Proficient reading relies on a solid foundation of oral language skills including phonological awareness, vocabulary, structural analysis (morphology), discourse processing, and pragmatics (Lesaux and Geva 2006). In addition, effective reading requires the ability to master phonics and demonstrate fluent word recognition skills. Difficulties in one or more of these areas can pose challenges in learning to read (August and Shanahan 2006). Unfortunately, difficulties in these areas are frequently seen among students in the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (U.S. Department of Education 2015), only one-third of fourth graders scored at a proficient level in reading and scores did not improve between 2013 and 2015. Weaknesses in reading are even more pronounced for students identified as English Learners (ELs). Based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (U.S. Department of Education 2015), a striking 92% of students who are ELs scored below the proficient level in reading compared to 62% of non-ELs.
Approximately 10% of students in the United States are ELs (U.S. Department of Education 2015), and this percentage is expected to rise to approximately 25% by 2030 (Cheung and Slavin 2012). A key contributor to the academic difficulties faced by ELs is that nearly 70% are from a low socioeconomic status (SES) background (National Education Association 2008), which includes lower family incomes, poorer neighborhoods, lower parental education levels, and more limited educational resources than students who are non-ELs (Goldenberg et al. 2006). These social inequalities contribute to discrepancies in academic achievement as students progress through elementary school (Vadasy and Sanders 2011). For students from low SES backgrounds, 80% failed to meet reading proficiency milestones (Campaign for Grade-Level Reading 2014) as students from low-SES families are less likely to have experiences that develop fundamental reading acquisition skills, such as phonological awareness, vocabulary, and oral language (Buckingham et al. 2013). In 2011, students who were eligible for free or reduced lunch (an indicator of low SES) scored 17 points lower in reading than students not eligible (U.S. Department of Education 2011) and the achievement gap between National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and non-NSLP students has not narrowed since 2003 (NEA 2008). These reports indicate that SES is closely intertwined with EL status, and that low SES factors are likely contributors to academic difficulties faced by ELs.
Studies have shown that students who are ELs typically follow the same trajectory as non-ELs in learning to read. For instance, ELs and non-ELs take similar paths in developing phonological awareness (Gersten and Geva 2003) as well as phonics and word recognition skills (Lesaux et al. 2006). However, in terms of comprehending written materials, non-ELs generally outperform ELs, often due to limitations in vocabulary and word knowledge seen with ELs (Lesaux et al. 2006). These limitations contribute to academic discrepancies found in ELs compared to non-ELs. For instance, students who enter kindergarten with limited English skills have lower achievement levels than non-ELs by grade five, with large to moderate effects, depending on demographic risk factors such as SES (Kieffer 2008).
The best approaches to teach reading to non-ELs often apply to ELs, including explicit instruction in phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, structural analysis, fluency, and reading comprehension strategies (August et al. 2014; Gersten and Geva 2003; Vadasy and Sanders 2011). Classroom instruction should incorporate clear objectives and frequent assessments of student progress (Goldenberg 2012), be applicable to students at all reading levels, allow for personalized learning, and utilize texts matched to reading ability (Espinoza 2008; Goldenberg 2012). Instruction should also provide ample opportunity for exposure to academic printed materials, encourage independent reading, and foster oral/written communication about reading contents (Francis et al. 2006).
The features described above set the bar for quality reading instruction. However, even with most of these features in place, ELs may still lag behind non-ELs, especially in the area of reading comprehension (August and Shanahan 2006). As highlighted by Goldenberg (2012), traditional classroom practices alone may be insufficient to aid ELs in learning advanced academic materials and thus closing the achievement gap with non-ELs.
Research has shown that ELs may benefit from intensive interventions that extend beyond typical classroom instruction, including use of 1-to-1 tutorial sessions or small group instruction. For instance, Vadasy and Sanders (2011) implemented a supplemental phonics program in 1-to-1 tutorials lasting 120 min per week over 20 weeks. The program produced significant gains in word reading for EL first graders, but only for students with higher oral vocabulary scores. In an earlier study, Kamps et al. (2007) examined the effects of direct phonics instruction in a year-long, small group intervention with first and second grade ELs and reported that intervention students showed superior oral reading fluency scores compared to ELs receiving typical classroom instruction. More recently, Begeny et al. (2012) implemented a reading fluency program called Helping Early Literacy with Practice Strategies (HELPS). This program requires 1-to-1 instruction with a trained adult and is implemented outside of the classroom. ELs receiving HELPS showed significant benefits in reading fluency and comprehension compared to ELs not receiving the intervention (Begeny et al. 2012).
A few studies have reported that technology-based interventions may be beneficial for ELs. For instance, Troia (2004) found that Fast ForWord Language, a highly-intensive program featuring acoustically modified speech, helped improve expressive language and word recognition in low performing ELs. Macaruso and Rodman (2011a) examined Lexia Reading, a supplemental phonics program, and found significant benefits for EL kindergartners in phonological awareness and word recognition. Rodríguez et al. (2012) also used Lexia Reading and found superior gains in reading comprehension when EL first graders received instructions in their native language (Spanish) rather than English. In general, these results are consistent with other studies showing that use of technology can support reading development in at-risk students (e.g., Cassady and Smith 2005; Hecht and Close 2002; Macaruso et al. 2006; Macaruso and Walker 2008; Macaruso and Rodman 2011b; Mitchell and Fox 2001; Saine et al. 2011; Torgesen et al. 2001).
The studies reviewed above point to the benefits of interventions for ELs, including use of technology-based programs. However, with educational budget cuts, teacher shortages, and increasing percentages of ELs, the need for quality instruction without the time commitment and resource-heavy elements often seen in intervention studies is becoming increasingly important. Blended learning, an approach that integrates technology with teacher-led instruction in the context of a typical classroom, may be particularly well-suited to address these issues and has recently grown in popularity in grades K-12 (Staker and Horn 2012; Powell et al. 2015). Blended learning allows one to address all aspects of effective instruction for ELs in a more efficient manner, using technology to support teacher-led instruction, including personalization and data collection to inform differentiated instruction (Christensen et al. 2013). Preliminary findings from a small-scale study with a subsample of ELs (Schechter et al. 2015) suggest that a blended learning approach may be particularly effective for ELs; however, more evidence is needed.
Blended learning incorporates face-to-face, teacher-led instruction in conjunction with student-led digital activities in order to provide students with a personalized educational path (Horn and Staker 2011). With blended learning, students have some degree of control over the content, pace, time, and location of their learning (Powell et al. 2015). Real-time data often provided through digital technology in a blended learning approach help teachers differentiate instruction according to students’ varied progress (Horn and Staker 2011; Hilliard 2015). Based on the potential benefits of blended learning over traditional instructional models, blended learning is gaining popularity not only for targeted populations, but also in general education settings (Horn and Staker 2011).
Blended learning can take various forms, thus allowing users to adapt a program that best fits their pedagogical goals and physical setting. Blended learning may include a station rotation, computer lab rotation, flipped classroom, enriched virtual, or individual rotation among other forms (Horn and Staker 2011; Christensen et al. 2013). In elementary schools, such as the current study, a station rotation is a commonly implemented form of blended learning. This form is considered a good fit for elementary schools because it builds upon the traditional classroom model of activity-centers (Evans 2012). In a station rotation, students rotate in small groups within the classroom to stations, including at least one digital component (Powell et al. 2015). A lab rotation, also implemented in elementary schools, consists of students visiting a computer laboratory for the digital component of blended learning. In some cases, schools take an eclectic approach to blended learning, utilizing both station and lab rotations (and even home use of the digital technology); together with teacher-led whole class and/or small group instruction.
Research regarding the potential benefits of blended learning is limited, especially in elementary school settings. In studies that have explored blended learning in higher education, students in a blended learning program self-reported as more motivated (Vaughan 2014), more supported (Lim et al. 2014), and provided with more helpful resources (Kim 2014) than peers in traditional classes. In both higher education and high schools, blended learning is being used to personalize learning by providing students with a larger variety of courses than can be offered in traditional classes (Hilliard 2015; Picciano et al. 2012).
Blended learning approach used in study schools
The current study explored the benefits of a blended learning approach to support reading skills in ELs and non-ELs at the elementary school level. The blended learning approach utilized in this study, Lexia Reading Core5
® (Core5; Lexia Learning 2014) was chosen based on prior studies of demonstrated efficacy (Schechter et al. 2017; Schechter et al. 2015; O’Callaghan et al. 2016) as well as features that address key areas of effective instruction, including clear objectives, frequent assessments of student progress, personalized learning, and ample opportunities for exposure to academic printed materials (Espinoza 2008; Francis et al. 2006; Goldenberg 2012). The program is designed to accelerate reading skills in students who are behind their peers as well as sustain and increase progress for on-level and above-level readers. The contents of the program were developed for students in preschool through grade five and provide a structured (i.e., explicitly teaches word identification and decoding), sequential approach to instruction in the domains of phonological awareness, phonics, structural analysis, automaticity/fluency, vocabulary and comprehension/higher order thinking skills. (See the Appendix for a detailed description of the skills/strategies covered in each domain as well as activity examples). Core5 is aligned by grade level to the Common Core State Standards in reading (corestandards.org). It contains 18 levels of material, subdivided into 89 activities and 1,243 units, each of which takes 4-8 min to complete. Core5 was integrated into the classroom’s standard English Language Arts (ELA) program.
Integrations of Core5 into each school’s standard ELA curriculum often involved use of a station rotation or lab rotation model. Within a station rotation model in the classroom, students’ recommended program use time can be used to prioritize which students should spend time on the online program. In a lab rotation, a whole class can use Core5, allowing each student to work on skills appropriate to his or her needs. Students who need extra help can be pulled for a Lexia Lesson, either in the classroom or lab with a teacher or support personnel. Students in this study began Core5 through an adaptive auto placement tool, which places a student at their actual skill level, which may or may not align with their grade in school. For example, students may begin working on a Core5 level two or more grades below their grade level, one grade below their grade level, or in/above their grade level. Mastery of skills (90–100% accuracy) within a level is required to advance to the next level. The program provides immediate corrective feedback and explicit instruction when students struggle with an online activity.
For each activity in Core5, students begin in the standard step of instruction. For example, in Level 8 (Mid-End Grade 1 Skills), students address depth of vocabulary knowledge by focusing on multiple meanings of words. They read regular, single-syllable words (e.g., bat, pen, kid) and choose the two pictures (e.g., a baseball bat and a small black flying animal) out of six that illustrate two different meanings of these words. If students make an error, they move to the guided practice step, which simplifies the task to support skill acquisition. Scaffolds or modifications in this step may include removing choices, simplifying visual components, adjusting the complexity of language, changing the presentation of the task, or providing embedded support. In the above activity, the number of words is reduced to the ones they are struggling with and there are only three pictures to choose from. If students continue to make errors, they move to the instruction step, which explicitly teaches the skill, again focusing on students’ specific errors. In the example, the two meanings of the word “bat” are defined for students and they choose the appropriate picture based on the word “bat” used in a sentence (e.g., She swings the bat at the ball.). This scaffolding provides students with an opportunity to learn and practice skills in a supported environment.
Based on performance in the online program, Core5 specifies an individualized Prescription of Intensity (ranging from 20 to 80 min per week) designed to increase students’ chances of completing reading levels corresponding to their grade level [i.e., reaching End-of-Year (EOY) Benchmark]. Prescription of Intensity is based on students’ Performance Predictor, which indicates students’ likelihood of reaching EOY Benchmark. Performance Predictors were derived from logistic regression analyses of performance data from normed samples of users. Predictors are grouped into three risk levels (On Target, Some Risk, and High Risk) and can be interpreted as: “If this student continues to work at the same pace for the same amount of time as last month, his/her chance of reaching EOY Benchmark is X %.” Larger Prescriptions of Intensity are given to Some and High Risk students in order to increase their chances of reaching EOY Benchmark.
Core5 also contains online teacher reports which allow for careful monitoring of students’ progress and provide teachers with data-driven action plans and paper–pencil activities to differentiate instruction. Paper–pencil activities which include Lexia Lessons and Lexia Skill Builders allow students to meet the full set of Common Core State Standards by providing opportunities to work on skills that cannot be addressed through online activities alone. Standards that involve expressive language are particularly well-suited to the format of these off-line activities. Through the Lexia Lessons and the Lexia Skill Builders, students are encouraged to integrate spoken and written language skills as they build their listening, reading, speaking and writing abilities. Lexia Lessons can be taught in small groups with the teacher, and students may work independently or with peers using Lexia Skill Builders to further develop automaticity and expand expressive language skills. Before/after school and home use are also possible means of implementing aspects of Core5 as a blended learning approach.
Professional development training, comprised of two 90–180 min sessions, was delivered to participating schools by an implementation staff affiliated with Lexia Learning who have backgrounds in K-12 education. The first training session provided strategies for integrating Core5 within the classroom setting and the second focused on effective use of online teacher reports to track student progress and provide instruction based on the data collected through the program. The importance of integrating Lexia Lessons and Skill Builders with the online program was highlighted. During the school year, the implementation staff monitored student use of the program and provided support to schools to boost program use if schools were not meeting usage fidelity.
Schools were able to choose when they wanted to receive each of the two sessions. Typically, the first session of training occurred prior to the first use of Core5 by students. The second training usually occurred after a few months of data had been collected within the program. Schools also had access to online training guides, reference manuals, a video library called Training On Demand, and customer support services (via phone or email).
Given that data continually indicate that reading skills for students in the U.S. are not improving and that students who are English Learners underperform in reading compared to students who are not English Learners, this paper explores if there is a benefit to using a blended learning approach to reading instruction and if the blended learning approach can support reading growth for both ELs and non-ELs. As such, a blended learning approach to reading instruction was evaluated over two school years and the following research questions were addressed:
To what extent can a blended learning approach support reading growth over the course of one school year for:
ELs compared to non-ELs?
At-risk ELs compared to at-risk non-ELs?
To what extent can a blended learning approach support reading growth over the course of two school years for:
ELs compared to non-ELs?
At-risk ELs compared to at-risk non-ELs?