How Reading Rainbow is closing the reading gap for the digital generation

Public-private partnerships are expanding Reading Rainbow’s impact for a new generation

No doubt the definition of literacy is evolving in the 21st Century. Not only do we want our children to be fluent readers but we also need them to be able to think critically about the information they receive and communicate their thoughts, ideas and opinions in an effective form. This is no easy task considering the reading gap continues to widen between lower and higher income students and the majority of our children do not read past a fourth grade reading level.

There are many innovative reading programs being implemented across this country. Interestingly, a number of these programs are being developed not by traditional educational publishers, but rather by ed-tech startups and/or new partnerships between public and private institutions.

I learned early on in my career that the power of public private partnerships can be incredible when used for social good. I believe we can narrow the reading gap by extending literacy programs outside the four walls of the classroom and moving away from standard teaching tools. It was one of the main reasons that I joined Reading Rainbow as the host and producer more than 30 years ago.

I often describe how in its day the idea of using television to get children reading was considered  “crazy” and experts questioned how this would encourage kids to read books. Initially the show was launched as an experiment, a summer pilot, to address the “summer slide” in which student’s lose important reading skills when they are not in school. Yet Reading Rainbow quickly proved to be more than a summer program and instantly captured young audiences’ attention and motivated children to read. Its impact has been long and far-reaching. Everyday we receive heartfelt stories from those who grew up watching the series describing how the show had a long-lasting positive impact on their lives in one way or another.

Reading Rainbow influenced these viewers not only to read but to explore various career paths and creative endeavors. This is such a great example of the impact corporate sponsors, public organizations, and educational institutions can make when they work together to provide engaging resources to children of all economic backgrounds. Now, decades later, my Reading Rainbow team and I are still working hard to innovate and inspire a new generation of children to read.

In fact, earlier this year, we embarked on a pilot program with the University of Southern California (USC) and their JEP House, which stands for the Joint Education Project. JEP is one of the oldest and largest service-learning programs in the country, offering college students at USC the unique opportunity to work with faculty, neighborhood schools, and elementary school students to provide academic support. One of JEP’s programs is known as USC ReadersPlus, which mobilizes work-study students to provide one-on-one reading and math instruction to K-6 students in nearby Title 1 schools. It has been incredibly successful over the years and warmly embraced by educators and students in their community.

Through a new partnership, we are excited to support USC mentors by giving them access to Reading Rainbow Skybrary School, our new digital library specifically designed for K-3 educators and their students. This powerful multimedia resource provides hundreds of books, video field trips, and educator-created lesson plans on demand. Armed with laptops, and the Skybrary School reading service, USC mentors meet multiple times a week to read one-on-one with their young students. Not only are mentors and students reading and discussing books from the digital library, but they are also absorbing other media resources and completing offline activities for deeper learning on topics.

Teaching someone to read can be intimidating for untrained college students. However, with easy to use technology-based resources like Skybrary School, mentors can quickly and easily engage students in reading, and effectively build a range of literacy and learning skills. Tutors then focus on what they do best, forming a trusted relationship with their young students and personalize the experience to address the child’s specific learning needs.

Although our project with USC is still in its early phases, we are beginning to observe how these “at-risk” students, who had limited access to quality children’s literature, are discovering books that interest them. Our belief is that together, with the university and the participating elementary schools, we will be able to increase students reading time and support the topics they are learning in the classroom.

Narrowing the reading gap will most certainly require a commitment from public and private organizations to collaborate in new ways. We are excited to continue to experiment, observe and most importantly, partner with other organizations with similar missions.

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