Anyone who’s worked to teach kindergarteners how to read knows that it can be a slippery challenge. Their squirmy bodies are full of energy, which can make it difficult for them to sit still through reading instruction, let alone through an entire text that they’re still struggling to understand.
But this year, my kindergarten class piloted an online learning program, eSpark, that is showing promise in holding those littlest students’ attention — and in helping them make progress in reading. My students spend about 20 minutes practicing reading skills on eSpark and attempting to pass a quest. Each quest assesses one standard and has a combination of reading, questions, and video games. Before taking a quest, students are presented with a direct instruction video teaching the skill — either teachers teaching the skill via video or a song/chant that teaches the skill — using the “what, how, why” model of direct instruction. Then students practice this skill within eSpark until they’re ready to tackle the video game “quest.”
My “eSparkers” can’t wait for independent work time each day so they can tackle another quest, constantly asking if they can use the program — even when it’s time to pack up for dismissal. This keeps them focused and on task: when they’re not working busily on their eSpark quest, they’re making sure their other work is done so they don’t miss a minute of their eSpark time. During guided reading, students rotate through independent reading, eSpark, and reading with me at my guided reading table.
My students are also captivated by the way eSpark allows them to become the teacher as they work to conquer reading standards. In order to pass a quest, students must earn at least an 80% and film themselves teaching the standard. For example, a student may be asked to segment the word “frog.” They would then prepare a script that introduces themselves, explain the answer on video for me to grade and provide feedback. Watching these videos is a great way for me to see whether students truly understand what they’re learning. What’s more, they love watching each others’ videos so much that they clamor to learn from one another in this way.
My students’ excitement and enthusiasm about eSpark is paying off. We receive weekly updates from the program on how they are doing. In the first week, 13 out of our 56 kindergarten students were still working on their first quest. Each week, that list of names shortened, and by our fifth week using eSpark every single student had mastered at least one quest — representing one reading standard — that week by scoring an 80% or higher. Since then, every student masters at least one standard each week, which is raising our reading achievement scores and fostering strong, curious readers who are eager to take on greater challenges.
In addition to the benefits for students, the pilot has helped me as a teacher. eSpark has cut my prep time for guided reading in half: by providing most students access to text and questions that are already targeted right at that student’s current reading level, I no longer need to prepare books and aligned worksheets for the whole class. Instead, I am able to focus my prep time on figuring out ways to reach my toughest students individually and in small groups.
While the program is able to target students individual learning goals, it also builds upon the classroom foundation I’ve established — one full of rigor, personal investment and fun! We’re excited that our school’s transitional kindergarten, kindergarten, and first grade students will continue to use eSpark next year, and hope other Rocketship schools will get to try it out as well.
Lauren Berry is a humanities kindergarten teacher at Rocketship Redwood City Prep and she has been teaching with Rocketship for three years. She is a Bay Area native who was raised by generations of teachers from Redwood City. Lauren is a proud USC grad who strongly believes that “confidence is key.”
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