Teaching reading — two suggestions

America’s literacy problems could be solved if parents, preschool teachers, and daycare workers did just two simple things. One is obvious. One is not.

First, we should read a lot more to our babies, toddlers, and preschoolers — say, at least an hour per day. That means picking up a good old-fashioned book, putting a kid in your lap or sitting up close in a small group, and reading the book to the kid. And do voices! Kids love voices.

To turbo-charge your little reader’s skills, simply point at the words as you read them. You’d be amazed at how much this helps them. Retirees can help by volunteering to read to kids at a local preschool or daycare.

That’s all common-sense advice, right?

My second piece of advice is less obvious: We should start teaching our little ones to read before kindergarten, at home and in our preschools and daycares.

Ten years ago, this would have just sounded crazy. Then we started hearing about “baby reading” and how little Emma or Aidan started reading at age one. You probably think their parents must have pushed their kids, and you don’t want to be one of “those parents.”

I am one of those parents, but I didn’t push my boys. They both started reading at age one. How?

I didn’t use workbooks, software, or other systems designed for five- or six-year-olds — that’s a terrible idea. Instead, in addition to all the reading I did to my oldest son, I showed him a lot of flashcards, when he was a baby. He seemed to get a kick out of them. If he didn’t, we stopped immediately.

When he was about two years old, in 2008, I started making him a new kind of card, with words put in phonetic groupings. We started with simple CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words, like “dog,” with a picture on the back, and gradually we worked our way to harder words. Lots of other parents used my flashcards (free online) and praised them highly. At the same time, we started using some “teach your baby to read” programs.

All together we didn’t spend much time on all that sort of training — no more than a half-hour a day — but we did keep reading to him a lot, maybe one or two hours per day. Of course he spent most of the day playing like any other kid.

The result? At age three, he was reading at the 3rd to 4th grade level. You can find a video I made of him on YouTube:

My second son was born in 2010, shortly after I bought the first iPad. We did lots of flashcard apps, which show big words and colorful pictures. I strongly recommend using whatever flashcard apps your baby likes the most. There are a lot.

At that time, I was working on WatchKnowLearn.org, funded by an anonymous Memphis-area philanthropist. He saw the video of my son and said, “Why don’t you make a reading program of your own?” The result was ReadingBear.org— I based it on those old phonics flashcards I made, but it’s a lot more than just words and pictures. The words, all 1,200 of them, are pronounced at four speeds, they’re used in a sentence, and a picture and a video illustrate them. Thanks to that Memphis philanthropist, the website is 100% free, ad-free, and nonprofit.

My second son was just as good a reader as my first by the age of three:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wmlOkiOo08

Users tell me that regular use of Reading Bear leads to spectacular results. But you’re not limited to that. Lots of other free or cheap tools — apps and websites — are available, too.

Now, here’s the point: Reading Bear and those other tools need not take much time. They aren’t terribly challenging. Just find the tool a child likes — there’s so much to choose from, you’ll find something. It doesn’t require pushing or forcing. Just 15 minutes a day, and within months, children as young as two can be reading out loud, as two boys did.

Why isn’t every Head Start preschool in the country making use of these freely-available tools? We know they work, and they can solve our illiteracy problems. So why aren’t we using them?

Just two things, and so many problems connected to poor education will disappear: read to very young children religiously for an hour per day, and start teaching them with these 21st century reading tools that they like.

If we do these two things, we’ll see our country’s reading problems disappear.

Larry Sanger (yo.larrysanger@gmail.com) is co-founder of Wikipedia and has helped developed many other educational websites, including ReadingBear.org. Sanger has posted a free book on his experience teaching his son, How and Why I Taught My Toddler to Read. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2000 from Ohio State University.


Please read: my challenge to kindergarten and first grade teachers

Dear Teachers
(and those who support teachers, please listen in),

I will buy your class $100 worth of books, and donate whatever anyone else pledges below (more on that in a bit), if you successfully execute the following. (I can do this for only one teacher. But if more people pledge money for other teachers to use the program, then...)

(a) Set up your classroom so that you can spend about 25 minutes per day showing ReadingBear.org presentations and then a class quiz. The quiz (done by the class as a whole) should usually be over the day's words, but occasionally it should be a "big" quiz, over the previous five days' words.

(b) Do this every day for 16 weeks (I'll forgive a few days off), or if you want to show Reading Bear for less time, until your class has finished going through the material and most students can get 13/15 on the last quiz on the page, over all the words. (Note, the last is required only if you stop short of 16 weeks.) Make sure you are logged in as you show this to your class. A schedule would go something like this:

Week 1: "short a" (3 days); begin "short e" (2 days)
Week 2: finish "short e" (1 day); "short i" (2 days); "short o" (1 day)
Week 3: "short o" (1 day); and "short u" (2 days); two reviews and big quizzes
Week 4: another review and big quiz; "c and k"; "ck" (both 2 days)
Week 5: blends 1 and blends 2 (1 day each); adding s (2 days); review and big quiz
Week 6: now you switch to 1 presentation per day; "digraphs and x" to "two syllables"
Week 7: review and big quiz; then "long e" through "or"
Week 8: "er, ur, ir"; review and big quiz; then "oy, oi" through "aw, au, al"
Week 9: "ai" and "ay, air"; review and big quiz; "y, ie, ind, ild" and "o, oa, oe"
Week 10: "old, olt, ow" to "2 & 3 syllables"; review and big quiz; "a_e and "e_e"
Week 11: "i_e" to "ing"; review and big quiz
Week 12: "y and more" to "ge, dge, etc."
Week 13: review and big quiz; "the, se, etc." to "ph, gh"
Week 14: "ea and ear"; review and big quiz; "ie, ui, u" to "si, su, ci, ti, tu"
Week 15:  "ive, or, ence" and "3 & 4 syllables"; then review and big quiz

Note: it doesn't matter if you spend more time on the early stages, and you only get halfway through the presentations in 16 weeks, as long as you look at at an entire presentation, or an entire review, every day. And also note: I don't care if your students can't pass many of the quizzes by the end of that time, as long as you stick with the program for 16 full weeks. I think they will be able to, but we'll see, now won't we?

(c) You may show the screen to your whole class at once or, if you have the computers, you can have the students look at the presentations individually (which is actually better, but not required).

(d) Send the kids home with the ReadingBear.org URL and the instructions to review the lesson at home each day, preferably (but not necessarily) until they get at least a 13/15 on the quiz.

(e) You have to agree to answer some questions from me, honestly and accurately, about how you used the program and how well your students are reading at the end of it.

So here's the deal: I really believe in phonics. In particular, I believe in the Rudolf Flesch method, which I used with both of my boys, who learned to read using this method when they were 1 year old. (My 2-year-old is now decoding at a third grade level, according to this--I'm not kidding.) And in even more particular, I believe in the Reading Bear program. I think we need some evidence that 21st century tools, like Reading Bear, can be used to quickly and easily teach kids how to read. (By "read" I mean to decode text, of course--the hardest part of starting to read--although Reading Bear teaches an awful lot of vocabulary.) I think kids can learn phonics quickly and easily using the right tools. I think that there is no reason why our poor first graders should be made to suffer through those awful, boring basal readers for three or four years. Ugh! They should be reading easy, grade-appropriate, transitional chapter books like My Father's Dragon and The Magic Tree House. So, teachers, won't you take a half hour out of your school day next year and help me (a) teach your kids to read, and (b) prove that your typical school kids can be taught to read in four months using Reading Bear? I really think they can be.

I doubt $100 in books is enough to motivate anybody who is not already motivated. But it is a way to get your attention, to commit publicly to a program, etc. And besides...others might kick in more. Maybe we'll make the prize "stone soup"...

Note for non-teachers: do want to support this effort? Pledge, in the comments below, money for teachers. $100 would be nice. More would be awesome. It's all unorganized by any organization at this time. I will personally provide an escrow service (you'll have to trust me!). I'm just doing this because I have something to prove personally...I don't own the website (the Community Foundation does) and I don't even operate it, I've moved on to Infobitt.com full time. I just want to prove that Reading Bear works. The real winners will be the kids, who learn to read quickly and painlessly (Reading Bear is fun!).

Available money will be split up as follows: $100 per teacher who successfully completes the program, based on the teachers who sign up first below and the available money. If there is more than $100 per teacher available, then all available money will be divided equally among all teachers who finish. To prove their bona fides I must be given the teacher's Reading Bear login ID. My interpretation of this policy will be final!


Reading Bear improvements

Here's our latest Reading Bear update.
We're not done working on Reading Bear--which will always remain a non-profit, free website to teach reading through phonics and vocabulary. Here's a quick progress report.
Alternative reading systems soon supported. We're putting finishing touches on a feature allowing us to reorganize our words into the order in which they appear in other reading systems. HeadSprout will be one of the first, but if you're interested in giving the Reading Bear treatment to your reading system's list, please let Joe know at joe@watchknowlearn.org. (See "Changing of the guard" below.)

Illustrators needed. Larry has written the text of some e-books to go with the first 15 presentations, and we're calling for volunteer illustrators. If you are an illustrator, and you are interested in supporting a great cause and getting a prominent byline, please email Larry at sanger@watchknow.org.

New media mentions. We had some great mentions in the press and blogosphere after our launch, especially a front-page article in Memphis, Tennessee's biggest newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, and a story by WREG, the local CBS affiliate. Top education blogger Larry Ferlazzo wrote that a BBC site and Reading Bear are "clearly the two best sites on the Web for phonics reinforcement." And we were on TheNextWeb's list of 12 "best educational apps of 2012."

We still want to get the word out some more. We're available for press interviews. We think Reading Bear is big news!

Changing of the guard. Finally, we're announcing that Larry will be departing from Reading Bear and WatchKnowLearn soonish, although he will remain on board as a consultant. His work on Reading Bear is pretty much complete and he's excited about a new venture he's pursuing. Dr. Joe Thomas, CEO of WatchKnowLearn, will take over as manager of Reading Bear, as the team focuses on getting the word out about these free resources.

Larry Sanger & Joe Thomas
Reading Bear/WatchKnowLearn

E.'s reading progress

(No, that's not a picture of E. He doesn't have glasses.)

Just a short report here. I'm delighted with 25-month-old E.'s reading progress. We are not studying phonics nearly as carefully and systematically as we did with H. We have been going through (more or less randomly) the two ending blends presentations, adding s, and digraphs and x. More than that, we've been doing various quizzes. When I open up Reading Bear, E. insists on doing quizzes (about 75% of the time).

We continue to read several books per day. The level of the books is now decidedly beyond the baby books, and now we're into the toddler books. To take a few examples, we've been reading quite a bit of Curious George, as well as the little-kid versions of fairy tales from Mary Engelbreit. He still likes the Biscuit stories, which are incredibly annoying.

We're also doing stuff on the iPad, including Reading Bear on iSwifter, the Starfall app (which is great), some vocabulary apps, some counting apps, etc.

When looking at screens, he's been spending at least as much time on Starfall and Literactive as on Reading Bear. I still haven't found any other free sites with decodable stories that can be sounded out with a click, like Starfall and Literactive. Have you? Please tell me about them in the comments. Anyway, I've been delighted at how well he's been reading beyond the level that he is at on Reading Bear. Like H., his ability to decode words in the context of a story is a few steps beyond his nominal phonics level. My hypothesis is that he has been figuring out unfamiliar phonics principles on his own. There is no reason to be too surprised at this, it seems to me; once you know the letter sounds and have some modest experience viewing how letters and sounds match up, there are usually a few obvious ways to decode an unfamiliar sequence of letters, and it's just a matter of mentally trying them out and picking the one that matches a word you've heard. I wonder if research supports this hypothesis.

Another thing we look at quite a bit on my desktop are my presentations. He is crazy about my "Balloons" presentation (still) and likes many others, like "Kids," "The Mind," "Chemistry 1" (not as hard as it sounds), etc. These are all available on Slideboom. I made a new one, too, called "Bubbles," which he likes. (Unfortunately, funding for new presentations is not forthcoming at this time.)

I think E. is a few months ahead of where H. was at this age (not surprising, considering that I started teaching E. phonics earlier), but at this age H. was a little ahead of where E. is in terms of books he prefers. This also shouldn't be surprising considering that I was able to spend more time with H. on his reading.

But all in all I've used similar methods with my two boys and in terms of their educational outcomes, they're very similar so far. I'd definitely say that E. is reading now, at age two, in the sense that he is able to decode most, probably all, of the words in certain stories that he can understand and enjoy.

I've made a video of E. reading, but it shows his face and all and Mama can't have that online. I'll make another one soon.


A challenge to first grade reading teachers: read in one year! No excuses!

In the course of responding on the "readbygrade3" mailing list (I'm a subscriber), I came across this page on ReadingRockets.org. I was greatly struck by the fact that, here in 2012, professional advisers to reading teachers state that, by the end of first grade, a good student "has a reading vocabulary of 300 to 500 words, sight words and easily sounded out words." This, I think, is a travesty.  At the end of first grade, students should be able to read whatever words they can comprehend, meaning (of course) many thousands of words.

Rudolph Flesch maintained, on the basis of a great deal of first-hand experience, that there is no reason why the vast majority of first graders should not be able to read--period!--at the end of the first grade. At the end of that year, they ought to be able to pick up any book, as long as the vocabulary is comprehensible to them, and read it. Decoding should present zero difficulties. Period. And so by the end of first grade, they have no need for contrived basal readers. They can start reading actual literature. For what it's worth, my six-year-old is downstairs reading The Secret Garden--his choice--in the original version right now. I fostered his literacy from babyhood and he started reading when he was two.

I'm using Reading Bear and other resources to teach my second son to read. He is 25 months old. We started seriously when he was around 18-20 months. He's up to presention #11, capable of getting 13-15 out of 15 on the quizzes on that material. He can read (with a little help) any of the first 8 or so stories on Starfall's excellent Learn to Read page, as well as any of the stories on Literactive's level 1. I fully expect my two-year-old to get through all of the word lists on Reading Bear and to be decoding (not necessarily comprehending) at a 3rd grade level by his third birthday. My first son developed in a very similar way four years ago.

If my two-year-olds can do this, your six-year-olds can do it. Teachers, now that Reading Bear is complete and 100% free, you have no excuse. I understand that your districts impose a lot of top-down control of curriculum. But you still have some freedom. Reading Bear's presentations are 15 minutes long, and you can definitely take that much time out of your busy day for this program. Let's say you don't have access to a computer lab. Fine, but surely you have a projector. If all you do is show Reading Bear's presentations for 15 minutes each day for the 180 days of first grade, you'll be giving your students the gift of literacy.

To begin with, spend a week on each presentation for the first 10-15 presentations (or better, four days on a new presentation and one day on review). After that, students will catch on much faster, so you'll be able to spend less than a week on each one. You'll also discover that you don't need to show the full, 15-minute "Sound It Out Slowly" presentations; as time goes on, you'll be able to go on to the "Sound It Out Quickly" and "Let Me Sound It Out" presentations.

Teachers, your first graders can be decoding at an advanced level by the end of the year. Being able to do that now, rather than after the third or fourth grade, opens up the whole world of books to them, and not just easy, decodable picture books, either, but chapter books. Prove me wrong--why not give it a try? What could you lose? It's easy to do--you're just showing and reacting to a presentation. Your students will be exposed systematically to over 100 phonics rules, according to Flesch's time-established method, as well as vocabulary. I personally guarantee that, at the very least, you won't be wasting your time.


Reading Bear's First Press Release (Please Share!)

 

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Dr. Joe Thomas 901-484-3347

INNOVATIVE NEW WEBSITE, READING BEAR, TEACHES PHONICS AND VOCABULARY FOR FREE
Wikipedia Co-Founder’s Latest Project Launches to Acclaim

MEMPHIS, TENN., OCTOBER 11, 2012 – The co-founder of Wikipedia has embarked on a new web-based project aimed at teaching children to read in a new innovative, multi-sensory, multi-media approach.

Dr. Larry Sanger has designed a new website called ReadingBear.org.  It is a free website from Sanger and the team from the education website, WatchKnowLearn.org.  The project is funded by an anonymous Memphis-area philanthropist through the non-profit Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi.

ReadingBear.org takes a phonics approach to teaching children to read.  The site features more than 100 phonics principles. More than 1,200 words are pronounced at four speeds, each illustrated with a picture.  Each word is also used in a sentence illustrated by a video. The words are displayed “karaoke” style—individual letters flash at the moment that the corresponding sounds are spoken.

Readingbear.org’s word lists were drawn from exercises from Rudolph Flesch’s classic Why Johnny Can’t Read. Veteran phonics teacher Don Potter declared these exercises “have proven highly effective with all kinds of students, even those who had failed with high-dollar dyslexia methods.”

Distinguished reading researcher, Dr. Timothy Shanahan praised Readingbear.org’s reading approach and its colorful features. “It sounds words out for the children, showing them graphically how the sounds match the letters (try to do that with a workbook),” said Shanahan.

Reading Bear is free to users and requires no registration.

 


Reading Bear: Rave Reviews

Reading Bear has enjoyed excellent preliminary reactions from a wide variety of online sources. The following is just a selection, most of this in reaction to our 2011 launch, not to the full set of 50 presentations that we completed in August 2012.

Our Favorite Endorsements & Mentions

Larry Ferlazzo added us to three “best of” lists. Phonics teaching expert Don Potter said that the exercises on which Reading Bear is based “have proven highly effective with all kinds of students, even those who had failed with high-dollar dyslexia methods. You have remained true to” those exercises. Top reading expert Timothy Shanahan profiled us in a blog post and wrote, “It has some good features. Probably the best is that it sounds words out for the children, showing them graphically how the sounds match the letters (try to do that with a  workbook). … [Its various features] can help keep kids interested.” The Next Web called us “a neat online tool” and MakeUseOf called us “very user-friendly” and later put us on its “Cool Website and Tools” list praising our “creatively crafted media.” We were profiled in Brandon Lutz’s influential “60 in 60” presentation. We also got a nod from Tennessee First Lady Chrissy Haslam.

Education Blogs

One of the most-followed teacher-bloggers and Twitterers is Larry Ferlazzo, so we were particularly pleased to have his approval, November 3, 2011: “Reading Bear is a new free interactive site for teaching beginning readers through the use of phonics in a relatively engaging way. It doesn’t appear that registration is necessary, and they say it will remain free. It’s from WatchKnowLearn, the well-respected and well-known educational video site.” Ferlazzo also added it to his “Best Articles & Sites for Teachers & Students to Learn About Phonics,” the “Best Beginner, Intermediate & Advanced English Language Learner Sites,” and the “Best Websites to Help Beginning Readers.” Next, an expert about phonics teaching, Don Potter. Don added a linkwith Reading Bear’s scope and sequence all worked out, and emailed us with this unsolicited praise:

Rudolf Flesch [author of Why Johnny Can't Read] would be pleased to see his method translated into modern technology: http://www.readingbear.org/

I have dedicated many years to studying and understanding the linguistics and psychology behind Flesch's 72 Exercises. I have taught them to many younger and older students. The exercises have proven highly effective with all kinds of students, even those who had failed with high-dollar dyslexia methods. You have remained true to Flesch. I commend you and all the people who helped with the Reading Bear project, which obviously was an incredibly complex and lengthy process. I appreciate everyone's dedication to seeing the project through to completion. Now we can really get busy promoting it so illiteracy can become a Thing of the Past.

It will prove particularly helpful to bilingual students since the meanings of the words are illustrated in sentences, something crucially important for bilingual students.

Beginning Reading Helpsent us more traffic than any other blog. (Thanks!) They list three websites for “teaching kids to read for FREE” and Reading Bear is placed first, with this comment: “How is this possible? It’s possible, because there are generous people in the world who know what works and want to share it. … I’ve been registered with Reading Bear for almost a year. These reading sites are as good or better than most software and online subscription sites I’ve used.” Now let’s look at some other “ranking” education bloggers, and others who gave us long, detailed write-ups.

• Top reading expert Timothy Shanahan profiled us in a blog post and said “It has some good features. Probably the best is that it sounds words out for the children, showing them graphically how the sounds match the letters (try to do that with a  workbook). … [Its various features] can help keep kids interested.”
• Paul Hamilton’s blog states, “good phonics resources are always needed.  I believe the one I’m writing about here may have potential to help develop sight vocabulary as well.” He also praises “the exceptional quality of the site as a whole.”
• Another top-ranked ed blog, Free Technology for Teachers, picked up on Hamilton’s link and added that Reading Bear “could be a good independent activity or an activity that children work through with the assistance of a parent or tutor… [I]t could be a great support and practice resource.”
• Oklahoma City Public Schools put us in their February 2012 newsletter: “If you like Starfall, then you will like Reading Bear! … Phonics, vocabulary and comprehension are all presented in fun and interactive ways for students to practice. … This is all FREE!!!!”
• EdSurge Newsletter 039 included a short write-up, Nov. 9, 2011.
• Wired Academic profiled us Nov. 21, 2011 and nominated us for the “Best Free Web Tool” in the Edublog Awards.
• Librarian’s Quest had a very detailed write-up of the site on Nov. 22, 2011 and added “Did you hear that clanking click?  That would be me adding Reading Bear into my virtual toolbox to use with my students.”
• NCS-Tech was full of praise and gives a very detailed overview, complete with multiple screenshots: “an awesome resource for early learners… I immediately knew I wanted to take a closer look and share it here. … [A] very impressive effort. … The graphics are crisp and clear, and so are the videos… I’m really impressed with Reading Bear.”
• Click This was “totally excited about Reading Bear. One, it's FREE. Two, it's a product from a company in my home state - Mississippi. … This is a ‘must see and use application’ for educators and parents alike. … I’m certainly impressed.”
•  Crayons & Mice says, “If you like to use Starfall with your students, you will like Reading Bear too! … It is great to present during whole group or small group instruction! … One feature I really like to turn on is the video of someone showing how the mouth looks when saying a particular word. For your visual and kinesthetic learners this could be a very important feature to have on for them to see what their mouth should look like when speaking a word. … Reading Bear is a great website to help young students with their reading skills.”
•  The Education Technology and Mobile Learning blog not only did a write-up, they even did a video review which called us “really awesome.”
The HubPages “Learn Things Web” listed “Websites that Teach Children How to Read,” and at the top of the list came Reading Bear: “This website is wonderful because it actually sounds out a large number of words. If a child is having a hard time with the idea that sounds go together to make words, Reading Bear will be a big help. They will probably start to understand very quickly with regular exposure to this website.”
•  Jimmy Kilpatrick’s Education News reproduced one of Larry’s blog posts about Reading Bear.
•  Technology Tailgate has a post from a literacy specialist who calls us “a fun, interactive website that helps students learn to read. It reviews all the main phonics rules and guides students through hands-on practice.”

Other education bloggers include Technology Links I have found!, Timbuktu to Technology (“worth checking out for those teaching phonics to early learners and beginning ESL students”), Teach Like a Rockstar, Thoughts from the Classroom (on Diigo “I also have some sites that will be great for my students to use such as ‘Reading Bear,’ …”), About.com’s Children With Special Needs, Tech Coach (top link in a “Learning to Read Early” list), College Wood Office Blog (“looks like a cool website”), Technology Ideas for EC Teachers, YES Technology Chat, doug – off the record, Mantz’s Mission (site of the day), FreeStuff Education, EDge21, Educational Technology from REMC12 East, MMcFadden.com, Tech My Class (“Teachers this is a great way to keep young learners engaged in learning to read.  In our digital rich society what an amazing tool for both teachers and children, Reading Bear is a must for early education.”), Beginning Reading Help, Friendship Elementary Media Tech Place, Tadika2U.com, Inverness Primary Media Portal (Inverness, FL; “a real ‘keeper’ …[T]ake a look at this great resource. It will be worth your while!”), and an Italian Bilingual School’s Newsletter (Leichhardt, NSW, Australia) mentioned Reading Bear. Let’s not forget the homeschooling blogs, such as Julie and Technology, a Pinterest pinboard (“Our middle two children go through a lesson on this program at lunchtime daily. This homeschooling mom gives it FIVE stars; it tops the list of all the supplemental online reading sites that we've used thus far. … Just went through the tutorial and the first lesson with Will. I'm very impressed and will be using it at school, too! … This is awesome! Very impressed!”), Home School Parent (“My five year old is just starting to read, and we were both super excited to find Reading Bear. … [Y]ou will definitely want to explore Reading Bear yourself.”), My Little Home School (“I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered it was FREE, and even more thrilled to see this is exactly what she needed. We started the lessons yesterday and she loved it.”), twistedbrainfreeze, Mike and Katie (a long write-up explaining how they use Reading Bear with their toddler), Are We There Yet?, Teaching Baby to Read Blog, Wise Owl Homeschool, Project4Peace (“I really like the real object photos the simple but not childish voice and images”), and Sheri’s blog.

General Tech Blogs

Some blogs that focus on new Internet and tech stories also noticed us:

•  The top-ranked tech blog, The Next Web, described us in detail on November 2, 2011, and praised us as a “neat new online tool.” The post was widely reposted and linked. TNW followed up on Nov. 19 with a long interview with Reading Bear editor Larry Sanger.
•   Techie Buzz is another high-profile tech blog and they did an excellent report on the same day. They called us a “great new tool to teach kids how to read. … The project has some strong backing, including its Editor-in-Chief, Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia. The website has a beautifully illustrated and child-friendly design. … I believe endeavors like this are worthy of community support. They believe in equal access to education and that everyone should have the opportunity to learn. Hopefully, they will gain support and, more importantly, many children will learn to read from this project.”
•   MakeUseOf, another high-profile tech blog, wrote (Nov. 8, 2012) that Reading Bear teaches kids vocabulary and phonics “with the help of creatively crafted media. It happens to be easier for a child to learn stuff when he is shown ‘pictures, presentations and sound clips’. The website is very user-friendly…” The same site later twice (Jan. 23 and Jan. 29, 2012) put us on its “Cool Website and Tools” list praising our “creatively crafted media.”

District, School, Classroom, and Library Link Lists and Education Directories

Reading Bear has made its way onto various education listings and directories as well:

  • TeachersFirst, an educational resource directory, profiled us, describing us as “a systematic program” that is “an excellent resource,” and making us a Featured Site for the week of May 6, 2012.
  • Plano Independent School District (Plano, TX) gave us special billing atop their list of language arts web sites for primary students. We got a lot of traffic from this. Thanks, PISD!
  • ICTMagic is another education website directory and there we are described as “A well made site for teaching young learners phonics through interactive video presentations.”
  • The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development of the Austrialian state of Victoria listed us.

Other listings are by Pennsylvania Avenue School (Atlantic City, NJ), Plattsmouth Community Schools (Plattsmouth, NE), Mrs. Turhune’s wiki, Bancroft Elementary School (Minneapolis, MN; #2 spot in the “Language Arts Links”), Wells Elementary School (Wells, ME; Link of the Week), Marion County Public Library (Lebanon, KY), Manhattan Beach Unified School District (Manhattan Beach, CA), The Pike School (Andover, MA), Good Spirit School Division (east central Saskatchewan), Indian Prairie School District 204 (Aurora, IL), Mrs. William’s wiki, Parmalee Elementary School and Greystone Lower Elementary School (Oklahoma City, OK), William H. Rowe School (Yarmouth, ME), Mrs. Bishop’s class, First Regional Library (northwest MS), QZAB Teachers wiki, Spring Mills Primary School (Martinsburg, WV; first link under “Students”), Garnet Valley School District (Glen Mills, PA), Hawk Ridge Elementary (Charlotte, NC), Fort Dodge Community School District (Fort Dodge, IA), Woodland Elementary School (Zephyrhills, FL), Fun Tech Coaches, and Miss Olson’s first grade class, Haw River Elementary School (Haw River, NC). A speech therapist also listed us.

Forums

The homeschool community has begun discovering Reading Bear. From the biggest, the Well-Trained Mind Forums:

•  “This program is great for kids who are visual learners.”
•  “If he knows all his letter sounds and just needs help with the blending I'd probably use Reading Bear with him www.readingbear.org – it’s free and concentrates on blending initially cvc words and then slightly higher order phonics too…”
•  “For reading, if I had to do it for $0 or as close to that as possible, I'd use the following: Readingbear.org and starfall.com for the fun factor… ”
•  “Amazingly, my DD enjoys doing the ‘flashcards’ on ReadingBear.”
•  “Starfall.com and readingbear.org are two good free sites for reading.”
•  “I really love the Reading Bear site. … It is such a wonderful resource. I am so excited to hear it might be finished this summer.”
•  “If you like media for educational things how about trying ReadingBear.org and/or Starfall.com, Progressive Phonics along with some readers from the library until you get up and going. That might get you through the basic slump of reading.”
•  “BTW I never heard of readingbear.org until this post. WHAT a blessing! I saved it…”
•  “I've found using a program like Reading Bear (www.readingbear.org) is very helpful. Its great for visual learners.”
•  “This has been a huge help for my little one to actually learn to blend the sounds. I really like it.”

SecularHomeschool.com: “Some kids have a hard time comprehending how letter sounds go together to make words. Reading Bear sounds out lots of words, so it may help him grasp the concept.” “My youngest is also a visual learner, but so far computer learning has been hit and miss. Right now he dislikes T4L but loves Reading Bear.” Then there are general parenting forums, such as DiaperSwappers.com: “It’s completely free and looks pretty good. … Hopefully some more people can benefit from this.” babycenter.com: “My 5 year old has been enjoying it.” The place where they probably love us the most, however, is the BrillKids.com Forum, where parents congregate to discuss how to teach babies and preschoolers (and where Larry Sanger is “DadDude”). The vast quantity of raves from them is just embarrassing. We’re blushing! Here is only a small sample:

•  “We just started using Reading Bear, and we love it!!!  She calls all of her teddy bears ‘Reading Bear’”
•  “I started to show it to my [daughter], not expecting much… She was INSISTING on the second presentation, after we were done watching the first one. I think what makes it so attractive that the words are sounded out AND their meaning is explained using picture, video, and by using the word in the sentence! … DD  started sounding out letter sounds while using Reading Bear for the first time, without me even explaining her anything! The funniest thing that my 9 month old son crawls with a rocket speed to the computer, one he hears Reading Bear is on.”
•  “I have been using Reading Bear.org to practice phonics with my DD for a week now. (I was showing Reading Bear YouTube video of short ‘a’ presentation every other day; plus a, b, or c part of short ‘a’ presentation once a day.) Today I decided to quiz her. She was right 8 times out of ten! I recommend to everyone to give this program a try! What I like about this program after using it  for a week is that it is Very Versatile! : you can pick your own settings to suit the attention span of your child.”
•  “Reading Bear looks very professional -- and it's amazingly free! The woman who pronounces the words and does the voiceovers nails it, managing to be neither dull nor obnoxiously animated.  Her voice is also very clear and soothing.  The pictures and video are great, and of course each word being underlined as it is pronounced is fantastic.  And then there's the art and musical interludes -- icing on an already delicious cake!”
•  “There are so many products that costs substantial $$$ and have never been quite what we needed. Then you come along with something that is just right FOR FREE!! The quality is amazing. … I really have no fitting words. THANK-YOU!!”

Finally, someone (not us) posted the question, “How effective is the Reading Bear learn to read program?” The response from the three people (we’re not including Larry Sanger) who had actually used the program were all extremely positive:

•  “We have just started using Reading Bear with my daughter who is 2 years, 4 months old.  She loves it! … Since we started using Reading Bear, she has been able to take what she learned on that program and use it elsewhere.  For example, she now tries to sound out words she sees instead of guessing at it by looking at pictures. Reading Bear is designed for older kids, but if your child knows their consonant sounds, it is a wonderful program.”
•  “[My son] can read all the words in the first five lessons of the program. As a parent, the thing I appreciate most (other than the price), is that it keeps track of where the child is. You can choose to pick up where you left off or start with something completely new. As a busy parent, this is so helpful. … [S]ome days Reading Bear is the only phonics instruction we manage to accomplish and there really isn't an excuse for not doing it because it is just a click away. … My son is now just 2 and knows all the words in the first five lessons of Reading Bear. … The site is user friendly (as in easy peasy) and professional. I can't recommend it enough.”
•  “I have used Reading Bear for more than just reading! It is great for speech also. My son is 2.75 and possibly on the spectrum. He had 2 major speech regressions within 6 months of each other. Since using Reading Bear his articulation has improved exponentially. And he no longer is dramatically speech delayed. He loves to watch Reading Bear, he loves to say the words. It had also helped his phonics decoding abilities. … Reading Bear has given him increased phonological awareness. He was never able to understand or hear sounds being blended. But now he has no problems with that! He actually balks at any phonics instruction that I try to give him because it is too challenging. Reading Bear is the exception and he often requests it instead. I know that with more Reading Bear time and practice he will be able to blend and decode independently with ease very soon.”

About Reading Bear in other languages

It turns out that Reading Bear has been used for teaching English as a second language. (The following quotations are edited “translations” based on Google Translate.)

•  We got an enormous amount of traffic from a mention in the Spanish-language wwwhat’s new.
•  The Chinese TechWeb had nice things to say (and fetched lots of traffic and reposts): “Reading Bear is a free and lovely website that teaches children how to read. … Opening the site is like entering a fairy tale world…”
•  A top traffic-getter was the Russian lifehacker.ru writeup about us: “The Reading Bear project teaches you how to pronounce even the most complex words. [The site] is simple and clear with numerous examples to explain the basic phonetic rules.”
•  A blog in Tamil sent us a huge amount of traffic.
•   Another Spanish-language blog pointed out the learning possibilities for Latin America: “In Latin America there are millions of people studying a second language. A high percentage is focused on learning English. Undoubtedly, Reading Bear focuses on teaching children. But the platform is a classroom for bilingual teaching, looking for new forms of digital teaching, as well as children beginning to discover the world of the Internet. Projects like Larry Sanger’s gives us the perfect excuse to spend more time in the wonderful world of the web. And while bringing our nephews, cousins, and brothers, why not bring our parents and grandparents too.”

We also received other mentions in Spanish (“It is an easy and enjoyable way to learn some complex principles of phonetics… It is flexible… It could be especially useful in remedial reading programs”), Spanish again, again, again, again, again, again, again, Thai (“It is a very great website.”), Thai again, again, again, again (this one is detailed), Dutch (“Reading Bear just looks very good”), Arabic (“very excellent for every need and suitable for kids and adults…you will benefit from it”), Danish, Russian (“a cool website that you can use to teach children English. Now I use it heavily with the baby, he loves it!”), Russian again (“I’m sure you and your child will like it”), Telugu, Chinese, Vietnamese (“cute, attractive”), Vietnamese again (commenters prefer us to Starfall), Korean, and Korean again.

Miscellaneous

We’ve had a lot of traffic from Gizmo’s Freeware (and here and here too). Reddit sent us a lot of traffic: “Wow! I'm pleasantly surprised by this site! I hadn't heard of it before, and being involved in ECE it's going to come in handy. I LOVE that they included videos of people speaking the words.” The website of a phonics book, Phonics Fast, puts Reading Bear at the top of its recommendations: “I'm not a big fan of the free online phonics games and tools out there but this program really does seem to be on the right track. As a interactive lesson Reading Bear is probably the best. I don't feel it can replace a teacher and it is definitely not designed to improve writing skills but as a interesting activity children can play with it is not a time waster.” Of course, we have also been collected on social bookmarking sites like delicious.com, diigo.com (“a well-made site for teaching young learners phonics through interactive video presentations”), Scoop.it, and JogTheWeb.com. Last but certainly not least, we got a nod from Tennessee First Lady Chrissy Haslam.


Reading Bear is complete! Why it works.

After many months of development, I can finally announce:

Reading Bear is complete!

Reading Bear now has a full set of fifty presentations, with an average viewing time of about 15 minutes each. I haven't added up the time, but it's around 12 hours total. It covers a huge number of phonics principles, systematically. Over 1,200 words are pronounced at four speeds, illustrated with a picture, and finally used (often, defined) in a sentence which is itself illustrated with a video. All words are clickable and sounded out. All phonetic words (i.e., the vast majority) are displayed "karaoke" style, with individual letters or letter clusters flashing at the precise moment that the corresponding sound is spoken.

Every second, literally, of those 12 hours was carefully edited: word lists sifted, sentences written and rewritten, word markup crafted (so the words are broken up according to the phonics rules that Reading Bear teaches), pictures and videos painstakingly selected, voiceover done professionally, all media laboriously edited and if necessary re-edited, pronunciation dictionary entries created, then everything put together and edited on the website. It was a lot of work.

Does that mean Reading Bear is complex and forbidding? Of course not! Even though it is feature-rich, it is extremely easy to use and fun for kids. Really!

If I could have produced a better resource for teaching reading in the same time and with the same resources, I would have. This is the best I could do.

It's a gargantuan resource, and it is all absolutely free! Not just free, either, but non-profit and ad-free. I've worked on this project for over a year and a half, with the help of dozens of people. We've spent a lot of money on it--or rather, a certain anonymous benefactor from the Memphis area has spent a lot of money on it. My ongoing deep thanks to that gentleman. The images were generously donated by Shutterstock, and we got the videos either free or at a discount. For this I'd like to thank former Shutterstock president and CFO Adam Riggs. Other main players in its development were a group of volunteers, Business Edge for the software, the great Melissa Moats for voiceover, Columbus-based Cybervation for production, the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi for funding, and of course WatchKnowLearn is our parent organization and chief promoter.

Why Reading Bear works

What's so great about Reading Bear, anyway? We've gotten excellent reviews and many fans among teachers, homeschoolers, and of course kids. So why does it work?

The way I see it, phonics is pretty simple. It's just a matter of practice. To read phonetically, you don't need to learn the jargon and symbols used by reading specialists. You just need lots of clear examples, attractively presented. Reading Bear does that. Each presentation shows 25 words (on average) sounded out or read at four different speeds. That lets the child understand quickly and easily how each word is constructed.

But reading isn't just decoding. It is also getting meaning. That's why, after breaking down the word and its sounds, Reading Bear shows a picture specially chosen to teach the meaning of the word. Then the word is used in a very basic sentence, either a definition or some basic fact about the concept, and the sentence is illustrated with a 5-second video. So the student sees the word written and spoken, both by itself and in a sentence, and gets the word's meaning simply and attractively from multimedia.

Reading Bear is also fun. The bare description of it might sound dry, but I challenge you to sit any beginning reader in front of the program and observe the results. Kids love it. Why do they love it? It's everything. They love the way the letter flashing clarifies letter sounds. They love the pictures, of course, and the simple sentences and videos. The whole thing makes sense of language. Kids love to learn, and I think that with Reading Bear, and they can sense that they're really learning. They love the "aha!" moment, and that's what Reading Bear delivers, over and over.

One way that Reading Bear makes sense of language is a feature that few other programs have. It matches up letter sounds to individual letters, karaoke style, for every piece of text in the program. We didn't take the easy way out and match up whole words or syllables. We put in hours and hours matching up the audio with individual letters or letter combinations (if the combinations are taught by Reading Bear). And not only are the words read out that way automatically. If you want to focus on a word and see how it is broken down phonetically, you can also click on it and we'll show a pronunciation from our hand-made 2700+ entry pronunciation dictionary. What other reading program can say that?

Reading Bear challenges students to do only what they're ready to do. It goes in steps. At first, it's useful just to see how words are broken down. We have a step for that (passive learning). Then they should repeat quickly what the presentation says slowly. We have a step for that (repeating). Then the student be able to say a word after it is sounded out. We have a step for that (blending). Finally, with practice, the student should be able to sound out a word for himself and blend it. We have a step for that (reading). Finally, you can take an online quiz, which is automatically generated each time you click the quiz button and, believe it or not, it's rather fun.

This whole procedure very efficient. The student has to do just a simple thing, when ready: watch, repeat, blend, and finally read. Everything else about the program reinforces meaning.

Finally, you might wonder how Reading Bear stacks up against some other reading programs. Here are a few notes:

  • Starfall is great, and it certainly has its place (even in my home). But Starfall simply isn't as complete in its coverage of phonics as Reading Bear is. It also doesn't teach vocabulary. You won't find the carefully-chosen photos, definitions, and videos that open children's eyes to language. Finally, it breaks down only some of the words. Every phonetic word is broken down by Reading Bear, and you can choose to have sentences read to you or to read them yourself. I think of Reading Bear as unlocking the mysteries of language efficiently and attractively, whereas Starfall is a supplement.
  • Literactive is another of my favorites, and for us was as useful as Starfall. In fact, I will be honest and admit that it is one of Reading Bear's inspirations. While it does break down words rather better than Starfall does, and does read whole words while highlighting them, Reading Bear does these things better. Literactive also does not teach phonics systematically--its readers are wonderful, but the actual phonics instruction will have to come from elsewhere.
  • Finally, I won't list them, but there are zillions of programs out there that I think of as simply digital worksheets or games. They're marginally more interesting than paper worksheets, but in my opinion, they don't teach nearly as efficiently, and are much more tiresome, than Reading Bear. Reading Bear isn't a video game, but it's still fun. When you get to the end of those programs, you've won a game. When you get to the end of Reading Bear, you can read.

There is nothing like Reading Bear at any price. Even if you don't use it as the main tool in your classroom, you can use it as a supplement, and enjoy the results. Try it out. Once you see how your students love it and learn from it, you'll be using it a lot.


The uses of Reading Bear

After reading some feedback from a recent survey I performed on the Reading Bear website, it strikes me that some people don't understand how to use the site, despite the availability of help with this, including a help video.

I think I understand the trouble people are having. The trouble is that there are many different options and many ways through the same material. So what I think I need to do is to add a section to the help page explaining about use cases--in other words, advice to people in particular situations. Here's a draft for your more immediate consumption, addressed to teachers, homeschoolers, and parents of very small children.

What path should I take through Reading Bear?

How you should use Reading Bear depends on your situation. Let's address some cases.

As a classroom supplement for a phonics program. Suppose you've already got a rigorous phonics curriculum in your pre-K, Kindergarten, or First Grade class, and you don't want to give up the curriculum, but Reading Bear looks great to you. In that case, you'd take a few minutes out to match, as best as you can, the scope and sequence of your program to the Reading Bear scope and sequence. Not all phonics programs follow the same methods or introduce the same rules, but there are often similarities or useful overlap. For maximum use in individual workstations, have your kids begin with "Sound It Out Slowly" and, if they find they don't need that preliminary practice, tell them to switch to "Sound It Out Quickly." If they don't need words sounded out for them, then have them switch to "Let Me Sound It Out." If they can already decode the words in a set, and you want to use Reading Bear for reinforcement, then they could use "Silent Flashcards," the review presentations, and the quizzes for that. Note that the reviews and the quizzes are different (randomized) each time you open them. The sentences and videos in "Audio Sentences" can be used as a little reinforcing treat, if students like them. Finally, if the students are advanced and just want some fun practice, they can use "Silent Sentences." While the sentences are not leveled, they are at a low (1st-3rd grade) reading level. If students get stuck on a word, they can simply click on it and the pronunciation dictionary both sounds out and blends the word.

As a classroom supplement for a whole language program. If your class has only limited exposure to phonics, and your focus is more on student reading of leveled texts and teacher read-alouds, then you might want to use Reading Bear--which is 100% free--as a quick, efficient introduction to systematic phonics. When we have finished creating our presentations (we're hard at work, but it takes time!), the site will teach a complete set of phonics rules following a painless, yet effective and proven method (it is basically a digital version of Flesch's method from Why Johnny Can't Read). We recommend that you use the procedure outlined here (see "Steps to Follow").  In individual work stations, let students understand that they should stay on a presentation only as long as they have to. If they have mastered a set of words, and are getting 14 or 15 out of 15 on the quiz for a presentation, then move on. We are confident that with just 10 minutes a day, your little readers could be recognizing words with renewed confidence.

As a resource for remedial work. A number of remedial reading educators have praised Reading Bear. It is well-known that what many poor readers need is to have the phonics rules of written English made extremely clear. They also often have trouble blending words. While Reading Bear is a brand new program and so no studies have yet been done, these problems are things that it seems we can help with. Reading Bear is, first and foremost, a systematic phonics site. Rule are simple, and typically illustrated with a few dozen examples. Our emphasis is on making phonics rules second nature. We also do something that no other free phonics program does--sound out every word that is introduced, at two speeds, and blend it slowly, before reading it at full speed. This teaches both the individual parts of words and how they come together as a whole. So we believe Reading Bear's unique strength, along with its combination of phonics and vocabulary work, is in its power to teach blending. We are sure that remedial reading instructors are capable of determining how best to use the resources of Reading Bear, but we recommend that students be allowed to go through the program at their own pace, not moving forward until they have achieved mastery. "Mastery" here means reading words rapidly and accurately, without sounding them out, or sounding them out only "in the head."

One last thing to teachers. A couple teachers have complained that Reading Bear moves too fast. In their classwork, some teachers can spend a long time on a single word, and they can't get past the fact that Reading Bear, even in the "Sound It Out Slowly" setting, covers a single word in a half-minute at most. If there is a disagreement here, it is methodological. But first, we do assume that students have completely mastered the consonant sounds and do not have any trouble reproducing a sound immediately on seeing a letter. Once students are at that comfort level with the letters, the Reading Bear method can teach students a rule rather than teaching words. For purposes of teaching a rule, going through many examples quickly and explicitly, with the aim of making use of the rule automatic, is more effective than a slower, analytical pace. If a student has indeed mastered the consonant sounds and then learns the short /a/ sound from the Reading Bear presentation, she should have no trouble decoding the words. She will not have to memorize individual words.

As a homeschooling program for complete beginners. Reading Bear is perfect for one-on-one work. You work at your own pace. But we do not start at the very beginning. The first step to learning to read, using phonics, is to gain absolute mastery of the letter sounds--not just familiarity, but mastery. So if your students cannot reproduce the sounds of the consonants instantly (the vowels don't matter so much, because they are highly variable and are taught in phonics), you could have them practice the consonants with books or with these videos. When they can instantly and reliably say the most common sounds (hard c, hard g) of any consonant upon being presented with it, they're ready for Reading Bear. Once they're ready, if they're between 4 and 6, we recommend easing students into the program with "Sound It Out Slowly," gradually switch to "Sound It Out Quickly" and "Let Me Sound It out," and aim for mastery. They'll pick up the rules automatically after they see many examples. Don't go onto the next presentation until your student really understands the previous one and can read the words without pausing to sound them out. The rules are cumulative after the first five, so there are definite advantages to doing them in order. If you're using Reading Bear as a supplement to your main phonics program, however, you might want to do them "out of order"--see above under "As a classroom supplement for a phonics program."

As an early-education program for preschoolers, toddlers, and even babies. Reading Bear is highly visual and introduces its information explicitly and at a pace that can hold the interest of the very young--your mileage may vary, but we know of many small children who sit still for Reading Bear. Very young children are at a golden age in which they can absorb complex information effortlessly. This is how they learn to speak without any lessons--and even in multiple languages, or sign language. Writing is, after all, just another and rather clearer form of this very complex phenomenon we call language. If you think about it, there is no reason to suppose small children are incapable of decoding written language if they can pick up French, Spanish, or Mandarin, or sign language, along with spoken English. Moreover, this is the experience of a rapidly growing community of people who use methods like Glenn Doman's and products like Your Baby Can Read.

While there is no hard-nosed research on methods of teaching babies to read (see this discussion), there is a lot of individual experience shared in books like Doman's (and one by Timothy Kailing) and in the BrillKids.com Forums. Reading Bear can be used with some of these methods. Simply playing one part (i.e., the A, B, C, etc. parts under the title) of the "short a" presentation using the "Sound It Out Slowly" setting to a two-year-old, once per day, can be enough to let the child infer phonics rules and, eventually, learn to read. But by itself, Reading Bear is unlikely to have this effect. The child should be exposed to his ABCs and letter sounds and be read to daily, and in other ways benefit from a rich language environment. It also helps greatly to point to the words as you read them to your child, even a very small child who can't read at all. Finally, don't expect immediate, dramatic results, and don't test your child--doing so tends to put small children off, and increase stress levels, we have found. Simply think of your early language development tasks--including use of Reading Bear--as just fun enrichment activities, and enjoy the journey.


Nominate Reading Bear for an Edublog award!

Hey, I can't nominate ReadingBear.org myself in the Edublog Awards "Best free web tool" category, but it would be grand if you did!  We need the publicity--we just launched!

And don't forget WatchKnowLearn.org in the "wiki" category!