Q&A: Teaching kids how to read on Zoom

A Zoom tutoring session with Ignite! Reading.

A year ago, in the middle of the pandemic, a high-tech literacy project Set up shop at KIPP Bridge Academy in West Oakland. Created by Jessica Reid Sliverski, a former teacher turned literacy specialist. light reading aimed to teach children to read on Zoom, offering one-on-one tuition while eliminating Covid risks.

Students spent about 15 minutes per day working with their Zoom tutor and addressing their individual reading needs. Some KIPP third graders struggled with and awkwardly pronounced simple words like “cat” and “sun,” while others grappled with full sentences. A young boy asked his tutor for hearts, small red stickers to be stamped on the screen, a reward for a job well done.

It turned out to be a transformative move for a high-poverty school that lacked the resources and expertise to improve its literacy outcomes amid the chaos of the pandemic. Ignition spark ignited impressive resultswith K-5 students making an average of 2.4 weeks of reading progress each week in the program.

The ambitious pilot has since grown from 70 students in one school in Oakland to more than 1,200 students in 22 schools across five states today. We recently caught up with Sliverski to talk about her vision for teaching reading, the science of reading, and what it takes to solve the country’s literacy crisis.

Q: As a teacher, when did you first realize that reading difficulties needed help you didn’t know how to give?

A: Unfortunately, I realized that in my first week teaching kids in the Bronx. It was very evident that many children had difficulty reading – not because they couldn’t, but because they didn’t have access to the right instructions. As a 22 year old, new teacher, I didn’t have the solution. No one in my school building did. Now we know a lot about evidence-based practice, the science of reading what works and what doesn’t. My struggling students were the spark that inspired me to build something that will have a deep and lasting impact on generations of students.

Q: You’ve expanded from a pilot in one school to 22 schools across the country. How big are you planning to go?

A: This school year is our final pilot phase before we begin aggressively scaling nationally. Our next milestone is the goal of helping at least 50,000 children over the next four years.

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Doing nothing is not an option. Lack of literacy can reduce a person’s lifetime earnings potential by up to 42%. Before the pandemic, only 35% of fourth graders could read well. Studies have shown a further decline in reading performance, in addition to a widening gap between the best and lowest performers. We believe our model has the power to transform the way children are taught to read in our country so that we can eradicate illiteracy.

Q: How did you eliminate racial differences in performance?

A: We were very encouraged to see that there were no racial performance gaps in our results – colored students made the same impressive progress as white students. Likewise, multilingual learners, special needs students, and students from low-income backgrounds made the same progress as their peers. This is important because it shows how important it is that every child has equal access to learning how to crack the code.

Q: The science of reading has received a lot of attention recently, and yet most school districts still advocate balanced literacy. Why?

A: I want to clarify something. Balanced literacy, when it literally means a balanced approach to ensuring the five pillars of literacy are implemented effectively (the same five pillars that make up the science of reading), is not a bad thing. The bad thing is that there are programs that for years have simply ignored what cognitive research tells us about how the brain learns to read, and have instead focused on ineffective practices that have resulted in generations of children not learning to read.

When a district uses an ineffective curriculum that ignores what reading research tells us about how to implement it effectively all components of literacy (phonological awareness, phonetics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension) and ensuring in a fair way that every child learns to read, it can be extremely difficult for the people who have championed the curriculum and invested millions of dollars to say: “You know what ? We did it wrong and now that we know better, we will do better.”

I also think that the incentives in our country are skewed in the sense that nobody really has to ensure that every single child learns to read on time. If every adult in the system were held accountable, I think we would see people working with more urgency to discard ineffective practices in favor of those that have been shown to produce results in all subgroups of students.

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Q: Do you think one-to-one tuition is the most effective method?

A: Yes, we believe Ignite’s one-to-one tutoring model is the most effective way to teach children to read. We’ve seen incredible progress in our students – a third of our children make three weeks of reading progress for every week in the program. But it has to be done right, and we’re obsessed with the quality of our teaching and how we develop our tutors into highly skilled reading teachers.

It’s not just one and done. They are caring tutors who build solid relationships with students; it focuses on the science of reading and a coordinated curriculum rather than fads or gimmicks; It’s highly dosed for 15 minutes a day, every day — even as schools go virtual.

Q: If you’ve had this kind of success in training your tutors, why is it so difficult to run teacher training in schools?

A: Our tutors receive approximately 60 hours of development over the course of 10 weeks. We are essentially a master class in becoming a reading teacher. Ideally, any teacher preparation program would work with Ignite so we can proactively develop teachers before they enter the classroom. This should happen in our country; I would have liked that, because it wasn’t until my third year as an apprentice that I finally learned how to teach children to read. And there are teachers who will not learn anything for the rest of their professional lives.

The system is not designed to allow teachers such intensive training once they are full-time teachers. At best they get a day or two before the start of the school year and maybe an hour a week thereafter, but even that is unlikely given other competing priorities in a school building.

I understand the realities of school systems and designed the Ignite partnership model with teachers in mind. We offer Schools with a simple framework to provide instant instruction to students who are falling behind, without the endless processes required for teacher retraining. This type of retraining process is disruptive and costly for schools. Time is not an infinite resource for schools, neither is money. So for every hour a teacher is retrained, an hour is lost elsewhere.

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Q: Do you think California needs a comprehensive literary push that will mandate the science of reading in schools?

A: My answer to this question will surprise you. No, I don’t think committing to the science of reading is the answer. I worry that the science of reading is misunderstood as only the lower strands of science Scarborough’s Reading Rope if it is actually all strands (or all five pillars of literacy). I believe our nation needs to mandate that all schools accurately implement an evidence-based, comprehensive core reading curriculum and that every adult at every level of the system is held accountable to ensure all students learn to read.

Q: Do you think schools have been so taxed by the pandemic that they are unable to overhaul teaching methods at this time?

A: I think schools – and parents and everyone else – have been impacted by the pandemic, but they were also constrained before the pandemic, and those constraints cannot become a permanent barrier to promoting literacy programs that work.

Ignite! Reading aloud should relieve schools, teachers and parents. It envisions a system where the school is not solely responsible for literacy, and I believe that fact – coupled with the effectiveness of the program – will help district leaders realize just how valuable it can be.

Q: You mentioned teachers bursting into tears when they see the progress children are making with their tutors. Do you think Zoom tutoring could be a game changer in the literacy crisis?

A: I do! High-dose, one-on-one virtual tutoring is absolutely groundbreaking when done right. Everything I’ve done in my professional career since I started teaching public schools has led me to this moment. Something big is happening here. We have developed a system to help children crack the language code. We give them the key that opens the door to a better life. It’s a real win-win situation for students, teachers and parents. And we will be aggressive because the stakes are high.

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