Technology, Writing, and Academic Achievement

Investigator: Mark Warschauer

Funding: Haynes Foundation


In the upper-elementary grades, when U.S. students transition from "learning to read" to "reading to learn," achievement levels start to drop off. This drop off is especially precipitous among students such as Latinos, English language learners, and those of low-socioeconomic status who may lack the academic language proficiency that is needed for making this transition. Such students are disproportionately likely to experience a "fourth grade slump" in reading, writing, and language arts from which they never fully recover, leading to decreased performance in middle school and a high dropout rate in high school. However, there is some evidence that a focus on informative writing, frequent assessment of writing, and effective deployment of new technologies can all help students to successfully manage this transition and thus avoid the fourth grade slump.

Recently, L.A. County's Saugus Union School District implemented in all its fourth grade classes an education reform that was distinguished by three features:

  1. Extensive student writing using blogs, wikis, and other social software
  2. Frequent external assessment of student writing using an automated software program
  3. Sustainable approach to individual student computing based on low-cost mini-laptops, open source software, and open educational resources

After one year of the program, student scores on the English Language Arts California Standards Test increased by 24 percentage points, which, according to the district, represents the highest level of year-to-year student improvement since standardized testing began in California. Initial analysis of data suggests that the Hispanic and low-socioeconomic status groups demonstrated the highest gains in test score outcomes.

Research Design

A one-year mixed methods case study is investigating the impact of the Saugus program on the literacy practices and outcomes of the district's ethnically and linguistically diverse students. Specifically, the study is examining the following:

  • How literacy achievement of fourth grade students in Saugus changed following the first and second years of the program, how that differs among particular groups (e.g., Latinos, English language learners, low-socioeconomic status students), and how these changes compare to changes in comparable school districts
  • How frequently and in what ways students use laptops and whether these differ among particular groups
  • Whether changes in literacy achievement correlate with frequency or type of use of netbooks

Sources of Data

  • Collection and analysis of district and state test score data
  • District-wide survey of fourth-grade teachers and students
  • Observations of classroom instruction
  • Interviews with teachers, staff, students, and parents
  • Examination of district, school, teacher-produced and student-produced documents

Anticipated Benefits

Study findings are expected to illuminate whether and in what ways an educational reform focused on writing, assessment, and sustainable technology can help diverse students avoid the fourth grade slump and successfully transition from learning to read to reading to learn. L.A. and Orange County Departments of Education will help publicize the findings to schools and districts in their areas, and the results will also be incorporated into a book the principal investigator is authoring for Teachers College Press on netbooks and open source software in K-12 education.