My short bio: Hello, I am Dr. Michael Colvard, a practicing eye surgeon in Los Angeles. I was born in a small farming town in the South. Though my family didn't have much money, I was lucky enough to acquire strong reading skills which allowed me to do well in school and fulfill my goal of practicing medicine.

I believe, as I'm sure we all do, that every child should be able to dream beyond their circumstances and, through education, rise to his or her highest level. A child's future should not be determined by the zip code they happen to be born into or who their parents are.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for many children in America today. The National Assessment of Reading Progress study shows year after year that roughly 66% of 4th grade kids read at a level described as "below proficiency." This means that these children lack even the most basic reading skills. Further, data shows that kids who fail to read proficiently by the 4th grade almost never catch up.

I am not an educator, but I've seen time and again that many of the best ideas in medicine come from disciplines outside the industry. I approached the challenge of teaching reading through the lens of the neurobiology of how the brain processes language. To paraphrase (and sanitize) Matt Damon in "The Martian", my team and I decided to science the heck out of this.

Why are we doing such a bad job of teaching reading? Our kids aren't learning to read primarily because our teaching methods are antiquated and wrong. Ironically, the most common method is also the least effective. It is called "whole word" reading. "Whole word" teaches kids to see an entire word as a single symbol and memorize it. At first, kids are able to memorize many words quickly. Unfortunately, the human brain can only retain about 2000 symbols which children hit around the 3rd grade. This is why many kids seem advanced in early grades but face major challenges as they progress.

The Phoneme Farm method I teamed up with top early reading specialists, animators, song writers and programmers to build Phoneme Farm. In Phoneme Farm we start with sounds first. We teach kids to recognize the individual sounds of language called phonemes (there are 40 in English). Then we teach them to associate these sounds with letters and words. This approach is far more easily understood and effective for kids. It is in use at 40 schools today and growing fast. You can download it free here for iPad or here for iPhones to try it for yourself.

Why I'm here today I am here to help frustrated parents understand why their kids may be struggling with reading, and what they can do about it. I can answer questions about the biology of reading, the history of language, how written language is simply a code for spoken language, and how this understanding informs the way we must teach children to read.

My Proof Hi Reddit

UPDATE: Thank you all for a great discussion. I am overjoyed that so many people think literacy is important enough to stop by and engage in a conversation about it. I am signing off now, but will check back later.

Comments: 2426 • Responses: 32  • Date: 

justscottaustin1271 karma

Hi. I am the father of 3 and a prolific reader.

Are you seriously telling me that people are teaching kids using the sight method? Not a single educational cartoon I have seen (and I seem them all) does this. Not a single pre-school nor any of the 6 KG teachers in my daughter's school. None in 1st grade either.

Sure there are "sight word lists," but that's not the basis of reading. Sounding out the words is.

Do you have direct evidence of school curriculum espousing this?

Pupsquest428 karma

Hello. This is an excellent point. Your children are quite fortunate to have you and the schools they are attending. The overwhelming majority of children in Los Angeles schools are taught to sight read. I understand that the Manhattan school district has recently adopted a "new" reading system which is a sight reading program. These sight reading programs are ubiquitous in schools because they give the delusion of early reading success while leaving children with non of the requisite skills to become excellent readers. There is a great deal of conversation about phonics, but when it is taught it is taught poorly and sporadically. This is why 70% of graduating seniors from LA schools, read so poorly that they are unprepared for the academic rigors of community college. Data from the national assessment of reading progress shows that 68% of 4th grade children read below grade level.

CHWK1040 karma

Any plan for Android? Thank you for your work.

Pupsquest804 karma

Good morning! I am so glad you asked that question. We are currently working on it for Android systems as well. It will be ready in the near future.

akcoder168 karma

Please release it on the Amazon App Store and mark it as a "FreeTime" educational app!

Pupsquest131 karma

That is a fantastic idea! I will speak to our IT team.

pardonmemlady118 karma

If your goal is to impact as many children as possible make it platform agnostic. Convert it to the web and then any developer can make a wrapper (app) for any device from phones and tablets to computers. It will also cost far less than creating apps for each platform.

Pupsquest104 karma

I completely agree and that is our plan! Thanks for the tip.

ShepardtoyouSheep493 karma

Educator here, and I was just curious as to what kind of data you've been able to collect about how successful this approach has been for those students using your system? Have you seen a large jump in their lexile scores using this system vs the "traditional" method?

As someone in the classroom, I can tell you the gamification of course work makes learning a lot more fun for our students, so I'd like to say thanks for spicing up the classroom!

Pupsquest356 karma

Thank you so much for the time you take to teach our children. We have been using our product in 40 schools. Our approach to phonics has been successful both in schools where the majority of the children come from non-English speaking homes, as well as, from more affluent backgrounds. Our data shows that children who enter the class in the lower 50 percentile of age-matched readers, are in the top 50 percentile after using Phoneme farms for 1 year. Additionally, children who are already in the upper 50 percentile, are in the top 25% after using phoneme farms for the year. Thank you again for your work.

ShepardtoyouSheep106 karma

Wow those are really good numbers! Out of curiosity, are these schools located? Nationwide? East coast? West coast?

Also are there plans to try and develop higher level material? I work with 9-12th grade and I know we have some low lexile students that could benefit from something like this.

Pupsquest108 karma

Currently, these are all Los Angeles based schools. However, we are attempting to move forward on a national level.

FolkSong39 karma

Our data shows that children who enter the class in the lower 50 percentile of age-matched readers, are in the top 50 percentile after using Phoneme farms for 1 year. Additionally, children who are already in the upper 50 percentile, are in the top 25% after using phoneme farms for the year.

All of them?

Pupsquest42 karma

Thank you for asking for clarification. Overall, 65% of children were in the lower 50th percentile upon entering the class. After the completion of 35 lessons only 22% were left in the bottom 50th percentile, while 78% were in the upper 50th percentile. Additionally, 3% of readers entered the class at or above the 90th percentile, upon completion of the lessons that number grew to 40%.

learnbefore207 karma

Are you aware you accidentally a word in the post title? How does that reflect on literacy in general?

Pupsquest86 karma

Thank you for catching that lol! A friend of mine is helping with this and he left that out. I need to get him on phoneme farms!!! thanks! :)

scottevil110159 karma

Serious question, even though it sounds silly:

If "nearly 70% of kids read below grade level", then wouldn't that suggest that "grade level" is incorrectly assessed? There is no objective level at which a fourth grader should be able to read, is there? Surely what defines a "fourth grade level" is simply a measure of relative ability against one's peers.

To me, this sounds a bit like saying "70% of people are above the median height."

Pupsquest37 karma

It doesn't sound silly at all, it is a very good question. The national assessment of reading progress is conducted by the US department of education, the statistics we have quoted regarding reading levels comes from data generated by these studies. Levels of reading proficiency are established by US department of education. Many states in the US have attempted to improve their low reading stats by simply lowering the bar of what is expected.

InfiniteLiveZ48 karma

Have you thought about opening up a center for children who can't read good and wanna learn to do other stuff good too?

Pupsquest17 karma

No, but Derek Zoolander may be interested.

withoutclass22 karma

Good morning, have you read the research behind 30 Million Words? How could/did this impact your game and do you see yourself folding this extremely important research into your methods?

Edit: Honestly it seems to me that we have an epidemic of parents not interacting and communicating enough with their children starting at birth, which is driving your statistics here about childhood reading levels.

Pupsquest14 karma

This is a terrific question and should be addressed! As you suggest, studies demonstrate the critical importance of early language acquisition are abundant. Children from impoverished backgrounds can enter kindergarten having heard as many as 32 million fewer words than children from middle or upper class environments. Furthermore, children from underprivileged backgrounds tend to know and use half as many words as more advantaged children by the age of 3. These chilling observations expose the unsettling reality of what has been described as word poverty. This underscores the importance of reaching children from impoverished backgrounds as early in life as possible. This is a very strong argument for preschool programs which emphasize the acquisition of language skills. We created phoneme farm to help children improve language skills by teaching them how to identify individual sounds within words. This is the best possible preparation for a young reader. As Maryanne Wolf, director of center for reading and language research at Tufts University, has stated "the sheer evidence showing the efficacy of phoneme awareness and explicit instruction in decoding for early reading skills could fill a library wall."

UnclaimedUsername18 karma

Did you do any research into the "Reading Recovery" program when building the game? My mother's a reading teacher and it's apparently a pretty effective way to get first graders back on track (although it requires special teacher training and one-on-one attention).

Pupsquest12 karma

Yes. I am very familiar with this program and I laud this effort. Children who are falling behind in reading education, I believe, should be treated as a child with special needs and all focus should be on fostering their reading skills.

Jiggerjuice4 karma

I'm getting this for my kids now.

Ever think that there is a vastly underdeveloped market for children's games? I've been looking for "educational" games but... none of them use any sort of proven psychological methods for childhood development, most of them are just jigsaw puzzles and junk from the early DOS days, Number Munchers and the like.

Thank you for your work, look forward to more releases. There is a market, and it's basically... me. You got one customer!

Pupsquest6 karma

Thank you so much for your kind words of encouragement. I am so truly passionate about this because I believe every child should reach their full potential. It is very true that most of the market is more often entertainment masquerading as education. Most of these programs teach a little of this and a little of that with no real focus. What is needed are programs that are comprehensive, evidence-based and carefully scaffolded, so children learn quickly and are never presented with material they are not completely prepared to master.

ilanajoy2 karma

Is it the "professor pup" one by "Matthew talty" that's the only one I see and OP had a link that didn't connect with no title for the app

Pupsquest2 karma

Yes, that is the one! Professor Pups phoneme Farms.

pappy81973 karma

Thank you for your AMA!

Have you considered working with other online teaching tools to help? Codeacademy is one I was thinking of which may work, and I'm sure there are others.

Pupsquest2 karma

Thank you for your suggestion and question. I am not familiar with Codeacademy, but will look into it because online teaching tools can be very valuable.

AlmostTheNewestDad1 karma

What's the age range for your game? My two-year old is obviously a genius and I'm hoping to help him along.

Do you recommend any particular resources beyond your game?

Thanks for your time!

Pupsquest2 karma

Thank you for your question. The ideal age range is 2-5 years for phoneme farms. This program teaches phoneme awareness. Our next programs all of which are carefully scaffolded then teach children the correspondence between sounds and letters. We recommend that program for ages 5-6 years. This program is already in schools and the app will be available by the end of the year. The best resources beyond the game is the parent. It is as simple as just taking the time to read stories with your child. Numerous studies have demonstrated that a child's reading ability is greatly enhanced when he/she hears language constantly.