Using Digital Tools to Increase Literacy Development: Innovative Best Practices in Chicago

In anticipation of Leaders for Literacy Day on April 14th, CoSN asked several of our partners and volunteer leaders to write a few words about the importance of ed tech to literacy efforts. Below is a blog by Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow.
At Falconer Elementary School in Chicago, school administrators and teachers share a common goal to increase literacy as a critical stepping-stone to enhanced student achievement and success. Given that 44 percent of their student population is English language learners and with a limited set of school and family support resources, the school team needed to think outside of the box to find ways to address this essential goal. For the past two years, Falconer Elementary School has piloted the use of tablet computers with home Internet access to help students gain additional literacy development opportunities both during the school day and after 3 pm. 
Two specific examples from our evaluation of this pilot project illustrate the significant potential of how digital tools can affect student literacy. One such example from this school year where the increased engagement in the learning activity resulted in enhanced reading and writing outcomes was the “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” literary project. With this project, the 5th grade students at Falconer Elementary School along with 5th grade classes from two other schools, one in Massachusetts and one in another part of Illinois, read the book, “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon,” by Grace Lin. The students used their tablets to blog about the different chapters they were reading and participated in online chats with their fellow students at the other schools. The teachers created interdisciplinary activities that helped the students develop online research skills, explore various themes within the book through art projects, and create powerpoint presentations to demonstrate comprehension. The online chats provided the Falconer students a unique opportunity to see the book through the perspective of students that were from very different backgrounds than their own, and to develop online presence skills not often found in 5th graders. The culminating activity within this project was an online “meetup” with the author, Grace Lin, who spent an hour answering students’ questions about the book and her career development as an author. For most of these students, Ms. Lin was the first author they had ever met. Her advice about reading as much as they can, practicing writing and expressing themselves and taking risks to advance learning touched key points that the teachers were emphasizing as well. 
The 1:1 tablet access also enabled the teachers to support the development of increased reading comprehension by facilitating an efficient way for students to read texts that match their current personal reading proficiency levels. In elementary school, teaching nonfiction comprehension skills is often difficult for many teachers but with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, nonfiction reading skills are becoming more important. The challenges associated with incorporating nonfiction materials into instruction are compounded at Falconer by the diversity in reading levels and varying levels of English literacy within the 5th grade. NewsELA ( includes a collection of nonfiction articles about current events and news that are leveled for reading competency, resulting in students across a spectrum of reading levels reading the same or similar articles. The articles encompassed a wide range of topics and thus the teachers could imbed a nonfiction reading activity within science or social studies to increase reading time. A typical lesson would involve the students reading their appropriately leveled NewsELA article on their tablet and then creating a presentation on the tablet to demonstrate their comprehension of the reading content. Both the students and the teachers noted the increased engagement in this type of a learning experience and attributed it to the personalization of the reading level and the inclusion of videos and other multi-media content within the articles. This increased engagement resulted in the students asking to do additional NewsELA assignments at home and their use of the site as their “daily newspaper” to keep up to date on current events, both of which meant additional time spent on reading. 
At Falconer Elementary School, the tablets are critical instructional tools. Combined with high quality digital content, innovative project based learning, and students’ home Internet access, the result is increased engagement and proficiency in literacy activities. Now in its third year, this pilot project continues to explore how digital tools and resources can support increased student literacy, especially with students of limited English proficiency. To learn more about this project or to read the evaluation reports prepared by Project Tomorrow, please visit: