Are Online Math Programs Better Than Literacy?

Students at Rocketship Mateo Elementary working in the Learning Lab.

When it comes to math and literacy software, the choices are vast and varied. But over the past months, I've heard a recurring complaint from different school administrators: The quality of literacy software is not as high as that of math.

Why is this the case?

I spoke to Aylan Samouha, chief schools officer at Rocketship Education, a network of charter elementary schools in San Jose that allots 25 percent of students' time at school in the computer lab, where they use math and literacy software for basic skills mastery. Time in classroom with their teacher is spent on what they call "higher-order thinking" and collaborative projects.

For math, Rocketship uses Dreambox Learning, ST Math, TenMarks and Equatia. For literacy, Compass Learning is used for vocabulary and Rosetta Stone for English language learners. Students also have independent reading time, for which they're given "comprehension quizzes." For both math and literacy, students who need more individualized help work in small groups of four or five with math and literacy specialists.

Samouha, who's in charge of what software the school uses, says that the math software is "much further along than literacy."

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"It's not like people aren't trying to crack the code," he says. "But the truth is that there are aspects of math, particularly at the elementary school level, that lend themselves to online learning more easily."

In general, he points out, with any form of learning -- online or otherwise -- basic skills are easier to teach, grasp, and to measure than higher-order thinking and concepts. And although math does involve conceptual thinking, even at the elementary level, it's easier to break out conceptual skills than in literacy.

Take, for example, multiplication. A student can practice and master multiplication and make improvement on basic skills with varying degrees of understanding of the concept. "A kid can spit out five-times-five quickly, whether they understand what that means," he says.

But literacy is a different animal. When it comes to vocabulary, the definition of a word is not a simple mathematical equation. A word has different meanings in different contexts, and some have multiple meanings. "To isolate the basic skill of literacy is just much trickier to do," Samouha says.

What's more, the successful math software can scaffold the process, working on basic skills that lead to conceptualization, whereas in literacy the conceptualization process is immediate. "Anytime you're starting to read a sentence, you're already in the world of conceptual understanding," he says.

What do they want to accomplish with literacy software? Two things: Comprehension and expression -- and "almost everything falls under those big buckets," Samouha says.

"We want a child to be able to read a text and derive meaning from that, literally understand what the author is trying to say, make connections between the text and their own experiences, and other text they’ve read," he says. "That’s what real literacy mastery looks like with comprehension."

With expression, the goal is for the student to be able to communicate verbally and with writing -- the ability to express oneself in ways that are grammatically correct, interesting to read, presenting a logical point of view, showing a connection between what they're reading to their own experiences, all while being as descriptive as possible.

Of course, educators do just that -- they isolate each one of those skills and help students work on them individually. "But for a computer to know whether or not there's a proper self-to-text connection is a lot trickier than finding out if they have the right answer to math problem," he says. "We are much more cautious and protective on the literacy side. If we saw there was software that was just as effective as Dreambox is in math, we’d do that."

Which begs the question: Why are we using software to teach literacy, if it's not as effective.

Samouha says we need both teachers and great software.

"Learning happens best when human beings are freed up to do what they’re best at," he says. "Teachers didn’t sign up to teach so they can teach short vowel sounds for four months. Or do times table recitation with kids. They're teachers because they want to teach concepts and ideas."

And especially in under-served communities, where basic skills are typically in need of "shoring up to such degree that teachers get stuck there, it’s not good for kids or teachers."

All that said, Compass Learning does have an engaging program, and it's shown to increase students' Northwestern Evaluation Association scores, according to Samouha, who describes assessment as a reliable adaptive diagnostic test.

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"For the very basic parts of literacy, it's starting to make itself valuable in the process," he says. "We're starting to see benefits, but it’s at early stages. But literacy software right now doesn’t have as much lift as math."

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