Techno Tools for the classroom | Encouraging reading through Epic!
Last year, the grade four literacy rate stood at 84.6 per cent, moving from 79.1 per cent in 2016. The literacy rate at the national level is also encouraging. The 2015 UNESCO Report on World Literacy puts Jamaica's overall literacy rate at 88.7 per cent, moving up by 1.7 per cent from 2011.
Despite these encouraging statistics, Jamaica still lags behind many countries in the fight against illiteracy. In fact, the average literacy rate for Latin America and the Caribbean is a whopping 98.4 per cent. Closing this gap is going to require that the nation ramp up its efforts and try new strategies. This is where technology can help.
The skill of reading is best targeted and achieved at the early childhood and primary levels. Yet not enough is done to encourage engaged and meaningful reading habits. In fact, in many Jamaican subcultures, reading is still associated with punishment. When a child misbehaves, they are told to "go tek up a book and read something".
But what is it that the children are reading, and do they want to read what is available? Research indicates that the development of reading skills is best encouraged when learners are able to access and read about their interests and passions.
Children are more likely to engage in voluntary reading activities if they have ready access to the topics they would like to read about. Twenty-first-century technology is making this possible through apps like Epic!
Epic! has a collection of over 25,000 books, geared at children 12 years old and younger.
It is a curated digital library of some of the world's best children's books and provides unlimited access in a number of formats, including e-books, audiobooks, and learning videos.
Because the collection is so vast, children are able to explore their own reading interests on Epic!, as they build reading difficulty.
Many children who use the app like the visuals associated with each text, and the audio and video features ensure that all learning styles are catered for. The app is adaptive, and as such, uses data about each child's reading interest, speed, and level of understanding to recommend other books to them.
The app also features quizzes that can be used to test student understanding, and it encourages further reading through the award of digital badges. These game features help children to remain motivated as they read and give parents and teachers information about how well each child is progressing. Other benefits of using this app include offline access to the digital library; access across various platforms, including Android and iOS; and the no-advertisements and in-app purchasing options. Epic! is fun, safe, and easy to use.
Around the world, teachers are using the app to engage the class in read-aloud activities. They are converting their reading corners into digital corners, making space for other classroom projects, and they are using the game features to encourage friendly competition among their students.
Others have even used the app to facilitate the creation of digital book clubs that allow their students to interact with other children around the world who are reading the same books. This they do through the use of social media tools. Epic! is great for the Tablets in Schools project as each child can have his or her own profile on a device shared with other Epic! readers.
Epic! is free for use in schools. Teachers can set up accounts for themselves and for their students without cost once they use an email address aligned to their school for sign-up.
This means that schools are encouraged to have an email address for teachers that carry the standard .edu or .gov.jm domain. If parents are interested in Epic!, they can start with a 30-day free trial period, after which they pay US$7.99 per month. Epic! can be found at http://getepic.zendesk.com.
- Gen Clacken is an educational technologist with 16 years' experience in online education. She can be found at www.genclacken.com.