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With a diverse student population, strengthening early literacy skills is a challenge for many educators.

A district sees promising early literacy results in a K-5 pilot

With a diverse student population, strengthening early literacy skills is a challenge for many educators

Sadly, the latest NAEP results have dropped significantly since 2017. Despite years of widely-available early literacy tools, average reading scores for 4th and 8th graders in the United States are headed in the wrong direction.

At Mountain View Whisman School District (MVWSD) in California, we have an inherent appreciation of literacy education challenges, given our highly diverse population. Our students range from highly-advanced to students who struggle to reach grade-level performance. In the 2018-19 academic year, 2 in 3 students were non-white; 1 in 3 students were socioeconomically disadvantaged; and 1 in 4 were English-language learners, representing 50 native languages.

Related content: How we turned around our district’s literacy scores

As Chief Academic Officer of the district, it’s my responsibility to support our teachers with the best possible tools to help all students. I’m always on the lookout for interventions that have a strong foundation in research and can be flexible enough to meet our highly diverse populations’ needs. Our district’s mission is to “inspire, prepare and empower every student.” Helping all of our students become better readers is a crucial part of achieving this mission.

In 2018, I was introduced to Square Panda. I am always careful when introducing new technology in our schools, but when I saw how it worked up close, I thought simply, “I wish I’d had this when I was teaching.” Square Panda is a multisensory, phonics-based approach that builds kids’ foundational reading skills. It’s best-suited for pre- and emergent-readers, as part of an overall literacy curriculum.

First, we conducted an efficacy study with researchers at the company. Mutually, we wanted to investigate if Square Panda could have an impact on standardized literacy scores for our kinders.

How we conducted the early literacy research study

Our goal was to compare student outcomes between classes with the Square Panda intervention and those without it. We chose our lower-performing and higher-performing K-5 schools (in overall performance) to receive the intervention. This setup allowed us to work with students on both ends of the literacy spectrum: strugglers and those already performing at an advanced level. Our lower-performing school included 89 percent socioeconomically disadvantaged students and 67 percent English learners. By comparison, our higher performing school included only 7 percent disadvantaged students and 10 percent English learners.

As controls, we selected three other schools distributed throughout the middle rankings that were as similar as possible to the test group schools. These schools did not use the Square Panda tools. A total of 340 students participated in the study: 136 in the test group and 204 in the control group.

The intervention was to have each student regularly play Square Panda, which consists of a physical alphabet set that can be “read” by a special playset/tray; digital, interactive games played on a tablet; and optional progress monitoring by the teacher via an online portal.

I’ll describe a sample game called Lagoon. In Lagoon, letters magically appear on screen as students place physical letters in the special tray. On screen, a cute chameleon then sounds out each letter, says the full word (if it’s a word), and in most cases, will even show a corresponding picture.

Students typically played Lagoon and other Square Panda games for 10 – 40 minutes, two to four times a week, folded into pre-existing center rotations. The intervention period lasted 12 weeks, across our second trimester. The control group did their usual literacy center rotations without Square Panda.

Our district tests all kindergarten students on letter sounds at the end of each trimester. We used this data to quantify any potential efficacy effect between the test and control groups. Teachers administered the test for students in their own class, and raw scores were converted to one of four trimester-benchmarked standards: Standards Not Met, Nearly Met, Met, and Exceeded.

Results: Improvement in both struggling and high-performing students

Our initial testing identified 60 struggling students—28 in the test group, 32 in the control group—who performed below grade-level prior to the intervention. They scored at Not Met or Nearly Met for letter sounds. We then tested all students again at the end of the intervention period. The results: test-group students were more likely to reach grade level standards than control-group students. Specifically, 57 percent of struggling students from the intervention group tested at Met or Exceeded standards while only 44 percent of the control group reached the same level–a 13-point difference.

Likewise, the intervention also helped average and advanced students. A full 232 kindergartners—91 in the test group, 141 in the control group—Met or Exceeded standards just prior to the intervention. At the end of the research period, 74 percent in this intervention group moved up (or remained) at the Exceeded level compared with only 67 percent of the control group, a 7 point difference.

Seeing improvements in these scores correlated with the use of Square Panda, in addition to other classroom efforts, was obviously very exciting. In addition, we noticed positive impacts on students. Some teachers used the games to help build social-emotional skills, for example by allowing students to trade letters as they played. It was also not uncommon to discover that highly distracted students could focus at length on the games. A number of teachers discovered they could use Square Panda as a learning incentive for other classroom activities.

When we talked to our educators, they highlighted these attributes:

● Fun phonics. We know that building connections between letters and sounds is a
critical, foundational skill that requires a lot of repetition to learn. This is particularly true for students at the lower end of the performance range. Too much repetition can lead to boredom, but our students were still asking to play even well into the intervention.
● Multisensory interaction. Kids can hold and feel the shape of each letter in their own hands. They can then verify its name and sound via friendly digital game characters. We know from research that multisensory learning is quite effective for children in general.
● Immediate feedback. This digital solution goes beyond print activities by providing specific, corrective feedback in its games. If a student places a letter upside down in the tray, a friendly character prompts the student to turn it around. In a more advanced game, if a child selects the wrong answer, scaffolded instructions help guide the student to the correct answer.


While Square Panda is an effective classroom tool, especially during center time, there are some considerations about its use. Primarily, there is some investment of time into establishing routines in the classroom that include Square Panda. Students and teachers need a little time to get comfortable using the technology Additionally, while there is no substitute for direct instruction by a qualified teacher, tools like Square Panda supplement the core program.

Where we go from here

We are highly encouraged by the first year’s results. MVWSD is now in the second year of a three-year research partnership with Square Panda. We are expanding our program this year specifically by rolling out to all kindergarten classes district-wide. In addition, we are starting to use it in Pre-K, TK, and SPED classes. Our industry-education partnership has been very fruitful, and we look forward to reporting our future results to educators everywhere.

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