The case for using Reading Bear in preschools

Or, how and why to use Reading Bear in preschools.

First, let me say what I am not arguing for here. I am not arguing that preschoolers should be required to learn to read, that preschools should attempt to teach reading, or that they should tell parents that their children will try to learn how to read.  You might want to use Reading Bear for pre-literacy activities with no intention of teaching preschoolers how to read.

I also do not want to defend baby reading.  That's another subject, which I cover in this long essay.

Finally, I refuse to be saddled with a defense of "academic preschool."  Reading Bear is painless and not very demanding, even for preschoolers, and so far, all the preschoolers I've heard of using it have liked it (some, enthusiastically).  But admittedly, it is "academic," in the sense that it teaches literacy skills.  Still, I don't support the idea of intensely academic preschools.  I support early education, but on a limited schedule.  I agree that little ones should spend the vast bulk of their time playing.

In the following, you can assume that I advocate that preschoolers be exposed only to the "Sound It Out Slowly" presentation type.  I have more ideas for using Reading Bear in a preschool classroom further down.

Why use Reading Bear in preschool classrooms?

So here's my case for using Reading Bear in preschool classrooms.  The first arguments are about pre-literacy skills that are, on anyone's view, perfectly age-appropriate to teach to preschoolers.  Note that these are features that few other reading programs have in combination.

1. English text is highlighted left to right. First, Reading Bear highlights the text, at the phoneme and blend level (not at the word level), as words and sentences are read.  Seeing the colored text and underlining moving left to right, over and over, will train students to recognize that text is always read left to right.

2. Sentence highlighting teaches that words and whole sentences are made up of individual sounds. A feature that is virtually unique to Reading Bear is that individual sounds and blends are highlighted whenever they are read aloud, according to the phonetic rules Reading Bear introduces, even in sentences.  This helps students to see that words and even whole sentences can ultimately be understood as made up of individual sounds.  Of course, students won't learn to read those sentences (at least, not right away), but they should gain the crucial pre-literacy insight that words and sentences are made up of discrete sounds that are blended together.

3. Reinforces letter sounds. All 44 of the sounds of the English language are reinforced by Reading Bear.  When words are sounded out and blended (in four different ways), the children are quickly and naturally exposed to literally thousands of examples of individual letter sounds, in context.  Now, we do maintain that children should have learned their basic letter sounds (this video collection might help) before attempting to sound out and decode the words in Reading Bear themselves.  But for preschoolers, Reading Bear can be used to train them to recognize letter sounds in the first place, if they stick with the "Sound It Out Slowly" presentation type.

4. Models correct pronunciation. Reading Bear has two features that make it ideal for improving pronunciation.  First, sounds are broken down and formed clearly and repeatedly.  Second, you can go to Settings and check "Always show video of word spoken," and the for each word, you'll see a professional voiceover artist forming the sounds and saying the word at normal speed.

5. Introduces vocabulary effectively. Reading Bear introduces a lot of vocabulary.  In fact, by the time we're finished, around 1,500 vocabulary items will be introduced and defined or described by Reading Bear's sentences.  Even if a lot of it is familiar to preschoolers ("sat," "dog"), some of it probably isn't ("ebb," "kid" in the sense of baby goat, many more).  In addition, there is a carefully-chosen, illustrative picture and video for each word.  Kids generally like these.  It "demystifies" the world of language that surrounds them.

Next are a couple more controversial points.

6. If Your Baby Can Read can make kids into early readers, Reading Bear probably can too. If you aren't already convinced that baby reading is a good idea, I won't be able to convince you here.  Suffice it to say that this happened with my own son, and he's far from being the only one.  Beginning at 22 months, we used both Your Baby Can Read and flashcard versions of the word sets used by Reading Bear; he was decoding text at around the third grade level by his third birthday.  Many other cases of kids being taught to read early are documented online (e.g., on YouTube and BrillKids.com).  See my essay on baby reading for a video and more explanation and argumentation.

7. In the past, most early readers learned how to decode words by themselves; Reading Bear makes the same insights intuitive for kids. Studies have shown that--at least, in the past--most children who learned to read early generally learned to "crack the code" of phonics by themselves.  Perhaps because a parent or teacher has run a finger under the text while reading a lot, the child has learned how letters "make" sounds.  This is just the insight that Reading Bear makes extremely intuitive.  Even if a preschool class never gets past the "Sound It Out Slowly" presentations, I strongly suspect that the presentations will unlock reading for some preschoolers.  Please do not try to force this or even expect it (I never did with my child), but with the right methods, it can happen.  If it does, it's something to encourage and support, not to stifle.

Ideas on using Reading Bear in preschool classrooms

Here is one way that I imagine Reading Bear being used in a preschool classroom. Suppose the class has three- and four-year-olds meeting five days a week for three hours a day.  Then you might want to show a full 15-minute presentation to the class daily.  You'd start with "short a," select "Sound It Out Slowly," and in Settings, uncheck "Pause and ask me to say the words."  I'd invite the children to sing out the words while they are being sounded out or slowly blended.  These selections will ensure that the presentation is easiest to follow and simply plays like a video.  If school is twice a week, you might want to show half of it one day and the other half the next day.

I would show the same presentation two or three times with those settings (over the course of some days).  After that, I might show the words but with the "Pause and ask me to say the words" setting checked. Then the presentation will stop after the slow blended version, show the word, and ask, "What's this say?"  It should be easy for preschoolers to say the words.  They are sounded out and blended slowly; all the students have to do is repeat the words at normal speed, and by this time they will have already seen and heard the words at normal speed 2-3 times.  If no or few of the children are participating, I'd leave the "Pause and ask me to say the words" setting checked.  That's completely fine.  (I think it's a bad idea to quiz little ones when they have no interest in participating.)

Whether you want to go any farther than that, for preschoolers, depends on the kids and you.  The question is whether you want to show your preschoolers the "Sound It Out Quickly" presentation type.  In this presentation type, Reading Bear only sounds out a word the quickly, and then I'd invite the students to say the word before going on.  Many students have difficulty going from sounding out to blending; this is one of the biggest hurdles in learning to read.  If it would require what you regard as excessive drilling to get many of your students to this point, you probably shouldn't do it; don't try the patience of little ones.

Even if you don't teach the students how to blend words themselves, they're still learning a lot, as I explained above.

Some students who are 2-4 years old are capable of learning how to blend.  If you are using individual workstations, or your students really are up to it, then you might want to go on and show them "Sound It Out Quickly."  I'd show it to them 1-3 times (over a period of some days, again), until they can blend the word reliably.  Then you'd move on to "Let Me Sound It Out," again only if students are able to take the next step and actually read the words (which, through repetition if nothing else, they might be able to do).  It's up to you whether you want to call on students to read the words or have them shout the words out all together.

Some final steps might be to use the "silent flashcards" for quicker practice, and taking the quiz as a group.

Throughout the above, I would look for signs that the students are finding Reading Bear dull or too difficult.  It might get dull to you, but of course, little kids like repetition more than you do.  If they look bored or too challenged, though, I would not attempt to teach them the whole thing.  They'll still be learning lots.

Then go on to the next presentation and, as they say--lather, rinse, repeat.

Just be sure to review old presentations (either individually or using the Review feature), because this helps the kids to keep their grasp of phonics rules fresh.  Just because they knew a rule a month or two ago doesn't mean they still remember them.  And one other thing.  I suspect that even if you go through the first five presentations relatively quickly, just doing "Sound It Out Slowly" 2-3 times before moving on, this will help kids to learn how to blend.  You might find that they are blending words on a second pass through.  That happened with my son--he was able to blend words much better the second time we went through that first set of five presentations.


Post-launch raves about Reading Bear

Here's a run-down of the initial publicity and online buzz about Reading Bear.

Reading Bear was on the front page of the high-profile tech blog TheNextWeb.com yesterday, with this article.

Techie Buzz “Reading Bear Teaches Kids to Read for Free”:

“There is a great new tool to teach kids how to read. It’s called Reading Bear. … The website has as 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.”

Hubpages.com “Websites that Teach Children How to Read”:

• First of four sites listed.

• “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.”

Create and Learn with Laura “Aprender los patrones fonéticos del Inglés escrito de manera sencilla” (Learn phonetic patterns in simple written English):

• “Es una manera fácil y amena de aprender algunos principios complejos de fonética.” (It is an easy and fun way to learn some complex principles of phonetics.)

• “Es flexible, puedes escoger y elegir las presentaciones específicas y opciones para adaptar el sistema a tus necesidades. Podría ser especialmente útil en los programas de recuperación de lectura.” (It is flexible; you can pick and choose specific presentations and options to adapt the system to your needs. It could be especially useful in remedial reading programs.)

Twitter tweets:

• Over 500 tweets
• “Great initiative!”
• “Hey cool!”
• "fabulous!”
• “Great idea. This is why I love the internet.”
• “Schickt eure Kiddies zum Reading Reading Bear statt zu RTL2” (send your kiddies to Reading Bear instead of to RTL2—German television station)
• “Muy bueno para los peques” (very good for kids)

The new Reading Bear Facebook page has 30 "likes" (please "like" it, too!)

BrillKids.com forum (this is a little biased--they know me there):

• “WOW! Great job! Thank you very much for creating this outstanding tool for teaching reading in a fun and effective way!”
• “This is a great looking site, I'll definitely help spread the word, in my blog/facebook/word of mouth...”
• “this is awsome.my 4yr old loved this!!!! <3”
• Awesome!!! We love Reading Bear. My almost 3 years old want to watch Reading Bear every day. We have tried the quiz part, and just love it. I can't beleive my son gets almost the perfect scores! He only missed a few whenever he came acrossed words beginning with L...  Thanks!”
• “you've just brought happiness to thousands of parents and kids! (and perhaps millions in future)  Thank you for making it FREE! The gift of literacy to early readers should not come with a big price tag…”
• “Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you!!!  Amazing!”
• “Amazing the work you've done. Reading Bear is so great and I just love the fact that it's free and therefore accessible to everyone. My 2.5y old daughter loves it. She only knows all the letter's sound so far. With Reading Bear she enjoys repeating the letter's sound and the words. Of course the animation included hold all her attention. Thank you so so much for all your work!”

SecularHomeschool.com forum:

• “This looks great! ... Thanks for passing it along.”
• “Cool! Thanks!”
• “Awesome!!”


Why build a site that teaches children to read?

Or: why am I spending over a year of my life developing a reading tutorial for little kids?

You might think such a question invites boring platitudes of the sort that afflicts a lot of writing about education.

Well, I'll try not to bore you.

With my academic training and a background developing collaborative websites, it probably seems strange that I should be developing a reading site (Reading Bear).  Instead of going into the for-profit world (I've had plenty of opportunities), I would rather be working more independently on projects that I know can have a significant impact on the world. Since it is now so cheap to reach a mass audience, I think knowledge should be freely available. I don't mean mediocre stuff that merely adds to the noise of Internet life--I mean high quality educational materials, such as I described a few years back in a petition.  Bill Gates supporting the Khan Academy is roughly the sort of thing I mean.  This is low-hanging fruit, when it comes to having a significant impact on the world.

"Yes, yes," you say, "that's all easy to concede.  But why a site that teaches children to read, of all things?  It could have been anything, right?  With your background, why did you choose reading?"

I do think my time has been well spent developing just one resource (so far, just 14 presentations) meant to teach children to read, and I have some reasons to think so.  These are reasons that you too might support Reading Bear.

But partly, of course, it's because I have two small children myself right now.

A free reading tool is "low-hanging fruit"

First, suppose you agreed that high-quality free educational resources were "low-hanging fruit."  If so, there is one question you'd want to answer--to wit, what is the deepest educational problem that might be significantly addressed (not to say solved) by an educational resource?  Set aside problems like anti-intellectual cultures, parents, and peers, uninspired teaching, the industrial model of education, and wrongheaded educational theories.  The question is: the lack of what skill or knowledge goes farthest in explaining generally poor educational outcomes?

The answer seems obvious: poor reading ability.  Reading is the ur-skill of education, arguably the most fundamental intellectual skill that schools develop.  It is well known that children who are poor readers in the early elementary grades usually fall even farther behind in subsequent years.  The failure is not just an inability to decode; it is also a failure to pick up basic vocabulary.  Starting out behind, children end up getting discouraged; they learn to hate school and learning generally, so the cycle continues from generation to generation.  If there were a way to teach them to read at an early age, both to decode and to comprehend grade-level books, they would be much less likely to fall behind.

"OK," you say, "that's plausible.  If we could get kids reading on time, that would probably have a greater impact than, say, to add or write better or grasp basic science.  But teaching kids to read is a huge problem, of course.  Surely you're not saying that a single website could fix that?"

On the one hand: of course not, that would be ridiculously hubristic.  Reading Bear will probably not do that.  On the other hand, that's the dream, isn't it?  If this weren't at least possible, I probably wouldn't be interested.  Please understand--of course it is a great thing to provide yet another educational resource, especially a high-quality one.  But I am motivated by the possibility of radically changing the world for the better, not little, incremental changes.

There is some small reason to think that a website could work a revolution in reading education.  For one thing, I get the impression that more and more parents are turning to the Internet (and handheld apps) to "fill in the gaps" in their childrens' education.  They are taking more responsibility for their childrens' education, because Internet tools make it easy.  To the extent that parents are very concerned if their children are not reading well by age 7, they'll proactively seek out tools to do so.  One of the first places they'll look is online--and for free tools.

I've looked a lot for free online tools that parents can use to teach their children to read.  I'm familiar with what's out there.  The two best that I've found so far are Starfall and Literactive.  These both sound out words nicely, they have some well-done visuals that are attractive to kids, and they are phonics-oriented.  I highly recommend both.  But they don't systematically teach a complete set of phonics rules; most kids wouldn't be able to learn how to read just using Starfall and Literactive.  There are also a lot of excellent YouTube videos, which are pretty well organized in WatchKnowLearn, but it's hit-and-miss and they aren't systematic.

The fact of the matter is that there are some very nice supplementary reading tools for kids online (and in apps), but there isn't anything that a parent could use with a child that would actually teach the child to read.  You might say that the reason for this is that no one tool could teach a child to read.  Insofar as one means "read" in a very strong sense, so that learning to read is naturally a years-long endeavor, then of course I agree.  But insofar as it means "merely" giving children the key to decoding words, which for most students has been the single hardest part of learning to read, I strongly disagree.

I maintain that teaching English-speaking children to decode English is not very hard, at least, not for most students, given the right method.  This is apt to sound outrageous to some remedial reading teachers, because both students and teachers are clearly struggling: for them, there is no easy way to do it.

Those are precisely the people I want to try out Reading Bear: prove me wrong.  Actually try it out (it's 100% free) and if your students do not improve quickly, I will post to this blog describing Reading Bear's limitations.  But I think that when students use it, if they are of the ordinary age of beginners (4-7), they will find it engaging and will quickly learn the rules of English phonics.  I am biased, of course, and I could be wrong.  I freely admit that the program has not been tested with ordinary school-age kids (but it has been tested quite positively so far, though informally, with younger children by BrillKids.com forum participants).  Part of the reason I am confident that it will work to some extent is that I saw just how what was essentially the same method worked with my own son, when he was 1-2 years old.  But another part is that I think I know a particular thing about how people, including little kids, are capable of learning: you analyze a skill into its component parts or aspects, and organize them into steps; teach each part of the skill from the simplest steps to the most complex; drill each part as much as necessary, and expect mastery of a step before moving on to the next; review a lot; and go through all the steps.  This is precisely what a sound method of systematic phonics does.  Systematic phonics works because it follows this universal method of learning.  Reading Bear, when complete, will be a complete systematic phonics method.

Of course, the big question about Reading Bear is whether kids (and parents and teachers) will find it engaging (or credible) enough to stick with it over the long haul, from beginning to end.  I think we'll know more in the coming months.  But all reports so far is that it is very engaging: parents tell me that kids do like it, from babies, through preschoolers, up to elementary school students.  The four-part "karaoke" method, for lack of a better name, demystifies words in a very satisfying sort of way; the pictures, sentences, and videos seem interesting, and again demystify word meanings; and users can switch to more challenging levels as they go through.  Maybe most important, however, is that it needn't take much effort: Reading Bear lets you be passive in learning to read.  You just sort of soak up the examples and naturally infer the rules, which is how we learn language in the cradle, after all.  So on the one hand, Reading Bear is very efficient and no-nonsense in how it goes about teaching phonics rules and vocabulary; on the other hand, it's fairly easy, and even passive, not unlike watching TV.

The annals of educational history are strewn with examples of successful methods that are largely ignored by the educational bureaucracies.  So, I don't know whether schools will adopt Reading Bear very much--of course, I hope so, and there is no reason they shouldn't--but I can't count on it.  I am by contrast more confident that if there is a method of teaching reading that is free online, easy to use, and works extremely well, parents will in time come to use it en masse with their kids.  They will make sure that their own kids can read, regardless of what schools might be doing.

Parental involvement and early reading

This leads me to another, separate reason to think Reading Bear might work a revolution in reading: because it's unusually simple (uncomplicated), parents might use it with their kids long before Kindergarten.  After all, it is a digitized version of the method I used to teach my son to read, beginning at age 22 months.  A year later he was already decoding at the 2nd or 3rd grade level.  Others  have used the flash cards (which you can still download) with good results.  So that relatively crude method worked well, and with its more attractive features, Reading Bear should work even better.  Admittedly, I see no evidence so far that my flashcards (or pre-launch versions of Reading Bear, for that matter) work much better than some "baby reading" methods on offer, such as Your Baby Can Read or Little Reader.  But Reading Bear has one big advantage over these: it's free.  I suspect Reading Bear will work better with preschoolers.  This is because it requires a bit more patience, and draws on vocabulary that preschoolers have (or can easily learn) but which babies generally lack.  Also, it is, of course, a lot more plausible to a lot more parents that kids can learn to read as preschoolers than as babies.

Let's suppose that--what is unproven yet--Reading Bear works unusually well with preschoolers.  They love it, and many who start early end up reading excellently before the age of four.  Suppose that the average child learns to read in a few months with it.  I don't know if this is the case, but suppose it is.  Note, this is not a supposition about publicity, market share, or anything other than the success of the program in actually turning little kids into readers efficiently.

Since it is online and "plugged in," proud parents will see to it that word inevitably gets around the Internet and the site will grow in popularity just by word of mouth if nothing else--especially because, again, it's free.  I note that the free reading site Starfall hovers around 4,000 on Alexa.  The dream is that Reading Bear cracks the top 1,000.  Once it gets popular enough, it has a chance to attract serious media attention, which leads to more traffic and some level of "general public awareness."

Note that none of this requires the involvement of teachers, schools, school districts, or any part of the educational bureaucracy.  But what would be the effect if there were general public awareness of Reading Bear, once an expanded crop of literate preschoolers hit Kindergarten and first grade and started making life more complicated for teachers?  I think some education commentators will dig in their heels and decry the trend.  They will cite studies about acceleration (that really don't prove anything about early readers), too much screen time, and use other academic disinformation to dissuade schools and preschools from adopting Reading Bear "too early."  But if the program works, the facts on the ground will quickly prove the experts wrong.  Reading Bear-trained early readers would very likely resemble the academically successful early readers of previous studies (see my essay for a summary of the research), and before too long, their success will be too hard to dismiss.  Political pressure will be brought to bear.  If not Reading Bear itself, tools similar to it are apt to be adopted widely in preschools, and there will be public interest campaigns getting parents to teach their kids to read using such programs by age three.

So that's how I think it is possible that a website could have a big impact on reading education.

But now my faithful critic pipes up.  "But how significant or interesting is this possibility?" you say.  "It assumes that Reading Bear works amazingly well:  kids love it so much that they want to use it until they've gone through the whole program and/or parents will have the patience and motivation to take them all the way through, the program can be used to good effect by preschoolers, going all the way through the program will teach them to read, and that they can do all this unusually quickly (a period of months, not years).  You can't assume any of that."  True, very true.  That would be a remarkable conjunction of circumstances.

Suffice it to say that it is possible, even if, in all modesty, I must admit that it isn't too likely.  I enjoy working on websites that might change the world for the better--even if they don't have the impact I wish they would.

If you agree with me that the possibility is significant enough to justify developing such a site, then perhaps you will try yourself.  The world does, after all, need all the truly high-quality educational content it can get.  If you can afford to support high-quality content, by which I mean the sort that you would forgo millions of dollars by giving it away, I hope you will consider doing just that.  The impact on the world could be extraordinary.


Reading Bear launches!

All, after a lot of planning and even more work, Reading Bear is now live on ReadingBear.org.  We are launching with 14 presentations, averaging around 15 minutes per presentation--in the longest of seven versions; there is an automatically-generated quiz with every presentation and an automatically-generated review every five presentations.  There are various other features and settings. In fact, it's positively feature-rich, and also well-tested and fairly stable.

This video lays it all out. Watch it full screen:

I'm going to spend a month or so promoting it, while continuing to work on new presentations.