Learning a lesson

Learning a lesson

To save students from a lifetime of illiteracy, Concordia researchers are turning to the power of the Web
September 8, 2004
At Concordia University's Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance, researchers are harnessing the latest technology to get these students reading and to prevent the failures that result from poor literacy. Along the way, they're hoping they can provide students with the tools they need for a lifetime of success.

“We've learned that reading is the key to school success. The data say that if you don't have good reading skills by Grade 3, you pretty well face a lifetime of difficulty,” says Phil Abrami, the Director of the Montreal-based Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance. “As a result, our special focus in the last while has been to encourage the development of emerging reading skills in young children.”

Abrami and his team at the Centre are developing innovative, multi-faceted software that will help students, teachers, and tutors to assess and evaluate the current reading levels of children, and then customize activities for the areas where they need to focus on improving. They have already developed software, tailored primarily to U.S. curriculums, called “Alfie's Alley.” The software functions as a form of intelligent tutor. It provides tutoring vignettes that pop up just as teachers are about to conduct a lesson. The software then demonstrates the best practices to help students attain particular skills.

A pan-Canadian version of the software, called ABRACADABRA, is created around Canadian curriculum models. With a click of the mouse, children can read and hear stories and fables, spell and sound out words, and follow along with underlined text. The software will be particularly useful for schools and school boards spread out over great distances because teachers can access the materials via the Internet. Perhaps the best feature? It's free. “We're trying to do all this development and support at zero cost to schools. We want schools to profit from us, we don't want to profit from them,” says Abrami.

The Centre is developing ABRACADABRA in conjunction with the Success for All Foundation in the United States (the developers of Alfie's Alley), and will make the Canadian version available on CD and the Web. It also includes a communication platform so that educators working with a student can have access to diagnostic results and notes that teachers and tutors make.

For schools that focus more on the process of learning than the end result, the Concordia researchers have also developed digital portfolio software. E-Portfolio lets students keep a portfolio of their work, in English or French, that they can modify and revise based on their reflections and the result of conferencing with teachers and other students. Students can sit with their teachers, review their work, and talk about how to improve it. Then they can make revisions, produce a new version of the work, and still have the original versions stored. At particular points in the school year, the students can select their best work and put it in a showcase portfolio.

In Quebec, both portfolio and technology integration are at the forefront of educational reform, says Anne Wade, the Centre's administrator. “These tools have been designed with our partners and we know there's a need and desire for them,” she says.

With funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Centre has built two specialized laboratories and a portable lab that can be used with community groups. For example, four times a year, educational consultants in Quebec known as RECIT come to the Centre to test the technology and develop skills that they can pass along to teachers across the province. RECIT is a network of technology-integration resource people who work at developing student competencies—in collaboration with the Quebec English Schools Network.

On another research front, the Centre has a team of researchers working with Norman Segalowitz, the Centre's Associate Director, to explore problems in the acquisition of a second language and to refine ways of teaching a second language. Increasingly, second language learning has become an important area of study in Canada—due to the strong interest in bilingual education and a growing percentage of minority and immigrant learners who need second-language training. A specialized language lab that the CFI funded has helped Segalowitz's team in its research.


Poor literacy skills are directly linked to a student's decision to drop out of school. That's something the researchers at Concordia University's Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance are keenly aware of—and are trying to prevent.

Repeated failures—such as difficulty in learning to read and to comprehend language—are a recipe for poor self-esteem for high-risk students and only serve to discourage them further. “Exposure to failure can have tremendously debilitating effects,” says Phil Abrami the Centre's Director. He stresses that it's not just language-based learning that poses a problem, even mathematics and scientific ability can be obscured by poor literacy, since today's curriculums embed so many math and science problems in word problems.

The software tools that the Centre is developing, such as ABRACADABRA, have the potential to dramatically enhance students' literacy skills and maybe even restore some self esteem—especially for those students most at risk of failing at school. According to the results of an international survey of 15-year-olds published by the OECD in 2002, a full 25 percent of Canadian students performed at low levels of proficiency in reading.

Recent research suggests that the dropout rate, isolation, and disenchantment can all be avoided if students are seized by the attraction of learning. Abrami believes that computers have the potential to increase access to information, make learning more interesting, and encourage learners to become self-directed. But he also knows that learning is a social exercise. That's why the team at Concordia University is promoting the integration of computers and software tools into the classroom so students can collaborate with—and inspire—each other.


To help researchers determine which skills students need, and which tools teachers need, researchers at the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance are teaming up with the experts—educational consultants in Quebec known as RECIT. RECIT is a network of technology-integration resource people who work at developing student competencies—in collaboration with the Quebec English Schools Network. Together, they have formed an organization known as QESN-RECIT that has worked with researchers at the Concordia Centre to develop and test software—like ABRACADABRA and E-Portfolio—that children can access anytime from home or school.