OAKLAND, Calif. - After spending years in the classroom, Jessica Reid Sliwerski decided to tap into her experience as an elementary school teacher and principal to teach as many kids as possible to read using a science-based methodology.
When the coronavirus struck, upending education as we know it, she pivoted to Zoom tutorials led by the nonprofit she founded called Ignite! Reading, which is part of an emerging trend of high-tech literacy projects coming out of the pandemic.
"The literacy crisis in our country is not because kids can't learn to read but because they don't have access to the kind of instruction they need," she said.
Sliwerski launched a nine-week summer pilot, serving about 100 Bay Area K-three students, that was so successful she has since embarked upon a yearlong project at West Oakland's KIPP: Bridge Academy.
Principal Michael Burks said it's been a game-changer for a school where many students urgently need one-on-one attention to learn to read.
"We do the best that we can," said Burks, as he supervises the school's tech hub where 70 students rotate through 15-minute Zoom sessions with 15 tutors. "But right now, I can't just hire 15 teachers to be like, boom, let's make this happen. This way each of these babies is with a different tutor who knows what they're doing with a curriculum that's strong and science-based and who has the time and the resources to teach these lessons."
While learning to read may seem like the ultimate in-person activity, conjuring up images of snuggling on a parent's lap, Sliwerski is not the only educator who has found a high-tech solution to teaching during the pandemic.
Stanford University associate professor Rebecca Silverman has also been trying to re-imagine how learning happens during the Covid era.
She is also using Zoom to bridge the gap between student and teacher for Ravenswood Reads, a long-running reading tutorial for low-income K-three students in San Mateo County.
There is also a range of education technology startups in the one-to-one, online tutoring space, including Hoot Reading and the AI-fueled Amira. These projects offer a glimmer of hope, some say, amid the grim reality that almost half of California students perform below grade level on standardized reading assessments.
"Kids learn better with real teachers and tutors, there's no doubt," said Todd Collins, one of the organizers of the California Reading Coalition, a literacy advocacy group.
"This is a good use of ed-tech to boost, not replace, the human component. Ignite is using technology to make in-person tutoring more accessible. They have very good results, particularly for kids who are the most behind."
The literacy crisis is particularly acute in California. The state has long been saddled with dismal reading scores as well as gaping disparities between low-income students and their higher-income peers. During the 2018-19 school year, only 48.5 percent of third graders tested at grade level or above in English language arts on the state's Smarter Balanced tests.
Reading is such a foundational skill, research shows, that students who lag at that point often fail to catch up. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond recently began a new initiative to get every third grader reading by 2026. That benchmark, some say, should come even sooner.
"I think that's too late. By third grade, that gap is widening, and the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer," Sliwerski said. "I'm trying to ignite the system and light a fire under people to get our babies reading when they are supposed to learn how to read. And that is by the end of first grade."
The need to expand access to reading instruction is also what fuels Stanford's Ravenswood program, in which roughly 20 Stanford students tutor 20 low-income K-three students, including English language learners, from East Palo Alto.
Launched in 1986, the project had to switch to an online format because of the pandemic, but Silverman points out that the digital arena has its advantages. Tutors can now use visuals as well as sounds, for example, to build context around words and meanings. Students were able to make their own books using Google Slides. Interactivity blossomed.
"While we would still prefer to be in-person to foster the bond between tutor and tutee, we found that tutoring remotely could be a success," said Silverman, an associate professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education who studies literacy and reading development among pre-K and elementary school children.
"The interesting thing was, for some kids, Zoom was almost like a safe space for them to get to know their tutor. The relationship is really important. Kids have to learn to trust their tutor so they feel safe to make mistakes, to try things that are hard."
How effective is virtual tutoring? Overall, students in the Ignite summer project made an average of 2.5 weeks of reading progress for every week they were in the program, organizers say. Best of all, the further a student was below grade level, the more progress they made.
The concept is simple. Each student received 30 minutes per day of one-on-one tutoring from a remote tutor via Zoom. Half the time was spent on foundational reading skills, such as phonics, targeted to a student's needs. The other half was spent reading together to build vocabulary and comprehension.
"The secret sauce is the curriculum and approach they are using," Collins said. "But it isn't that secret -- they are just doing what every school district should be doing. They are focusing on foundational skills and doing explicit and systematic instruction -- this has been the gold standard for 20 years, but most schools don't actually do it."
While a third grader reading at kindergarten level may feel self-conscious in a group lesson, working with a tutor on Zoom feels quite private. One child in KIPP's tech hub may be painstakingly sounding out one-syllable words, such as sun and cat, while another is tackling a paragraph.
Still, each child is getting the kind of personalized instruction that challenges and rewards them in almost every lesson, said Sliwerski, and that's the key to engagement. It's usually best to tailor the lesson to fit the child, experts say.
"Some kids really need comprehension support. Some kids really need decoding support. How do we really target what they need?" Silverman said. "That's the value of tutoring, the personalized or individualized instruction where you can see the exact mix of things that would benefit a kiddo and target those areas."
When third grader Tavaris Patterson successfully sounded out a row of words, he happily reminded his tutor to give him some "hearts," bright red stickers stamped onto the screen.
"They're being asked to do something that is appropriately challenging, and they're doing it right. That feels really good," Sliwerski said. "The teachers in the school, the ones who know the kids really well, when they watch them starting to read words, you can see the tears coming. They take out their phones and video it so they can text the parents."
Tapping into the joy of learning is also critical at a time when the world is more distracting than ever. Growing up in a pandemic means that many children are coping with fear, loss and trauma every day.
Leading child health care groups recently declared a national emergency in children's mental health, citing the toll Covid-19 has taken on the nation's youth.
That sense of turbulence can seep into the classroom.
Kaila'N Joshua is a little boy with big emotions that often end up with him yelling in the hallways. He started out hating reading, Sliwerski said. Just 11 days into the Ignite program, he had begun to change his mind.
"My tutor teaches me things I didn't know. Like roly-poly bugs. They are called pill bugs. They hide between buildings in the dark," said the almost 9-year-old, eager to share what he has discovered. "Not all books are just about learning the lessons. Some books are fun."
Cultivating a desire to read may be key to sparking literacy, experts say. A facility for communication can be a cornerstone of social justice, many suggest, in an era of widening achievement gaps and economic inequality.
"It's 100 percent an equity issue," Burks said. "As a Black man, I know my ancestors would have had their tongues cut out or limbs cut off if they tried to read. I've got to pay it forward. If you're not able to read by the time you get to fourth grade, it just puts you on a different life trajectory. Our job is to make sure these kids have those skills."