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TEACH ME TO READ

Half of Florida students read below grade level. To reverse this negative trend and empower all children with essential skills, the education system needs to invest in more effective instructional strategies. Literacy training & support organizations across South Florida are making stunning strides. From books in barbershops & laundromats to science-backed teachings to the heroic “Readman” – community partnerships are turning the page.  


By Kacie Brown, Samantha Schalit


The Lucy Project | Photo by Greg Clark, Good Miami Project

Sandra Bermudez sees the kids she works with through a parent’s eyes. As founder and CEO of The Lucy Project, a literacy education nonprofit named after her daughter, Sandra knows the bewilderment that comes with a learning disability diagnosis or a less-than-satisfactory progress report. For Lucy, these problems began to bubble up in kindergarten.


“I would catch her doing extra homework in the bathroom,” Sandra says. “She realized she wasn’t moving as fast as other kids. Her self-esteem started taking a hit. Our very happy-go-lucky child suddenly didn’t want to go to school.”


Lucy wasn’t alone. Half of Florida students can’t read at grade level. In the US, 43 million adults can't read proficiently. The consequences of these numbers echo far beyond report cards: They harm emotional health. They limit individuals’ abilities to navigate healthcare and legal systems. They decrease earning potential and even lower our entire country’s GDP. 


Lucy overcame her literacy challenges because she navigated the struggle with her family’s support. Today, she’s a straight-A high school student. And now that Sandra has years of experience preventing Lucy and other children from facing the lifelong repercussions of illiteracy, she has actionable advice for parents.


Stop the stigma. A child stumbling over written words will continue to fail if the adults around them view their struggle as embarrassing


“There is no shame in struggling to learn how to read. Just like there's no shame in not learning how to tap dance. Everyone has different gifts and different weaknesses,” Sandra says. 


Lucy has dyslexia, a learning disorder estimated to affect up to 20% of people worldwide. Sandra explains that when Lucy was diagnosed, she and her husband were open with Lucy about what it meant.


“We explained to her Mi amor, not everyone's brain is wired the same way, and yours is having a hard time putting letters and sounds together. And that means we're just going to get you some awesome teachers. This isn't your fault, and we're going to sort it out. And that’s what The Lucy Project does on a daily basis,” Sandra says.


Early detection is a game-changer. Problems with pronunciation and rhyming and difficulty differentiating right from left can often signal underlying issues. 


“Don't think they're late bloomers. Look for help now, because the older a child is, the harder it is for them to catch up,” Sandra says.


Not Whole Language, whole Life. Sandra emphasizes a family’s focus can’t just be on academics, no matter how severe a child’s struggles are. 


“It’s important that kids have time to go to gymnastics or soccer or karate or whatever it is that they like. It's important that we let our kids succeed.”


Encouraging kids to spend time in activities they naturally excel at, as Sandra says, fuels their self-esteem tank so they have more to give when they have to work in the areas they struggle. 


While many factors play into students’ success, their teachers and the methods those teachers use can help or hinder reading skills tremendously. With the popular, often criticized, Whole Language approach, for example, students learn to use context clues to identify whole words rather than sounding them out. However, years of analyzed research conclude that understanding phonics (letters represent sounds, which, put together, form words) is critical to a student’s ability to decode new words they’ve never seen before. 


Norwood Elementary, in Miami Gardens, is one of the schools that partnered with The Lucy Project. Their teachers have been trained by The Lucy Project in the Science of Reading, and the results are positively staggering. At the start of the 2023 school year, only 52% of Norwood’s kindergarten students could read proficiently. By the end of the year, 91% of the students had mastered the technical skills critical to reading. 


“So many children are demoralized when they are not taught well. They think it's their fault, that they're not smart,” Sandra says. “But a good instructor will teach almost any child to read. You see the whole child blossom, and it is nothing short of amazing.”


The Lucy Project | Photo by Greg Clark, Good Miami Project

Sandra recalls Lucy's difficulties; she had to work much harder than many of her peers. But her journey through dyslexia came with silver linings. Amid the struggle, she found purpose. 


“Nowadays she has a club for elementary kids that struggle with learning disabilities,” Sandra says. “Dyslexia gave her a window into kindness and empathy.”


BOOKS FOR BARBERSHOPS & LAUNDROMATS


Just outside Dallas, Aileen Sanchez Gonzalez was teaching at a public middle school. She saw her students weren’t getting the individualized attention they needed – the school just didn’t have the resources, and neither did the students’ parents. The ripples of her kids’ difficulties achieving literacy stuck with her even when she returned to her native Miami.


 “When you’re a struggling reader, you don’t just struggle in your English class,” Aileen says.


Then, her daughter started pre-K during the pandemic. Aileen quickly realized that virtual school wasn’t the best environment for mastering the fundamentals of reading. She speaks with sensitivity, almost guilt, as she describes joining with a few friends to hire a retired teacher who gave their children extra reading support.


“I had no idea how long COVID would last, but I knew that it would affect children significantly, especially those in pre-K through second grade. Because those grades are where the building blocks for reading are taught,” Aileen says. 


Uplift Literacy Volunteer & Student | Photo Courtesy of Uplift Literacy

In 2022, Aileen took action, founding Uplift Literacy and partnering with ReadingPals. This statewide Children’s Trust initiative trains community volunteers in social-emotional learning and the Science of Reading, an evolving body of scientific literature that recommends instruction rooted in phonics and phonemic awareness. With ReadingPals, Uplift partners with 12 Miami-Dade public schools to support children who read below grade level or are at risk of doing so. Each ReadingPals volunteer works with two students at their school for the entire school year. During each session – Uplift has clocked 4,632 to date – volunteers get to know the students and their needs while helping them develop skills essential to being good humans, like self-awareness and responsible decision-making.


At Uplift Literacy’s End-Of-Year Appreciation event, David Lawrence Jr., founder of The Children’s Movement and former Miami Herald publisher, recounted the effects of his own book-filled childhood to a rapt audience. He imagines a brighter future for today’s children spurred by the powerful, character-building effects of reading.


“You can do extraordinary things, but you got to take it from within yourself…and with books, we have more ways to build relationships with other people. The future of this republic requires people to know one another, find out what we have in common.”


Even in the early days of Uplift Literacy, Aileen knew she would also need to provide opportunities for learning beyond school walls. She envisioned a community steeped in books, one where families took the importance of reading to heart and strengthened reading skills – and relationships – through everyday interactions.


“We feel that families, parents, and caregivers are the first teachers,” she says. 


Uplift takes important information on literacy directly to families. With free food and free books in hand, they host two-part events in Miami neighborhoods: part one, a workshop for adults focused on at-home strategies and free resources; part two, a storytime session for kids, often with a local author and highlighting a theme like individuality or self-compassion. 


The organization surveys families after their events, and they find that parents act on what they’ve learned. “Sometimes families come to this country and have no idea that they can check out 50 books from the library,” Aileen says.


Not all of their initiatives are formal, though. Uplift volunteers also bring book bins to pediatric offices, barbershops, and laundromats. Anyone can donate books to these bins. 


“The goal is to give families more options just to pick up a book and read,” Aileen says.



SUPERHERO FOR LITERACY 


Uplift’s literacy immersion efforts mirror another Miami startup’s. Caribu, a popular app now owned by Mattel, encourages kids to read in-app books alongside family members and friends via interactive video calls. The Children’s Trust Book Club is also normalizing reading as a family activity by mailing free books to children from birth to five years old.


“Our data suggests that children who participated in the Book Club and had access to many books over five years do much better when they start kindergarten,” Associate Director of Community Engagement Danielle Barreras says.


A retired school administrator from the Miami-Dade County School System, Dr. Edward Robinson is a superhero for literacy – literally. The superhero persona he co-created, Readman, travels to schools in historic Overtown and beyond to defend against illiteracy and encourage students to take an interest in reading.


“Converging evidence has revealed that the pre-K through third-grade years are the optimal period for such learning. Children who fail to read fluently by the end of third grade have only a minimal chance of achieving literacy competency without specific interventions,” Edward says. “Readman’s primary mission is to get children excited about reading early.”



Photo Courtesy of Readman


PROVEN METHODS


Dr. Deborah Levy, a teacher, educational researcher, and expert in dyslexia treatment runs Levy Learning Center in North Miami Beach. Her more than 50 years of experience shows through in her resoluteness about the treatment methods that work.


“I saw a child two weeks ago in fourth grade who was diagnosed with dyslexia. They failed him in first grade, they failed him in third grade, and in fourth grade, they want to retain him again because he can’t write his full name,” she says. “We’re able to take these children and teach them to read within a couple months.” 


The solution, Deborah says, is one-on-one work with a teacher trained in science-backed methods for teaching reading – her teachers are trained in 21. For dyslexia in particular, the Orton-Gillingham approach is unparalleled, she says. It systematically walks children through the building blocks of reading, allowing students to master new skills one at a time.


Levy Learning Center has also effectively incorporated technology and multi-sensory work into their teaching. They adapt to students’ varied learning styles by reinforcing phonics concepts with strategies like color-coding and tracing letters in sand. They’ve developed a system that enables at-home practice that adjusts to student performance, returning to a time-tested educational philosophy often forgotten in reading. 


“A teacher needs to teach concepts to the child, and the child then needs to practice,” Dr. Elliot Levy, the center’s scientific advisor says. 


Deborah and Elliot say individual tutoring is the best way for struggling readers to catch up, especially in the aftermath of self-guided learning popularized by necessity during the pandemic. They know that one-on-one instruction is out of reach for many families, though. “Every parent cares, but not everybody has the resources,” Deborah says.


Because of this, their work extends to advocacy. Levy Learning Center trains Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, and Monroe County teachers in the Science of Reading, something they say 75% of teachers aren’t learning in college. They partner with schools in Florida and The Bronx to hold screening sessions designed to identify risk factors for impaired reading in children as young as five and six. 


Their work is paying off.


“I just heard from a parent today. The father said My son won student of the month. This is a child who only got negative attention and only felt failure six hours a day,” Deborah says. “That’s why I keep doing it.” 



 

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