected ways. That said, we know that students will not read if they are not interested. We must continually seek out new, diverse material and give them the ability to choose of content so that they may pursue their interests in reading. Finally, we must make literacy relevant and engaging to the 21st century student. In an increasingly digital world, we must find methods with longevity to engage students in literacy. Literacy tools must be available anytime to students on the same devices with which they engage their peers and the world around them.

You’re an advocate for personalized literacy. What is “personalized literacy” and how can this approach revitalize the conversation around literacy education?

To me, “personalized literacy” is the ability to match every unique reader with content at his or her ability level and within his or her interests. Providing the right supports to students who need help and providing educators with tools to truly personalize the literacy experience for every student in every classroom in every school will not only change the way we view literacy education, but education in general.

When students are learning to read in a personalized way — having content recommended to their levels and interests — and when teachers are receiving personalized data on each individual student’s reading activity, they have the capacity to make unprecedented progress in literacy. The ability to personalize literacy will help students, teachers and parents immediately identify struggling readers as well as the need for intervention or differentiated instruction. When the educator is armed with actionable data in reading for every student’s personalized needs, we can enhance literacy education — and education in general — by meeting each student exactly where they are to optimize their learning potential.

In turn, personalizing literacy will allow us to personalize all areas of education: the skills established through personalized literacy — ensuring that every student is reading and writing at grade level — will allow them to achieve greater success across all disciplines since every discipline requires a strong foundation in literacy.

How do digital books and access to personalized literacy environments support 21st-century skills?

A personalized literacy environment characterized by enhanced digital books supports 21st-century skills because we’re allowing students to access books when, where and how they want to read. Our 21st-century students, most of all, must be capable of adapting to constant change. Thus, we must change the way we teach literacy, including providing students with the ability to control and change their reading environment. This reading environment also must be changeable: It must change as the student changes and grows, which is why it is so important to provide students with a platform whose scaffolds expand and contract based on the student’s individual needs. In addition, the ability to personalize the reading and writing experiences of every student — rather than providing “one size fits all” assignments — will provide students with the foundation to read and write across the curriculum, as new educational standards and 21st-century careers require. Finally, access to new data about literacy will impact the information teachers share with parents.

Looking ahead, what does literacy education look like five or 10 years from now?

In the near future, I believe that literacy education will move to the forefront as the foundation of education. As national educational standards change, whether CCSS or STEM initiatives or others, the ability to read and write at grade level across the curriculum will grow ever more important. The ability to provide students with immediate access to a broad range of content will allow educators and administrators to support students as they learn to read and write in unique ways in every discipline. Literacy education will require the ability for students to move effortlessly between various discourse communities, and so we must teach them how to access and utilize different genres of literature outside of traditional language arts. Our students also must be able to write in response to any rhetorical situation, and I believe that literacy education must focus on providing engaging and diverse writing assignments to a broad range of content so that our students are prepared to write under a variety of circumstances.

Todd Brekhus has been a leader in technology-enhanced literacy solutions for more than two decades. He spent eight years in the classroom as a teacher, department chair and technology director. Brekhus serves as president and creator of myON, a business unit of Capstone. Before joining myON, he held a variety of executive positions within the education industry, including vice president and CMO of PLATO Learning, president and COO of Learning Elements and education program director for MCI WorldCom, where he led the launch of the Marco Polo program. Brekhus was recently named 2013 Visionary of the Year by EdTech Digest.