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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 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.