March 5, 1999
Contact: Peggy Shaw, (615) 322-NEWS, [email protected]

Vanderbilt Little Planet Literacy Series Ushers Children into World of Reading

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - For years educators have told parents that reading to their children from the earliest age was the key to developing good readers. But what about the children whose parents either didn't, or couldn't, read to their children? A program developed at the Learning Technology Center at Vanderbilt University's Peabody College, and used in some 3,000 classrooms nationwide as well as Canada and Japan, tackles that dilemma with an innovative literacy series combining CD-ROM technology with old-fashioned story-telling, which the students themselves complete.

The results have been impressive. During a three-month summer school program last year, the overall reading comprehension scores of children in which the program is being used increased 8.3 points. A 2-point gain is considered statistically significant. The increase for students not participating in the project was only 1.1. In addition, students who have used the program have shown greater fluency and more complexity in their reading and writing, making important gains on letter identification, word identification and listening comprehension.

The award-winning program responsible for all this success is called the Little Planet Literacy Series. Based on studies indicating that for children to become successful readers they must have a firm grasp of how stories work, Little Planet helps children see a sort of animated vision of a story in their minds. "Children who did not acquire this skill on a parent's lap at home were stepping into the classroom with little or no understanding of story structure and were at a definite disadvantage," said Diana Sharp, a Vanderbilt senior research associate who directed development of the Little Planet series. "They found it difficult to make sense of stories and hard to recall those stories long enough to think deeply about them or participate in class discussions." (more)

Through an original grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Office of Special Education, the series was developed in cooperation with Little Planet Publishing by combining computer software, learning theory and proven instructional techniques. Designed for kindergarten through second-grade students, Little Planet encourages the development of listening, reading and writing skills through the use of video and software materials. The series was recently acquired by Houghton Mifflin Co., and Sharp and her colleagues are now developing a similar program for third-graders.

Little Planet is an imaginary world populated by a cast of fanciful animal woodland characters, including Owly-Bear, Ribbit and Sniraffe, who must outwit a villain or trickster and can only succeed by writing and reading stories. As a series of pictures and a substantive storyline unfolds, the children create their own narration and enter it into the computer using both their voices and written words.

Originally developed for children at-risk of failure in school, the series appeals to children with a broad range of skills. "What's been exciting over the years is to see how video and computer software have the flexibility to challenge kids of all skill levels," Sharp said.

Since the program is on CD-ROM, any part of the story can be revisited while it's being discussed. "Because of that, you can pose much more complex problems and provide different levels of support for different children," Sharp explained.

The program isn't all high-tech. In addition to computers and videodiscs, students use traditional paper, pencils and books to do a variety of class activities related to each Little Planet story. Rather than fabricating an isolated environment - a frequent criticism of technology in the classroom - Little Planet creates a sense of community, researchers have found.

"It's highly motivating and everyone can be drawn into the story, no matter what their background knowledge," said Sharp.

A 1996 study indicated that classes using Little Planet fare better on standardized tests than those without it, even when students have the same teachers. The results of a 1993-94 study involving extremely high-verbal children from a private school and low-verbal children from an inner city school were even more remarkable. Researchers found that the low-verbal children - after using a Little Planet video only once and then participating in the story sequencing and bookmaking activities - scored at the same levels of comprehension and ability to discuss as the verbally advanced children. (more)

"These results validate that with the intensive support provided by the video and software in the Little Planet Literacy Series, disadvantaged children can achieve high levels of comprehension for a very complex story, and can participate in a high-level discussion of that story," Sharp said.

Teacher Sharon Neil has observed the series' results firsthand with her first-grade students at Tom Joy Elementary School in Nashville. "Before Little Planet, I would read them a story and have a hard time getting feedback," she said. "Now they all have an opinion and want to share it."

Since its debut in 1992, the series has received numerous awards, including Technology & Learning magazine's 1997 Top Winner award and the coveted 1997 CODIE Award given by the Software Publishers Association for the best curriculum software for early education. The series has also been a winner of Learning magazine's Teachers' Choice Award. With last month's acquisition of Little Planet by Houghton Mifflin Co. - home of such children's literature classics as Curious George and Paddington Bear - Little Planet will get the chance to be even more widely distributed to classrooms around the world.

In the meantime, Sharp and her colleagues will be at work creating new adventures for Ribbit, Baldy, Wongo and other Little Planet characters that will make it possible for the program to be used from kindergarten through elementary school.

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