Are Online Math Programs Better Than Literacy?

| October 26, 2011 | 14 Comments
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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.

“There are aspects of math, particularly at the elementary school level, that lend themselves to online learning more easily.”

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.”

“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.

Why are we using software to teach literacy if it’s not as effective?

“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.

“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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  • http://twitter.com/eduleadership Justin Baeder

    Thanks for raising this important issue. At the heart of the challenge with literacy is that a great deal of what’s typically taught as “basic skills” has very little to do with how students actually learn to read.

    I was taught virtually none of the “basic skills” that populate literacy worksheets and websites. I learned to read by being directly taught phonics, which are among the most basic skills in reading, and by reading. A lot. And reading some more.

    Yes, there are strategies that can support reading and help students solve particular problems as they read, and some students may get more stuck in more places and need more strategy instruction. But I don’t think reading can be taught in the same skill-focused way that math can (though of course math needs to be taught conceptually too, and not just as skills).

    I’m not a literacy expert, but I suspect that the limited impact of computer-based literacy activities is due to the fact that they take time away from actual reading.

  • Marc Liebman

    I find generalizations very misleading. To say that the quality of math software is better than literacy software does a disservice to everyone.  There are some outstanding math software program to be sure.  There are also some incredibly lousy ones.  Conversely, there are both quality and poor literacy programs.  Further, it can be said that some curriculum and programs work better in different situation than others and to one school it may be great and another it is unsuccessful.  I would argue that the same is true for schools such as Rocketship.  For some children it is an incredible program and for others it is not a match.  So, comments such as this article makes about quality, sophistication and outcomes is much to general to be of use to anyone, much less educators who must make the decision on what educational materials to buy for their students.

    • Anonymous

      There’s a lot still to parse out, to be sure, Marc. This post reflects what I’ve been hearing from folks like Samouha, and I’m hoping it will open up discussion among educators. I’d love to hear from administrators and teachers about their thoughts on literacy software programs they’ve worked with.

  • Bearsden33

    Take a look at my400words :)

  • eric rosenblum

    another issue at hand here is that literacy is categorized by both interest and grade level, while most math programs are taught by just  grade level. This makes them easier for teachers to use in the classroom (I’m not saying that’s better). I’ve always tried to mix math and literacy in my teaching, and think it would be great if more ‘math programs’ did that as well. 

    Eric
    mathstory.com

  • Jullie

    Math is inevitable, but our students are more likely to
    avoid math and thus they are not able to compete with the international
    students. They are lagging behind. I have recently found and bought tutorteddy math curriculum for my
    daughter. They have used the techniques that have been around for last 100
    years, they use the similar curriculum used by Thomas Edison and other American
    inventors. The curriculum is cheap and reusable.

  • http://twitter.com/livepaths livepaths

    With so many academics uploading great educational videos regarding all sort of math material, a curation proccess need to be implemented.

    One of such efforts is been done by http://Utubersity.com which presents the best educational videos available on Youtube in an organized, easy to find way to watch and learn.
    They are classified and tagged in a way that enables people to find these materials more easily and efficiently and not waste time browsing through pages of irrelevant search results.

    The website also enhances the experience using other means such as recommending related videos, wikipedia content and so on.
    There’s also a spanish version called http://utubersidad.com

  • Millar_s

    There is one HUGE misleading thought about students learning math in this article.  Students do not develop understanding if / after rote memorization of the basic facts.  As a matter of fact, this belief of student learning / understanding of math concepts is why our students are suffering in math classes now.

  • Arthur Levy

    One of the most profound statements I ever heard is that math is a language.  It just happens, at least at the basic level, to have a much simpler structure than English, or Spanish, or whatever spoken language we’re learning how to read.  That makes it easier to design software for.  It’s very finite and consistent.

    I think a lot of it also comes down to formulas.  When you’re memorizing flash cards, your brain is actually learning the formula behind addition, subtraction, multiplication and division — so eventually, you can apply it to numbers you’ve never seen before.  

    The formulas that our brains use to read words and determine meaning are probably much more complex.  What’s intriguing is that we can gather the meaning of spoken words long before we can even approach the concept of basic math.  It’s reading them where things get tricky.For what it’s worth, here’s how I think of this “math vs. literacy” software issue:  when I use Excel, it actually does the math for me.  When I use Word, it only copies what I put in.  So Word can check my spelling, but not my understanding.  But by “knowing” the correct answer, Excel can assess my understanding.  And that has a lot to do with teaching. One last example: even google conducts searches according to mathematical principles.  It can do math, but you couldn’t call it literate.  It can’t tell sense from nonsense.  But its algorithms can tell good math from bad math.To paraphrase Mark Twain, can you teach if you can’t do?

  • Frogwalker

    I think that one of the best software math programs is Teaching Textbooks.  It is an excellent choice for home or school.

  • http://profiles.google.com/siouxgeonz Susan Jones

    I’m among those whose jaw dropped when I read that the math software was considered “better” than literacy software. Perhaps my first clue was that “reading” got to graduate to literacy, while math… crunch the numbers, boys and girls!
        The math software is “better” because we can drill the times tables whether you have any idea waht they mean or not?   First off, the kiddos who don’t kn ow mean tend to forget them and *not* really do so well. 
        We can scaffold concepts more easily in math?   Examples, please?
        Oops. I didn’t think so.  
        Almost every online math material I’ve seen (and the much-lauded Khan Academy is a prime offender) is All About Procedure.   Concepts?   Oh… um… we’ll scaffold to them.  I”m sure *somebody* must be doing that. Right?  
        I don’t think so.
        Show me the evidence that students are learning algebraic concepts online, please!   Modumath is the best I’ve found and it’s not that popular.

    • Gordonst

      A year ago I have might agreed with you. But for the last year, my kids have been using Dreambox, and it has blown me away. It really is teaching concepts. Would highly, highly encourage it for 3rd graders and under.

  • joe Ratner

    Hey Tina, I agree that math concepts can conveyed somewhat easier than literacy, but I’ve seen Math Software programs that basically teach the methodology without conveying the underlying math concept. This is key. The only way to bring out the underlying concept is creating real life situations where the math concept can be applied.

  • http://www.teach-nology.com/worksheets/math/mul/ Multiplication Worksheets

    The math software is great optician for student to learn math problems…. I think this is the better idea for math students….I really like it very much….