Q&A: Teaching kids how to read on Zoom


A Zoom tutoring session with Ignite! Reading.

A year ago, in the depths of the pandemic, a high-tech literacy project set up shop at West Oakland’s KIPP Bridge Academy. Created by a former schoolteacher turned literacy specialist, Jessica Reid Sliwerski, Ignite Reading aimed to teach kids how to read on Zoom, offering one-on-one tutoring while eliminating COVID risks.

Students spent about 15 minutes a day working with their Zoom tutor, targeting their own individual reading needs. Some KIPP third-graders struggled with basic words like “cat” and “sun,” awkwardly sounding them out, while others tackled whole sentences. One little boy begged his tutor for hearts, little red stickers stamped on the screen, a reward for a job well done. 

It turned out to be a transformative move for a high-poverty school lacking the resources and know-how to boost its literacy scores amid the chaos of the pandemic. Ignite sparked impressive results, with K-5 students making an average of 2.4 weeks of reading progress every week in the program. 

The ambitious pilot project has since grown from 70 students at that one Oakland school to more than 1,200 students in 22 schools across five states today. We recently caught up with Sliwerski to talk about her vision of reading tutoring, the science of reading and what it will take to solve the nation’s literacy crisis. 

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

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

Q: You have scaled up from a pilot project at one school to 22 schools across the country. How big do you plan to go?

 A: This school year is our final pilot phase before we begin to aggressively scale at the national level. Our next milestone is a goal of serving at least 50,000 kids in the next four years. 

Doing nothing is not an option. Poor literacy can impact a person’s lifetime income potential by up to 42%. Before the pandemic, only 35% of fourth graders were reading proficiently. Studies have shown further declines in reading performance, in addition to widening gaps between the highest and lowest performers. We believe our model has the power to sustainably transform the way kids in our country are taught to read so that we eradicate illiteracy.  

Q: How did you eliminate racial achievement disparities?

 A: We were extremely encouraged to see that there were no racial achievement gaps in our results — students of color made the same impressive progress as white students. Similarly, multilingual learners, special education students, and students from low-income backgrounds made the same progress as their peers. This is important because it demonstrates how critical it is that every child has equitable access to learning to crack the code. 

Q: The science of reading has garnered a lot of attention of late and yet most school districts still favor balanced literacy. Why?

A: I want to clarify something. Balanced literacy, if literally meaning a balanced approach to ensuring that the five pillars of literacy are effectively implemented (the same five pillars that are the science of reading), isn’t a bad thing. What’s bad is that there are programs out there that for years have simply disregarded what cognitive research tells us about how the brain learns to read, and have focused instead on ineffective practices that have led to generations of kids not learning to read. 

When a district is using an ineffective curriculum that ignores what the reading research tells us about how to effectively implement all the components of literacy (phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) and equitably ensure that every child learns to read, it can be extremely difficult for the people who’ve championed and invested millions of dollars into the curriculum to say, “You know what? We got it wrong, and now that we know better, we are going to do better.” 

I also think that the incentives in our country are misaligned in that no one actually has to make sure that every single child learns to read on time. If every adult in the system were held accountable for this then I think we would see people working with greater urgency to discard ineffective practices in favor of those that have been proven to get results across all subgroups of students.

Q: Do you think one-on-one tutoring is the most effective method?

A: Yes, we believe Ignite’s model of one-on-one tutoring is the most effective method to teach kids to read. We have seen incredible progress with our students — a third of our kids are recording three weeks of reading progress for every one week in the program. But it has to be done right, and we are maniacal about the quality of our instruction and how we develop our tutors into highly skilled reading teachers.

It’s not just one-and-done. It’s caring tutors who build solid relationships with students; it’s focusing on the science of reading and an aligned curriculum and not fads or gimmicks; it’s high-dosage 15 minutes a day every day — even when schools go virtual. 

Q: If you have had this kind of success training your tutors, why is it so hard to pull off teacher training at schools?

 A: Our tutors receive about 60 hours of development over the course of 10 weeks. We are essentially a master class in becoming a reading teacher. Ideally, every teacher prep program would partner with Ignite so that we could proactively develop teachers before they step into the classroom. This is what should be happening in our country; this is what I wish I could have had because it wasn’t until my third year teaching that I finally learned how to teach kids to read. And there are teachers who will go their whole careers never learning.

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

I’m empathetic to the realities of school systems and have designed Ignite’s partnership model with teachers in mind. We provide schools with a simple framework to immediately deliver instruction for students that have fallen behind, without the endless processes required to re-train teachers. That kind of retraining process is disruptive and costly for schools. Time is not an infinite resource for schools, and neither is money. So for every hour a teacher is being retrained, an hour is lost somewhere else.

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

 A: My answer to this question will surprise you. No, I do not think mandating the science of reading is the answer. I worry that the science of reading is being incorrectly understood as just the lower strands of Scarborough’s Reading Rope when it’s actually all the strands (or all five pillars of literacy). What I believe our nation needs to mandate is that all schools implement with fidelity an evidence-based, comprehensive core reading curriculum and that every adult at every level of the system be held accountable to ensure all students are learning to read. 

Q: Do you think the schools have been so strained by the pandemic that they aren’t equipped to overhaul teaching methods right now?

A: I do think that schools — and parents, and everyone else — have been strained by the pandemic, but they were constrained before the pandemic as well and these constraints can’t become a permanent barrier to promoting literacy programs that work. 

Ignite! Reading is designed to unburden schools, teachers, and parents. It’s envisioning a system where literacy tutoring is not the sole responsibility of the school, and I believe that fact — combined with the program’s effectiveness — will help district leaders see how valuable it can be. 

Q: You mentioned that teachers have broken into tears watching the progress kids make with your tutors. Do you think Zoom tutoring could be a game-changer in the literacy crisis?

A: I do! High-dosage, virtual one-on-one tutoring is absolutely a game-changer when done the right way. Everything I’ve done in my professional career from my early days as a public school teacher has led me to this moment. Something big is happening here. We’ve developed a system that is helping kids crack the code of language. We’re giving them the key that opens the door to a better life. It’s a true win-win for students, teachers and parents. And we are going to be aggressive because there’s a lot at stake.

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