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Leveraging Technology for Learning: a Q&A with Dr. Ted Hasselbring

Girl Reading Ipad 472

As we head to ISTE 2016 in Denver, we had a chat with Dr. Ted Hasselbring, a professor at Vanderbilt University who conducts research on the use of technology to help struggling students learn to read. We discussed everything from what we’re discovering about learning and the brain to how education technology is benefiting students—along with what gets kids excited about learning.

HMH: What do we know about the brain and how students learn that we didn’t know 5 years ago?

Dr. Ted Hasselbring

Dr. Ted Hasselbring

Ted Hasselbring: I use neural imaging research to guide what I do around the technology. The more we learn, the more we realize what we don’t know.

One thing we definitely know is that there is a difference between struggling learners and those who don’t struggle. There are differences in brain activity in those who are competent readers versus those who aren’t.

For example, kids who read well use the left part of the brain more than the right when they are reading. With kids who struggle, we see it’s the right side of the brain that’s working harder—and there is a delay in brain activity.

In children with reading challenges, the connectivity between key parts of the brain that controls reading functions isn’t as strong. Connectivity improves with reading intervention, especially in kids at a young age. We see that with intervention the brain scans of struggling readers’ brains look more like the scans of those who don’t struggle.

We also know that the brains of very young kids who receive well-structured reading support and intervention start to look more like those of kids without reading problems. So the good news is that the brain can change. The question is: are all of the kids who need reading intervention actually getting it?

HMH: How has this information informed adaptive technology and instruction?

TH: Reading intervention programs like READ 180 (which I helped to create) have to be very focused and deliberate when it comes to corrective feedback as students read— and include lots of practice to support the brain functions most in need of development. Not every struggling reader has the same problem, such as decoding words or lack of background knowledge or vocabulary, and technology is getting better at identifying what individual problems are. That means we can better adapt teaching methods to provide students with appropriate instruction at the point in time when they need it most.

HMH: Knowing what you have discovered about the way students learn, what are some strategies teachers can use in the classroom to engage struggling learners?

TH: The greatest motivator for struggling readers is success. We need to find a way to provide them with instruction and opportunities to meet them at their reading level so they experience success. This can pay off for the teacher.

We can’t only rely on technology. There needs to be interaction between teacher and technology. Teachers need to know what instruction is needed and support the student off the computer. With technology, we are better at collecting data to see where a student is and how they have been performing. These tools are readily available today in ways that just weren’t there five years ago.

The best reward is to hear kids say, “I’ve read a book for the first time in my life.” And they are so proud of themselves. They are excited about their own growth and they want to see their Reading Inventory score go up. Success is very motivating to them.

Reading Intervention

HMH: What are some ways in which technology can be leveraged to accelerate learning in struggling students?

TH: There are lots of ways. One way that’s critical is building deliberate practice in areas of need. What we know about practice and the brain is that practice builds neural pathways for speed and accuracy.

Technology can move at the pace of the student—whether they take longer or not. It lets kids master necessary skills until they are really good at something. It doesn’t force them to move on, and it provides practice at sentence level or at a word level for specific help. This kind of tailored practice is what we focus on and that’s what we are delivering to the students.

A lot of struggling readers have a lack of background knowledge, which determines your level of text for reading. Consider the challenge of reading text when you don’t have background knowledge of the content. You might be able to read the words, but you can’t build a mental model of what the author is talking about. By providing resources that build background knowledge, technology helps students develop powerful mental models for reading.

HMH: Today’s students have grown up with technology—in most cases since their toddler years. Has this exposure to technology at a young age changed what we know about how kids learn?

TH: Many kids grow up with technology like smart phones and tablets from birth. At the same time, there are many who don’t have access to it and they are at a disadvantage. I’m not convinced technology necessarily changes the way we learn. The transmission of learning may be different, but it doesn’t change the way we learn. The medium changes the way we access info—technology makes that access easier.

Not all students have the access to technology we might think they have; there are a lot of struggling students who aren’t getting the access they need and it’s important to remember that fact. We have a lot of solutions, but they’re not available to all kids for a variety of reasons. And I always find that hard.

Kids get so excited about learning. For children who have struggled and get to experience success, it’s life changing for them. I wish more students had that opportunity.

If you’re going to ISTE, be sure to stop by the HMH booth #1711 to meet Dr. Hasselbring and experience our interactive reading brain on a plasma screen.


Dr. Ted Hasselbring is a Professor of Special Education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. Over the past twenty-five years, Dr. Hasselbring has conducted research on the use of technology for enhancing learning in students with mild disabilities and those who are at-risk of school failure.

Dr. Hasselbring has authored more than 100 articles and book chapters on learning and technology and serves on the editorial boards of six professional journals. He is also the author of several computer programs, including READ 180 and System 44. Between 2000 and 2006, Dr. Hasselbring left Vanderbilt and served as the Executive Director of the National Assistive Technology Research Institute at the University of Kentucky. In the fall of 2006, Dr. Hasselbring returned to Vanderbilt, where he had been a Professor of Special Education and Codirector of the Learning Technology Center for 18 years. Dr. Hasselbring is a graduate of Indiana University, earning a Bachelor of Science Degree in 1971, a Master of Arts in Teaching Degree with a major in Biology in 1972, and an Ed.D. in Special Education in 1979.

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