For the last few years, Renaissance has enjoyed the privilege of working with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) on Read to the Final Four®, a third-grade reading competition that takes place alongside the NCAA basketball tournament.

Why third grade? As Matthew White, the NCAA’s assistant director of community and corporate relationships, said, “A lot of research has been done showing that third grade is pivotal in the educational success of youth. Until third grade, students are learning to read, while from third grade on, students are reading to learn. This is why the NCAA has put a strategic focus on the third grade.”

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The basketball tournament was, unfortunately, canceled, as we all do our part to maintain social distancing and slow the spread of COVID-19. Reading, on the other hand, is a safe activity during this period of self-isolation, and students participating in the competition continued to the end.

Even without the Final Four basketball tournament as the backdrop, students in the Atlanta metro area put in a ton of effort, reading for nearly 16 million minutes collectively. That’s more than 30 years of reading time! Here’s how we helped them make that investment in themselves.

Getting started

To bring schools on board, Renaissance and the local organizing committee teamed up in reaching out to eligible school districts to invite them to participate. Once a district registered, our team at Renaissance handled platform setup and rostering, which included full functionality of myON, our digital reading platform, and individual reading accounts for each student.

In September and October, we hosted a series of “Getting Started” webinars—approximately 25 in total—targeted at the program leaders of 373 registered schools, as well as the third-grade teachers. The webinars included a program overview detailing the contest’s structure and timeline, along with a quick-start guide for myON. We wanted to make sure that every teacher left the session knowing how to support students logging into myON, selecting books, and reading.

Beginning in September and continuing through November, we sent out weekly emails clarifying contest information and offering tips for using myON. We also provided a website with a teacher “locker room” and a “family zone,” which hosted various resources, such as start guides and short videos, to support teachers and families throughout the program.

How it worked

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Designed to mirror the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, the Read to the Final Four competition features four regions with multiple rounds of competition and elimination. To kick things off, the “tip-off round” began in early November. All participating schools had approximately three months to read as much as they could. To help align with the basketball tournament, schools were awarded “points” based on average minutes read and student enrollment so that large schools didn’t have an advantage over smaller schools. At the end of that round, the 68 schools with the most minutes read were placed randomly into the four regions for bracketed competition.

This format, according to Matthew White, “provides a friendly way for schools to compete and advance through the bracket, much like some of their favorite college teams. What we’ve found is that schools are competing against one another to read more minutes, which ultimately makes students better readers. The uniqueness of this bracket-style competition is that students get to truly be a part of the Madness and can advance to the Final Four just like their favorite teams!”

To avoid creating unnecessary rivals or negative feelings between schools, the tournament did not feature any head-to-head competition. Instead, schools competed to be at the top of their region to advance to the next round. In the round of 32, for example, there were eight schools in each region, so schools were aiming to be in the top four of their region. Points reset every round, so each round began with a fresh opportunity to win and continue to the next.

Four schools made it to the end of our reading tournament and claimed their place as winners of the competition: Tara Elementary School, Huie Elementary School, E.J. Swint Elementary School, and Riverdale Elementary School. Students at those schools won prizes and the top readers in each region were recognized.

To continue supporting young readers like these as schools across the country move to online education, Renaissance is offering several free programs that enable students to access literacy and math activities and to complete assignments remotely, along with some additional resources for teachers. We look forward to the return of the Final Four next year, but in the meantime, we hope that these resources will keep students engaged and learning.

About the Author:

Todd Brekhus is the chief product officer, leading the corporate strategy, at Renaissance. During more than 25 years of experience, he helped create myON, a personalized literacy platform that is part of Renaissance’s literacy portfolio. He also spent eight years as a teacher and technology leader in schools. In 2014, he was awarded the prestigious Lamp Lighter Visionary Award by the Association of American Publishers, and was named the 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient by SIIA Company CODiE Awards. He can be reached at Todd.Brekhus@renaissance.com.


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