In part, the idea of using the SMART Table for teaching ABC Words and Word Families was built on Linda Mechling's research in using SMART Boards to teach word recognition to special needs children. A Journal of Special Education Technology article by Linda Mechling, David Gast and Kimberly Thompson entitled "Comparison of the Effects of Smart Board Technology and Flash Card Instruction on Sight Word Recognition and Observational Learning" was particularly inspiring.
I read this article while thinking about using software to help teach grocery shopping as a daily living skill. I wrote a software simulation of grocery shopping and felt that there was a missing link, that of helping students recognize words on the signs above grocery aisles, associate those words with ideas in the student's mind of what grocery items they wanted to shop for, and to go down specific aisles to find those items. Meckling's article described that missing link, that of using computer aided instruction software or flashcards to match vocabulary words with pictures.
In this article, the researchers stated that "students read a greater percentage of observational words when words were presented using SMART Board technology" and discussed the power of observational learning, where students work in small groups and acquire knowledge by taking turns and observing the content that other students select and properly match up. The researchers concluded that "presentation of materials on a large screen was a more effective means of promoting observational learning of other students' information... The use of large-screen <interactive> technology may be a highly efficient means of increasing the amount of information that a student learns during the same amount of instructional time."
While I thought about grocery shopping word development and Mechling's research, I considered ways to create more effective software to teach word-picture recognition skills. I got a chance to use the SMART 442i, a 42-inch touch screen "coffee table" and began exploring what software was available for the SMART Table. For several years, I had interest in multi-user touch screens and multi-user software, but found that most multi-user software authoring systems were prohibitively expensive. I started experimenting with the SMART Table Toolkit and realized that this authoring tool was a feature-rich multi-user program to create the kind of software that I was thinking about for word-picture recognition skills. Its only major disadvantage is that content you create only runs on a SMART Table.
My colleagues began a dialog on what software was most needed for the SMART Table and we concluded that software which provide support to PALS (Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening) and DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) is the software which is most needed, so I developed ABC Words and Word Families. ABC Words is the first stepping stone in using the SMART Table for early literacy skill development. Word Families is written as step two.
In introducing ABC Words and Word Families to teachers, one of their first reactions to some activities is that it is "too hard." Sometimes they are right, and in those cases, my suggestion is to use the activity modules that match up best to your students skills. However, in field testing we tried those "too hard" modules with students and the teachers usually were surprised in how well the students actually did. The teachers observed that the difficulties that the student group had in mastering some of the content served as a scaffold to increase individual student literacy skills. "Teacher intervention" seems to be the key to facilitating this scaffolding, where the teacher provides guidance to the challenges the students encounter when using the software, by asking questions to facilitate participation, collaboration and meaningful discussion, by encouraging turn-taking, and by providing appropriate praise and reinforcement.
This software can be used independently by students as a learning center in the classroom. However, the students will gain the most out of the experience when it is a mentor-led activity, whether that mentor is the teacher, a paraprofessional or even a coached parent or more mature student.
We should not assume that one use of this software demonstrates student mastery. The beauty of computer aided instruction is that it provides endless repetition, as needed, to help the student master knowledge, that students have good and bad days, and students will sometimes regress. ABC Words and Word Families does not "measure" student achievement, it serves merely as a supplemental support to the wonderful job you are doing of teaching literacy skills in your classroom. It is my hope that it accellerates word and word meaning mastery for your students and acts as a "missing link" and as a motivator for struggling students who are trying to master pre-reading skills, so they are not left behind. I also hope that it serves as a meaningful and enjoyable group activity, where student cohorts can socially interact together in shared learning in a positive and mentally healthy way. I hope you can make these dreams a reality.