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Professor David Ward and David Pryor Ed.D. ‘12 explore the evolving research on e-readers in schools

November 04, 2013

  • David Pryor, Ed.D. '12, talks with fellow doctoral students on the Lewis & Clark campus.

When e-readers began reaching k-12 classrooms 10 years ago, the technology brought both promise and peril for educators. Teachers suddenly had to help motivate students to choose between history textbooks and Angry Birds. But addressing reading motivation was only the tip of the iceberg. As school districts have begun buying classroom sets of e-readers or tablets in the last few years, teachers and principals must monitor thefts of the devices, decide whether to allow their use at home, and determine which grades they can trust with the technology. Keeping up with the expense of replacing or refreshing the devices and their software is also a concern. Studies about the effectiveness of digital devices in the classroom are published at nearly the same rate as new iPads are introduced. Before many researchers and classrooms can interpret new findings, technological gains may render them obsolete.

In 2012, David Ward, assistant professor in teacher education, and David Pryor, Ed.D.’12 both waded into these murky waters, undertaking separate studies on digital reading. Ward narrowed his focus to boys in elementary schools, based on international studies of literacy that show this group lagging behind. For three months, he tracked eight fifth-graders reading with Kindles. Pryor studied both girls and boys in the fourth and fifth grades, presenting them with iPads to use outside of class.

Pryor, then a student in Lewis & Clark’s doctoral program in Educational Leadership, was connected with Ward by other faculty. At first, Ward wasn’t sure if his project would align with Pryor’s. Then the two met face to face. Their ideas bore such similarity, “we both burst out laughing. It was one of those perfect moments,” Ward said. “He’s got knowledge, he’s got tons of energy. He wants kids to succeed.”

Discovering Readers

Ward and Pryor decided to synthesize findings from their two studies and current data. As they sifted through the existing research on digital reading, the constant influx of new gadgets, and information about teachers’ conflicting goals, Ward and Pryor kept in constant touch by email and phone. Most of what they found seemed to point to the fact that reading success hinged on motivation and engagement. Kids who believed they could read well read more.

During their research, Ward and Pryor contacted principals in the Portland area with grant money to buy e-readers, but who lacked confidence about using them effectively. “Educators are constantly having to make choices,” Ward said. “There are shifting needs, shifting purposes. That’s kept our conversation rolling.”

As the data poured in, Ward said, stories sustained the research. During Ward’s Kindle study, a boy who described his reading skills as “under everybody” climbed to the middle of the class. In his own project, Pryor noticed a girl who kept pausing throughout readings to enlarge the iPad’s display. Her parents took her to an optimologist,  who proscribed special lenses. She soon rose to the top of her class.

“There’s no way we would have found that if we hadn’t been experimenting,” Ward said.

Defining Literacy

After publishing their individual studies, Ward and Pryor drafted a series of articles based on their combined findings and a guidebook for schools. Among their conclusions: dictionary apps prove useful, but too many options distract stronger readers. Teachers should turn off games, and tailor applications to suit their needs.

Ward and Pryor are continuing exchanges with schools. Today, even the definition of literacy is being challenged. Some educators don’t believe gazing at iPads counts as reading at all. Others think print books will soon disappear. Ward sees iPads outstripping e-readers in classrooms.

“We’re constantly updating each other on what we’re discovering and what we’re finding,” Ward said. “This is an ongoing discussion. It’s happening right now.”

To learn more about David Ward, visit his faculty profile.

Caleb Diehl BA ‘16 contributed to this story.

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