With Hoot Reading, kids and teachers can see and hear each other via video chat. (screenshot)
Hoot Reading allows kids to get in their desired screen time, while also improving their reading skills. Jewish community member Carly Shuler, co-founder and chief executive director of the online tutoring company, came up with the educational concept while working on Sesame Street.
“While I was there, I was working on a research project aimed at understanding how to help kids learn through video chat,” Shuler explained. “Fast forward a couple of years and my co-founder, Maya Kotecha, and I decided the idea was too good to stay in the lab. So, we got the rights, formed Hoot Reading, and here we are.
“Something a lot of parents don’t know is that there is a deadline for reading,” she said. “We talk a lot about the fourth-grade reading slump, which is this phenomenon that happens in Grade 4, when children need to make the leap from learning how to read to reading to learn.”
The school system is based on the assumption that, by Grade 4, kids will be reading fluently. While some kids are indeed fluent readers by then, some 60% of students are reading below grade level as they start Grade 5. And, from then on, the ability to read is needed for every single topic, from math to science to social studies to music and to health, not to mention for activities outside of school.
“What happens is that those kids, come Grade 4, that we thought were average students, fall behind,” said Shuler. “They lose confidence and they disengage from school. And so, while we don’t believe at Hoot Reading that earlier is better, we do believe that there is a deadline for becoming a fluent reader – and that deadline is Grade 4.
“Hoot Reading, in particular, is good for all kids from kindergarten through to Grade 4 and, then, also any kids who are struggling after that point,” she said. “So, we have kids up to Grade 10 reading with us. They are in that 60 percentile of kids who are reading below grade level.”
The tutoring is done online with classroom teachers, one-on-one, in 20-minute lessons, two to three times a week. The app is basically Facetime meets Kindle, said Shuler. Kids and teachers can see and hear each other via video chat, and both the teachers and the students can point to things and see where the other is pointing.
“It allows for that dialogic reading, but it’s the interactive back and forth that is so important as a child progresses as a reader,” said Shuler. “Kids can do it from the comfort of their own home, from their family car, from their sibling’s piano lesson, or wherever they are. It can really happen anywhere at any time, so parents find it very convenient.”
Weighing in on screens, Shuler said, “At Hoot Reading, we don’t believe all screens are created equal. As parents, we should be paying more attention to what our kids are doing on screens, rather than just focusing on how much time they are spending on them. There are some really great things they can do.
“We believe screens can sometimes have a real benefit to our children’s learning, such as by allowing us to offer an affordable way to do one-on-one reading tutoring. So many kids can get access to it, whereas they couldn’t before. So, we encourage parents to think about it that way.”
Further to this, Shuler encourages parents to be reading mentors and role models, showing their kids that they, too, are using their screens to read.
“It’s really important that our children know that we are reading, so that they can see that it can be a really fun part of their media world,” she said. “Whether we are reading on a Kindle or reading a hard copy book, we want to show them and do it in front of them … and talk about the books and stories at the dinner table, because it’s really important that kids see reading can be fun.”
Shuler feels strongly that parents should help their kids choose apps and games that encourage reading. The ability to comprehend what you are reading and to be able to follow instructions is an important skill. While enjoying some games that do not involve reading is OK, she recommended finding games that do provide a different medium for kids to further their love of reading.
Just like any other skill, the more you practise, the better you get at it and Shuler maintains that kids should read aloud with a grown-up for at least 10 minutes a day, five days a week.
“In the same way that, when learning to play basketball, some kids might be a little better at it than others, but the best way to improve anything is through practise,” she said. “We have to practise and we have to practise out loud, with a grown-up there. Whether that grown-up is a parent, a Hoot Reading teacher, or someone else, kids need to be practising – and that’s not what’s happening in so many households. We’re so busy nowadays, between after-school activities and all the amazing things our kids get to do. But, reading cannot fall onto the backburner, because, if kids don’t practise, they’ll probably end up in that 60% by Grade 4.”
Shuler said kids need to have what they learn in school reinforced at home and, therefore, increasing public awareness is critical.
“A lot of parents don’t know – they just think about reading in terms of literacy or illiteracy so, once their child can read, they think, ‘Great! My child can read. We’ve got this!’ But, the truth is, again, reading is a skill, and you get better at it the more you read. That’s where most parents don’t know how important it is to continue the reading out loud, even if their child is reading.”
She added that “the key is in knowing how important it is and in making sure we prioritize reading practice in the same way we prioritize brushing our teeth.”
Finding books and other material that interest kids and make them excited about reading is paramount. “Just try to keep it a positive experience as much as possible,” said Shuler, “and do what you need to do as a parent to make that happen.”
Shuler and Kotecha recently launched a new initiative, called Hoot for All, sponsored by Spin Master, that will allow them to provide reading tutoring for kids at Boys and Girls Clubs across Canada at no cost to the kids’ families.
For more information, visit hootreading.com.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.