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Taylor Wiester, left, a second grade teacher at Holy Cross School, assists student Julia Hernandez Wiley with independent spelling work during Lexia small group rotations March 13. DANIKA LANG/STAFF

Blended learning spurs reading, math success

Blended learning works, and the Archdiocese of Omaha Catholic Schools Office (CSO) has the numbers to prove it.

The blended learning initiative is a new CSO program in which technology is used to improve  instruction in math and reading in grades K-8. The project was organized in 2013, piloted during the 2017-18 school year and is now in its first year of full implementation. 

Currently 19 elementary schools in the archdiocese have chosen to use the curriculum in their classrooms, said Greg Monroe, CSO’s blended learning facilitator.

The initiative was made possible by $1.5 million in funds from Ignite the Faith, a capital campaign begun in 2011 to address long-term needs in the archdiocese. The money is being used to purchase tablets and license software to use in the math and reading programs in each school. 

As the technology is implemented, the cost of the program, which is approximately $50 per student per school year, is assumed by the school as a standard operating cost, Monroe said. 

DATA DRIVEN

Two software programs are used in the initiative: Lexia Learning for reading and ALEKS (Assessment of Learning in Knowledge Spaces) for math. Both applications present students with a series of questions, and based on their responses, the programs determine whether the student is performing above, below, or at grade level according to curriculum standards. The programs then target skills that students are missing or need to practice, supplementing the teacher’s classroom instruction, Monroe said.

Students using blended learning have experienced significant academic growth since the beginning of the school year, Monroe said. Using Lexia, middle schoolers considered advanced for their grade in vocabulary have increased from 10 to 36 percent, in grammar have increased from 10 to 21 percent, and in comprehension have increased from 27 to 44 percent. Also, the most advanced readers have gained an average of 1.6 grade levels since the beginning of the year, he said.

Blended learning instruction is designed to work with classroom rotations, so that while some students are working independently with the programs, others receive individual attention from their teachers to review similar concepts.

By logging student results in a common database, ALEKS and Lexia allow teachers to see what skill sets students have attempted and what skills they have mastered. This way, teachers can monitor what students are working on and observe common trends.

By collecting this data, the applications enable teachers to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of individual students and the classroom as a whole, Monroe said. 

“The ability to meet a child’s needs at their instructional level is critical,” said Carrie O’Donnell Brink, a parent at Holy Cross School in Omaha. 

O’Donnell Brink’s daughter Mari uses Lexia at school and has steadily progressed through its levels. Using Lexia keeps her daughter engaged and motivated, which has contributed to her improvement in reading, she said.

“All kids are different, and dialing into specific needs of a child is an effective way to increase their progress,” she said. “Data is powerful and should drive instruction.”

INDIVIDUALIZED INSTRUCTION

Taylor Wiester, a second grade teacher at Holy Cross, likes Lexia because it lets her focus on each student as an independent learner. 

Each child is equipped with his or her own unique set of objectives designed to fill in missing skills and gaps in learning, she said. “The students each have a goal that they meet, so I have some students who need to get four units a week and some students who need to get 12 units a week in order to progress them to grade level.”

Their placement is based on an initial assessment by the program and they are moved through the lessons based on the skills they are able to master, Wiester said.

Lexia helps her modify her teaching so that each student receives instruction at an appropriate level, she said. “When I’m with my small groups, I’m able to know where my students are and what skills they need. Lexia will tell me where they’re struggling so I’m really able to touch on those.”

ROOM TO GROW

Nicole Janssen, a seventh and eighth grade math and science teacher at Ss. Peter and Paul School in Omaha, believes the programs are also beneficial for students who need additional challenge in the classroom. “I think ALEKS has been the best for our students who are excelling in math because it provides them that opportunity; they can always move up,” she said.

“There’s really no end to ALEKS,” she said. “It goes all the way through pre-calculus and so that really allows those students to go above and beyond instruction and really flourish and discover new things on their own. It continues to spark that desire to accomplish more in math.” 

Janssen noted that ALEKS aligns with the curriculum she covers during whole group instruction. Students either get to preview or review the content with ALEKS as a second learning method, she said.

ENGAGEMENT AND MOTIVATION

Blended learning not only guides teacher instruction, it also challenges and motivates students to deepen their skill sets. “When you get onto the next level it always feels good,” said Rosie Anderson, one of Wiester’s second graders at Holy Cross. 

Some of the activities on ALEKS are game-based, so students don’t necessarily realize that they’re doing math, said Janssen.

Students are so motivated by their progress that some of them ask to get on Lexia during recess or other free periods throughout the day, Wiester said. 

“It’s good for me to see them excited about succeeding, especially my kids who aren’t as motivated and who struggle a lot more,” Wiester said. “It’s just an awesome moment as a teacher to be able to see them really proud of their work. For them to really be able to celebrate with the rest of the class is something that’s been a really awesome part of this program.”

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