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The Importance of Quality Early Literacy Instruction to Avoid Academic Failure
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February 18, 2021 by Learning Ally

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During the opening keynote of Learning Ally's Spotlight on Early Literacy Conference, Barbara Steinberg shared a compelling case for investing in early literacy programs. Steinberg, the founder and owner of PDX Reading Specialist, an organization whose mission is to inspire individuals to become confident and capable learners through remediation, accommodation, and inspiration, has 25 years of experience as a classroom teacher and dyslexia and educational consultant. In this Q&A, she explains why early intervention is critical and which aspects of reading instruction can make the biggest difference with at-risk students.

Q: Why is early literacy so important?

Barbara: Research has taught us that a child who fails to read adequately in first grade has a 90% probability of reading poorly in fourth grade and a 75% probability of reading poorly in high school (Gabrieli, 2009).

There are two reasons for this. First, there is something called the Matthew effect. The Matthew effect says that in the same way the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, children who start off behind continue to stay behind. For this reason, we must provide quality instruction in the foundational skills needed for reading in preschool and kindergarten. If we wait until 2nd or 3rd grade to identify struggling readers, then the likelihood students will catch up deteriorates very quickly. And when we wait, it takes four times as long to intervene in fourth grade as it does in first grade (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development).

The other thing we know is that the social-emotional component is just as significant as academic challenges. When we end up waiting and waiting, and we see students in third, fourth, and even later show up with huge reading deficits, the social-emotional challenges become the primary concern. We can teach 98% of students to become skilled readers if taught using science, but repairing their self-esteem is so much more difficult.

Q: Which aspects of reading instruction are most important in the early grades?

Barbara: There are five components of early reading instruction: phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, accuracy and fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. All of them are important and all of them should be taught. However, the most important areas of early reading instruction are phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle. These two areas are called the foundational skills -- and they're necessary for students to master for long-term success in reading. We know that 80% of struggling readers share a deficit in the ability to read words accurately and automatically, and the root cause of that deficit is a lack of phonemic awareness and the alphabetic principle.

Q: What is phonological awareness and why is it important?

Barbara: The research is clear that the most common cause of children's difficulties in acquiring what's called word recognition, is the ability to recognize a word with accuracy and automaticity. The ability to do that rests on the ability to have strong phonological awareness. Phonological awareness is necessary for using our alphabetic code. English is a code system, and beginning reading instruction teaches students how to break that code apart.

Phonological awareness is the best predictor of later outcomes in reading. And the best news is that direct instruction can make a huge difference. Instruction in this area is one of the few factors that educators and parents can influence significantly. When is it important? Well, it's most important in the preschool and kindergarten years. Why? One reason has to do with brain development. Our brains have the most neural flexibility in those early years, and we're trying to teach our brains to do something that they're not naturally wired to do.

Q: How about the alphabetic principle?

Barbara: The alphabetic principle is the concept that letters represent sounds. If you come to the word "CAT" on the page, your brain processes the letters and translates them into sounds. It might sound easy. However, our alphabet of 26 letters and 44 sounds can be written hundreds and hundreds of different ways. So while the basic alphabet must be mastered, we can't stop there. We must also teach students that two and three letters can make one sound (such as "sh" and "igh"). And all of this must be done explicitly and systematically.

Q: How do decodable readers help beginning readers?

Barbara: Our beginning readers need experience reading stories that they can actually decode. You might recognize a decodable reader like, "The cat sat on the mat." Not the most intellectually stimulating book, which is why we need to continue reading to students. But for students to practice connecting sounds to symbols, they have to read decodable books. So often we "practice" reading by just giving kids books. And when they have difficulty with the book, we practice reading the book. Students need practice at the sentence level, at the phrase level with the words, and with the sounds and symbols. The book is one piece of our instruction.

To learn more best practices for teaching literacy, visit our blog.

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Detention Prevention: A Powerful Conversation about Early Literacy

February 11, 2021 by Learning Ally

headshot of man in suit, tie, and glasses Hilderbrand Pelzer III, a former principal of five education institutions including the Philadelphia Prison System, led a thought-provoking session on the correlation between illiteracy and incarceration at Learning Ally's Spotlight on Early Literacy Conference. In this Q&A, he shares research, observations, and suggestions about how early literacy programs can help at-risk youth make better decisions and choose more productive pasts. 

Q: What can we learn from students who go to school inside of a correctional facility?

Hilderbrand: One of my students at the Philadelphia Prison System, Kareem, told me "I want to quit school because I'm 16 years old and still reading on a first-grade level." That statement just speaks volumes about where we are in this nation, the problem we have in our schools and with our children that need to be fixed. Too many children are filling jails and prisons because they are illiterate, or they have not been taught how to read. 

Q: What does research tell us about incarcerated youth and literacy?

Hilderbrand: We know that too many children are filling jails and prisons because they are illiterate. I'd like to share with you three historical research studies that highlight the link between reading failure and incarceration: 

  • Hogenson (1974, p.165) - "Significant research has been conducted that investigates reading failure as the major source of frustration that leads to delinquency."
  • Mosse (1982, pp. 284-285) - "The causative chain starts with the fact that the child is not taught reading properly and that his reading disorder is not corrected early enough."
  • Huizinga, et al (1991, p.17) - "Prior reading level predicted later subsequent delinquency...[moreover] poor reading achievement increased the chances of serious delinquency persisting over time."
For decades, poor reading instruction has been associated with children going to jail. We know this but there is still no strong solution that has helped us move away from seeing many children grow up illiterate. 

Q: Is illiteracy still a problem in prisons today?

Hilderbrand: Yes. 85% of juveniles who interface with the court system are fundamentally illiterate, meaning they read at a third-grade or below level, and 40% of American juvenile offenders who are 15 to 16 years old read below a 4th-grade level. When we look at the total population of prison inmates in the US, 60% are functionally illiterate and 70% cannot read above a 4th-grade level. 

Q: Why is it so hard to teach reading?

Hilderbrand: What I saw when I worked as a teacher and as a principal inside of the correctional setting was that my students had difficulty understanding how to use letters and sounds. They had difficulty with the relationships between letters and sounds. They had difficulty reading, understanding the meaning of words, just skipping words, fumbling through words, not understanding syllables. And they just were not able to comprehend anything that they read. Even if they memorized it, they could not tell you what they read. 

There are five components of reading: phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension:

  • Phonics, putting those letters and sounds together, knowing what "p" or "t" or "s" and other sounds and letters together, blended sounds and letters. This is the type of instruction our children need in the early grades. They cannot get out of kindergarten, first and second grade not having these skills. 
  • Phonemic awareness is being able to understand how the spoken language and individual sounds connect. When I talk about the children that I've come across who couldn't put letters and sounds together, could not read or write their own names, we're talking about this knowledge that they're missing. 
  • Fluency is a characteristic of reading. When we assess it, we're seeing about the speed, we're seeing how many words they can read in a minute, accurately. Do they understand when there is a period, or a comma, or an exclamation point is there? How are you training your teachers to teach this? What are some of the look-fors that you have when you go into the classroom to ensure that this type of instruction is happening? 
  • Vocabulary. We talk about sight words and other ways to get children to understand words, but do they really understand the words that they're reading? Do they understand how to spell those words, and say those letters, and sound off those letters, and have meaning? Because the more vocabulary that they develop, the more they can navigate reading. And so how are we dealing with vocabulary development in our schools? 
  • Comprehension is the icing on the cake. Being able to understand what you read. Being able to drive down the highway and know what the sign says and what exits to get off. To know when to read the medicine bottle and know that it says to take two in the morning and not two at night. Really understanding and comprehending text, articles, and books, and being able to compare and contrast and understand the main idea. And being able to explain it back in your own opinion and give some thought and reflection to what you read. 

These five components of reading must be addressed together systemically and purposefully. "The Five Areas of Reading" is a great YouTube video that really unpacks the five components of reading in a way that is easy for school leaders and teachers to understand. And I would recommend that if you have the chance to share it with your teachers and look at it yourself, please do. 

Q: Do you have any final thoughts to share with educators about the importance of early literacy?

Hilderbrand: Dr. Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, and the author of "Overcoming Dyslexia," said in her book, "Once a child begins to read more and more words, accurately and rapidly, he can turn his attention to more complex texts. At this stage, his highest thinking and reasoning skills come into play and, together with his vocabulary and knowledge of the world around him, help him derive meaning from his reading."


What resonates with me is "highest thinking and reasoning skills come into play." When I think about incarcerated youth and the things that they engage in, health-damaging and criminally damaging behaviors that have led them down this path, it is because they fell out of love with school because of reading and they're looking for other things to be successful in. 


Where reading could strengthen their thinking and reasoning skills, not having good reading instruction and failing at reading, they do not exercise good thinking and reasoning skills. They make poor decisions. They make and involve themselves in poor activities. Reading can help our children develop these thinking skills, and help them navigate the world around them, stay away from trouble and do more productive things. So think about reading instruction and think about incarcerated youth. And think about how incarcerated youth can inform your early literacy programs. 


To learn more best practices for teaching literacy, visit our blog

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National Audiobook Challenge Encourages Thousands of Students At-Risk to Read

January 11, 2021 by Learning Ally

For Immediate Release

Princeton, NJ – Learning Ally, the nation’s leader in education technology solutions for students with reading deficits, has launched its 2021 Great Reading Games. The seven-week “human-read” audiobook challenge runs through February 28, 2021. It concludes with a celebratory-style livestream event connecting students, teachers, and schools across the nation to further Read Across America and the mission of Learning Ally... “reading for all.

Now in its seventh year, The Great Reading Games is a rewards-based audiobook challenge to encourage students at-risk to read books. Student participants build foundation skills, boost reading stamina, and feel confident in their learning ability.

U.S. schools and districts take part in the Games to jumpstart schoolwide and inclusive reading initiatives, especially for students who read below grade level and rarely find enjoyment in reading. Last year a record number 33,000 students participated.

Terrie Noland, V.P. of Educator Initiatives at Learning Ally, said “Teachers are looking for innovative ways to encourage students to read. This challenge complements any learning setting. Resources are pre-made and ready to launch for teachers. Students get excited to read. They come to class pumped to talk about the books they are reading for 20 minutes or more each day. They are eager to lead their class or school to victory!”

Students accumulate points in one of 12 brackets based on grade-level and school size. The Learning Ally app tracks students’ activity based on a sliding point schedule designed to reward them for reading inside and outside the school day:

  • 100 points for everyday a student reads for 20 minutes on a weekday
  • 50 points for everyday a student reads 20 minutes on Saturday or Sunday
  • 10 points for every page read and 1 point for every student that is reading

New to the Games is a pre-game Boost-Up activity to reward current and new educators to take early initiatives to spark students’ reading interests. A sliding point schedule ranges from 200 to 5000 points for signing up early, adding new books to students’ bookshelf, getting more teachers involved and first year participation.

Students who read the most audiobooks receive monetary gift cards. Their teachers and schools have opportunities to win monetary prizes based on social activity and a continued zeal to nurture class reading and instill a schoolwide culture of readers.    

Data collected in past years indicate students who participate in the Games are three times more likely to excel in reading frequency and 300% more likely to improve skills in comprehension, vocabulary, critical thinking, and learning independence. Students also enjoy a deeper connection with peers and teachers, and experience a more positive outlook toward their future academic potential.

Learn more about the Great Reading Games.

About Learning Ally                                                

Learning Ally is a leading nonprofit education solutions organization dedicated to equipping educators with proven solutions that help new and struggling learners reach their potential. Our range of literacy-focused offerings for students in Pre-K to 12th grade and catalog of professional learning allows us to support more than 1.5 million students and 135,000 educators across the US.

The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution is our cornerstone award-winning reading accommodation used in approximately 18,500 schools to help students with reading deficits succeed. Composed of high quality, human-read audiobooks, and a suite of teacher resources to monitor and support student progress, it is designed to turn struggling readers into engaged learners.

Visit www.learningally.org/educators. Call 800-221-1098.

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In support of our students, our educators and our democracy
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January 7, 2021 by Learning Ally

Constitution Audiobook

We know the recent events at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. have been very stressful for everyone, not to mention the existing challenges related to the Pandemic. Learning Ally is here for our educators and parents with effective and equitable resources to help support our students.

An audiobook from our library that is very relevant to yesterday’s events and may help you to address them with your students and children is “What is the Constitution?” by Patricia Brennan Demuth for Grades 3-7.

Here is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the US Constitution came into being, including the hotly fought issues--those between Northern and Southern States; big states and little ones--and the key players such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington who suffered through countless revisions to make the Constitution happen. It illustrates how our democracy came to be, how to facilitate dispute resolution and how our democracy is designed to work. Check out the trailer! Narrated by: Jackie Starkis

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Addressing Equity and Access in an Era of Social Distancing
Addressing Equity ad Access in an Era of Social Distancing

December 15, 2020 by Learning Ally

4 Tips for Promoting Equity and Access

Video Transcript: Betsy McGowan, Reading Specialist, Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School

Give students a choice

We are trying to provide a lot of student choice and just in every way emphasize like, letting them express their knowledge and mastery through different modes. So hopefully that can accommodate them. We've been trying to provide things in different formats, so we've used podcasts I think more than before.

We did a podcast on George Washington's chef, an enslaved man named Hercules, and it was such a hit with the kids. They loved exploring a text in that different format. That was one of our best lessons we've done so, and that was great because it provided an audio format to all the students in the grade, and I think everyone was really excited about it.

Model Technology

We have gone back to basics on modeling, in the simplest way. Just like that you know as intervention teachers we know we model everything, and I have kind of put that at the front I think of the grade team's mind.

So, even if it's something like copy and paste. Copy and paste…there's actually a lot to that. Kids who have computers and more tech in their households know it and we can assume that they know it. But not everyone does and so if you proceed if, you tell a kid to copy and paste the notes as an accommodation, like you give them the notes and you're like "copy and paste it" and you don't teach them how to do it with explicit modeling, then that actually might compound the inequities. So we're really working on modeling every single tech skill and slowing it down in that sense.

Leverage Speech to Text

We've taught all the kids to use the speech to text features which they may not have been able to use before. Maybe they've been taught once but they weren't, you know, working often enough in, on the computer to really practice it. So I think a lot of kids are taking notes with speech to text, which is exciting.

Empowering Students with Audiobooks

It just started with a couple of teachers using Learning Ally and it became a really good tool. Now everyone can access a full library of books. That was a real concern: How are kids for ELA classes going to keep doing their reading, their jotting, their reading logs? And this solved the problem for us and yeah, kids have been using it. Parents have expressed that they're really appreciative of it and it's definitely an equity tool at this time.

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