Digital Literacy Lessons

Ask a classroom of 35 sixth graders to open their texts to a chapter on friction, gravity, and kinetics. Chances are the groans will be audible. Instead ask the same class, “Would you know how a roller coaster works?” The response will likely be much more positive, and students can learn the identical skills.

Students can do just that using Energy Transfer in a Roller Coaster, one of 40 self-paced interactive lessons created by the WGBH Education Department for Inspiring Middle School Literacy. This initiative, supported by the Walmart Foundation, is designed to close the achievement gap between middle- and low-income students by increasing literacy skills.

In a middle school class in Hull, Massachusetts, Paul and his classmates used another lesson to learn about how various animals have adapted to survive winter, reinforcing key science vocabulary such as adaptation, camouflage, and migration. Their teacher was available to move from student to student, providing support as needed. If a student required review, the videos were there to watch again. As a result, there was no embarrassment about “not keeping up,” as the activities and reinforcement unfolded at a pace comfortable for each student.

Literacy = Success

The middle school years mark a pivotal time for literacy, when students have—ideally—developed sufficient skills to read and comprehend increasingly complex texts across disciplines. However, if their abilities are lacking, they are at great risk of losing academic traction. Middle school teachers are typically trained in subject areas, not in literacy education, and as a result, may be inadequately prepared to help struggling readers.

Research has repeatedly linked proficient literacy skills to future academic success as well as to earning potential. The Walmart Foundation recognized the urgency implicit here: if students have not acquired adequate literacy skills by the time they arrive in high school, they often stay behind.

To increase literacy outcomes for economically disadvantaged students, the Walmart Foundation collaborated with WGBH to create and deliver 40 free research-based, media-rich lessons across core subjects for grades 5 through 8.

This shared commitment to academic and lifetime success for underserved students is helping move the needle before struggling middle schoolers lose traction.

Media and Technology Motivate

Inspiring Middle School Literacy provides novel, dynamic resources for teaching essential literacy skills. The lessons are categorized into English language arts, social studies, science and health, and mathematics. Every lesson correlates to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS); however, what renders these lessons unique is their interdisciplinary, media-based, self-paced, and interactive design as well as a richness in humor and surprise. Twenty years of data shows that integrating technology and media in the classroom increases student engagement and improves reading and writing at all grades and levels.

Students are able to work online either independently or in groups, depending on their needs and shared interests. The program’s self-paced nature makes it easier for teachers to assist all students, whether they are lagging, thriving, or in the middle of the continuum. As a result, every student feels supported, and confidence is boosted. As one teacher remarked, “These lessons work wonders for my small-group setting. They engage my students to their fullest potential.”

Inspiring Middle School Literacy lives on PBS LearningMedia, where comprehensive and engaging teacher materials are also available.

Watch this video to learn more about the initiative:

WGBH is PBS’s largest producer for television and the Web as well as one of the nation’s leading producers of media-based resources to support teaching and learning. Working with curriculum experts, WGBH recognized that the way to increase literacy is to provide engaging content and meet middle school readers and writers where they live: in the digital world. One module teaches how to multiply fractions using a recipe for chocolate cupcakes, using videos that demonstrate how to measure and combine ingredients. Another lesson introduces students to the topic of social change via archival footage of Hispanic baseball player Roberto Clemente.

Each lesson covers a variety of literacy skills, including reading, vocabulary development, note taking, organizing content, and composition. Supporting video is drawn from the extraordinary library of award-winning programming from WGBH and other PBS stations. Shows such as NOVA, American Experience, Cyberchase, and FRONTLINE are featured. By seamlessly blending the media and the embedded activities, the lessons support students as they improve literacy proficiency, develop critical and creative reasoning skills, expand content awareness and vocabulary, and thereby increase their chances of academic success.

Results-Based Learning

The Walmart Foundation's investment is making a difference. Hezel Associates, an education research, evaluation, and strategic planning firm, conducted an outside evaluation of Inspiring Middle School Literacy. Evaluators asked 300 students in Malden, North Attleboro, Fall River, and Ludlow, MA, to complete five lessons. Students demonstrated an 8% increase in vocabulary, and the greater the exposure, the higher the gains, particularly for low-literacy students. This replicates research that has consistently shown that multiple exposures to a word are necessary to commit it to memory and thereby increase vocabulary. Repetition is particularly important for students who speak English as a second language, or are less likely to speak English at home.

The Walmart Foundation and WGBH also recognized that outstanding teaching materials don’t make a difference unless teachers know where to find them and how to use them. The Walmart Foundation provided dedicated funding for WGBH to design an ambitious outreach plan to publicize the program, train teachers, and provide support. WGBH created a toolkit for PBS stations to use with teachers as a promotional vehicle; over 50 presentations have been made at national and regional education conferences; a newsletter is sent out regularly; and WGBH has run training and webinars for teachers at over 100 PBS stations, from North Dakota to southern California. Using social media, conference presentations, and the strong ties of public broadcasting to local communities, enormous interest has been generated.

A teacher who attended webinars and uses the lessons told us: “This is a fabulous resource. I like how some schools are using the program both in the classroom and for some after-school programs. The advantage is that each child works at his or her own pace and has such HUGE rewards.”

As of September 2013, Inspiring Middle School Literacy had 123,000 page views from 90,000 unique visitors. Over 2,000 teachers and 71,000 students have accessed the materials. After-school program providers and tutors are another large set of ideal users. WGBH has held workshops for AmeriCorps school volunteers and is working to include more extended-day practitioners in outreach activities. A training module for after-school providers is available as part of the collection.

In addition, WGBH has received comments from parents who use the resources at home.

The greatest success is witnessed in the classroom, where teachers and students are reminded that lessons can be dynamic and fun and need not be intimidating or flat. After using Inspiring Middle School Literacy with her class, and watching the students interact with each other and the materials, one teacher joked, “With such great resources, who needs teachers?” The answer is clear: the relationship between teacher and student is profound and irreplaceable, and great materials support great teaching!