Research and Reflections
Part 1 of Personalized Learning

Is it Possible to Use Personalized Learning to Accelerate Students’ Literacy Outcomes in the Time of COVID?

Examining the research base

The pandemic-induced nationwide school closures in the spring and wide variance in school conditions this fall are resulting in students receiving even spottier reading instruction than usual. The erratic and uneven access to literacy instruction exacerbated by the pandemic is intersecting with a long-delayed racial and socio-economic reckoning in America. Vital questions about how to ensure all school-aged children learn to read and write capably and with confidence have gained even greater urgency. 

We are in the midst of a review of hundreds of studies in literacy, personalized learning, and principles of equitable instruction. We are providing some early learnings from that review that we hope will help guide school districts, principals, and teachers who are making pressurized decisions about what products to buy and use daily in the desire to maintain learning and literacy in unprecedented circumstances. Many products purport to personalize literacy instruction and accelerate gains. How then to decide what will best serve student and teacher needs? 

Our working hypothesis is that personalized learning approaches, when thoughtfully implemented and grounded in research-based practices for literacy, can potentially serve as levers to help make up ground and accelerate literacy outcomes. This post, which is the first of a series of two, will lay a foundation for understanding where productive intersections lie between research-grounded literacy practices and promising directions in personalized learning. It names the “literacy accelerators,” those ingredients that have a research base for undergirding successful reading and promoting vibrant facility with speaking, listening, and writing in English as well. It then discusses personalized learning and its potential to promote greater gains in literacy. The second post will offer a working draft of principles for considering the effective and just intersection of personalized learning and literacy. We hope those considerations, in particular, will provide practical guidance to school leaders and teachers in the immediate term. 

These two introductory posts are forerunners for a longer research synthesis to be published in January 2021 that will offer answers to the queries and conditions established here. 

What do we mean by personalized learning in ELA/literacy?

Personalized learning must be personal above all. Personalization can take many forms, but approaches must be selected based on knowledge of the student and attention to the specifics of the content area. It is an instructional approach, not a product. The goal of personalization should be that students are able to meet grade-level expectations and ultimately achieve college and career readiness. Personalized learning has the potential to achieve this goal when students are engaged in customized human and/or technology-enabled learning experiences that accelerate each student’s progress, counteract biases, and engage, enrich, and motivate each student. 

In this discussion, we are concentrated squarely on accelerating the literacy capacity of students who have not been well-served in public schools and whose learning needs have been pushed to the margins of resource allocation and focus. We intend to draw specific attention to Black students, students who come to English learning (ELs) from another language base, and students from chronically low-income households. These identifiers have become all too predictive of students’ academic outcomes. Let’s be clear, ending disparities in literacy—ensuring every student reads ably wherever they live—does not rest on students’ shoulders; it rests on ours. It rests on those of us working as teachers and leaders in the education system to tap into each child’s brilliance. 

We hold there are indeed known and powerful avenues that would allow for such acceleration to take place. Abundant research in cognitive science exists about the processes for learning to read and what matters most in growing successful readers.

We are confident about one more thing, which is that a truly productive approach to personalized learning must advocate for ways to fundamentally redesign the schooling system, not just maintain the trappings of school as we know it. Gloria Ladson Billings has called this moment an opportunity to do a “hard reset” for how we do schooling in America, and we agree. Personalized learning crammed into chronically underfunded and overcrowded classrooms will serve minimal good. 

What accelerates literacy learning and reading ability specifically?

Reading is liberation. Being able to read well opens doors. Being literate provides opportunities to engage with and be productive in society in ways we each choose. Here’s the really good news: while there is no silver bullet, all students can learn to read and write with the right combination of instructional ingredients and plentiful practice. 

Reading is rich and complicated, an intricate mix of various habits, skills, confidence, and knowledge. The other skills of speaking, listening, writing, and facility with language add to the rich tapestry. Within that rich mix, some elements stand out as most critical for—and effective in—promoting students’ robust literacy outcomes. We’ve dubbed these “literacy accelerators.” There are five. These accelerators are well established in the literature, though they are too seldom fully integrated into instructional materials or teacher training. The accelerators work in concert; they bolster one another in innumerable ways. Each is essential, but they only genuinely accelerate student literacy when exercised together.  Here’s a rundown of the five leading literacy accelerators:

  1. Securing solid foundational reading skills early on in students’ school careers (ideally by grade three) so students can continually develop as fluent readers in every grade level thereafter. Teachers need to execute the direct teaching and reinforcement of foundational reading standards, with practice both in and out of context. That ensures children will learn how spoken language is represented in print. Teaching foundational skills, no matter the grade, goes on in parallel with attending to the rest of English Language Arts. The two are corresponding, not sequential activities. They work in tandem until the act of reading is automatic; fully fluent and foundational reading can disappear into the background to grease the wheels of comprehension forevermore.
  2. Expanding the vocabulary children bring with them through a volume of reading (both read aloud to students and books they read for themselves) and word study. Knowledge of words and knowledge about the world are tightly connected. The things we know have to be named and described by words when encountered in print. The most efficient way to learn vocabulary is to acquire it while reading. Recent research demonstrates that students learn up to four times as many words when they are reading texts about conceptually coherent topics for a period of time. This is data too powerful to ignore.
  3. Growing knowledge of the familiar and broader world through reading a volume of texts on topics at various complexity levels so students develop a trove of knowledge to reference whenever they read. Reading ability and knowledge about the world are equally tightly connected. Authors assume their readers know some things, so readers knowing things is a crucial component of those readers’ success and continued comprehension gains. Instruction time should be centered on texts—both comprehension of grade-level text and the opportunity for volume of reading on conceptually coherent topics and free choice selection.
  4. Marshalling evidence and communicating it when speaking and writing about what the text is communicating. With the emergence of college- and career-readiness (CCR) standards, the demand that students cite specific evidence from texts when writing to make their reasoning clear or constructively evaluate others’ use of evidence is unambiguous. The careful attention that collecting evidence for writing requires gives students a payoff in the form of deepening their comprehension. Whether pursuing their own learning goals or responding to questions or tasks presented to them by a teacher, paying careful attention to the text activates the brain while reading.
  5. Deepening understanding of what is read through regular, close reading of ever richer, more complex text, with supports as needed for universal access and success. To build solid reading habits and stamina, students must regularly parse complex syntax or trace references that will result in the text making sense. Giving students the opportunity to practice reading complex text carefully on a regular basis builds their expectation that what one reads should make sense, and it is critical to learning to stick with reading when reading gets tough. Such practice helps students notice and know what to do to solve those comprehension breakdowns when they occur.  

Can personalized learning accelerate literacy outcomes and boost students’ reading ability?

To that question, following the known research, we answer a qualified, “yes.” While there is promise in personalized learning, much of it is as yet unstudied. Curiously, while personalized learning has been around for millennia, scant research on its efficacy exists. That’s basic efficacy—defined as whether the treatment moves learning attainment at all compared to other conditions. In many studies, the variety of alternative treatments and conditions present makes it challenging to determine to what degree the personalized learning treatment was the major contributor to improved learning. 

The most effective personalized education techniques known to date have a profoundly human touch, ubiquitous in all cultures and with an ancient lineage: face-to-face human personalization, differentiating according to individual needs and likings. Academic tutoring, where one tutor sits with one student and educates in a way deeply responsive to that student’s current skill level and current learning needs, is a prime example. 

What demonstrated success has been uncovered to date exists primarily in mathematics, and even it has somewhat mixed results. But that’s math; we’re focused on literacy. Personalizing reading and writing for students is thoroughly distinct from doing it in math. 

The one area of literacy somewhat akin to mathematics in linearity is foundational reading. There, skills and instruction can progress in a sequence that leads to proficient and automatic word and sentence reading. Imagine a world where teachers could summon the precise foundational skills each student needs next. Imagine those learning opportunities get served in various forms tailored to each child’s inclinations—either via learning games, or full-body Wii-type activities that practice foundational skills through movement and chanting, all while the teacher coaches, reinforces, encourages, and praises students to ensure progress. Imagine students choosing what aspect of recently learned course material they want to pursue to deepen and expand their learning. They select the resources (e.g., texts, visuals, multimedia) assembled for their extended learning and interact with easily accessible readings on their chosen topic. Imagine this program providing each student with immediate, targeted feedback based explicitly on their error patterns. This activity is currently teacher-directed, but could be technology-enabled.  Such sophisticated capacity is within reach but hasn’t yet been developed rigorously enough to be practicable in real settings. 

In our work to date reviewing the research and pondering the intersection of literacy acceleration, educational equity, and promising personalized learning practices, it is clear there must be intentionality and differentiation in the approach depending on which aspects of personalization are being applied to which of the literacy accelerators. What is effective for accelerating writing in response to text, for example, will be markedly different from a personalized approach to improving students’ reading fluency.  

At this point we need to underscore that the potential triumphs of personalized learning are matched by the known perils and problematic track record of personalized approaches. In recent decades, practices labeled as differentiated or individualized (aka personalized) instruction have done much harm to students already perpetually marginalized in school because of their race, language base, or family’s economics. Students have been tracked into low-level classes in which students are purportedly working at their individual instructional levels, or students are isolated within heterogeneous classes and left mired in low-level, “individualized” work, often accompanied only by a mind-numbing computer program. They have been denied thought-provoking and inspiring work while simultaneously not having their learning needs met.

What’s next?

Personalized learning for literacy presents many unknowns, since, as noted above, little research exists on the effectiveness of approaches of any sort on literacy outcomes in any real-world contexts. With so much still unknown about what constitutes effective personalized learning for literacy, there is a clear need for a massive influx of research investment from philanthropy and research institutions before personalized learnings’ efficacy in all its forms is actualized.  

In the longer paper, we will take each one of the five accelerators and explore how we know it is an accelerator, particularly for students who are currently marginalized by inadequate instruction and materials. Anchoring the entire discussion will be how to choose learning approaches wisely and fairly based on what students need, so personalization does not become a vehicle for tracking or exacerbating educational inequities.

3 thoughts on “Is it Possible to Use Personalized Learning to Accelerate Students’ Literacy Outcomes in the Time of COVID?

  1. Yes, personalized learning will be essential to rescue this generation of struggling learners. You have identified many of the causes, evident to nations of teachers. When, where and how soon can the rescue begin? We so need that “profoundly human touch” as a world of peoples confused and ravaged in thought and works. Eagerly awaiting further research, but ready to get started. From, All Teachers

  2. I really like this article. I was a special education teacher for many years and I know no one rises to low expectations. Personalization for each student needs to happens and can be effective if it is designed for acceleration and not remediation. I also agree with the foundation skills being solid by 3rd grade. My questions are how do we make sure this happens during this distance learning era and what about those who are in grades higher than 4th grade who do not have solid reading foundation skills?

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About the Author: Meredith Liben is the Senior Fellow for Strategic Initiatives at Student Achievement Partners. Meredith has taught and coached in a wide range of settings over the past 35 years. She has taught every grade from kindergarten through grad school and has been collaborating in literacy reform efforts with David Liben for the past thirty years plus in many of these endeavors, including the founding of two innovative model schools in New York City - New York Prep, a junior high school in East Harlem, and in 1991, the Family Academy. Meredith has a bachelor's degree in Classics and Government from Oberlin College and a master's degree and advanced work from the University of Massachusetts and City University of New York.

About the Author: Tanji Reed Marshall, Ph.D., is the director of p-12 practice, leading Ed Trust’s Equity in Motion assignment analysis work. Prior to joining Ed Trust, Tanji worked in the Office of Academic Programs at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to prepare the school of education’s accreditation with the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. Before that, she supported prospective secondary English teachers who were working to obtain licensure through the school of education.

About the Author: Susan Pimentel is a Founding Partner of Student Achievement Partners and was a lead writer of the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy. She is also a co-founder of StandardsWork, a nonprofit leading the Knowledge Matters campaign. Before her work on the Common Core, Susan was chief architect of the American Diploma Project designed to close the gap between high school demands and postsecondary expectations. Susan’s efforts have been focused on helping communities, districts and states across the nation work together to advance meaningful and enduring education reform and champion proven tools for increasing academic rigor. Susan serves on the English Language Arts work group for the Understanding Language Project of Stanford University and has been working to ensure English language learners are provided full access to instruction aligned to college- and career-readiness standards. Susan has been the lead consultant, content developer, coach, and trainer for seminal federal adult education initiatives for more than two decades, including Standards-in-Action and Promoting College and Career Ready Standards in Adult Basic Education. Her most recent report, co-authored with Ross Wiener of the Aspen Institute, is Practice What You Teach: Connecting Curriculum and Professional Learning in Schools. Susan served two terms on the National Assessment Governing Board that advises on the nation's report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). She became vice-chair of the body in November 2012. Susan holds a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and a law degree from Cornell University.