Described as, "The Best Kept Secret in Reading Comprehension," ReadWorks is a non-profit, Brooklyn based group focused on increasing reading comprehension. Founded in 2010 the group has kept a tight leash on marketing spend, with a focus instead, on quality and open access. As New Schools Venture Fund lists, over "3 million reading lessons downloaded and 270 websites linked to their materials," ReadWorks is well on the way to providing a scalable, free solution for grades K-8 English teachers to find online research-based professional development, unique lessons, skill and strategy units, "leveled" nonfiction, literature, and question sets aligned to Common Core standards.
As ReadWorks Executive Director, David Ciulla explains to NewLearningTimes.com (see full interview below), "We already have 530,000 registered educators on ReadWorks because teachers are sharing with each other. They share ReadWorks with their grade team and school colleagues, school and district leaders, and online communities because they’ve seen success in their classrooms." It is this grassroots marketing by users that is not only a sign of the quality of ReadWorks evidence-based program, but this ground-up adoption allows the program to rely solely on donations and maintain a focus on the quality of content instead of an extensive marketing spend.
A Page Apart
ReadWorks provides an open API to support partnerships with edtech platforms like NearPod, to offer ReadWorks content to mobile learning-focused users. While other reading comprehension-centered applications and platforms exist, it is rare that they are both free and based on extensive research. As Ciulla explains, "All of our curriculum and teacher guidance are based squarely on the highest quality, evidence-based research in the cognitive science of reading." Ciulla adds that "ReadWorks is delivered directly to teachers and instructional leaders, online, for free, to be shared broadly. Using technology, we can ensure that teachers have barrier-free access to evidence-based content and guidance." It is this unique combination of a cognitive science, evidence-based methodology AND a free, open platform to supports both educators and learners that truly make ReadWorks an organization to watch.
EXCLUSIVE NEW LEARNING TIMES INTERVIEW with ReadWorks.org Executive Director, David Ciulla
Question: What sets ReadWorks apart from other reading comprehension programs (both for-profit and non-profit)?
Answer: First, the research base for ReadWorks, along with our fidelity to that research, sets us apart. All of our curriculum and teacher guidance are based squarely on the highest quality, evidence-based research in the cognitive science of reading.
Our success thus far has been creating lessons and texts for educators that are both faithful to the research and manageable to implement within the practical realities of the classroom.
Next is our open-access model. ReadWorks is delivered directly to teachers and instructional leaders, online, for free, to be shared broadly. Using technology, we can ensure that teachers have barrier-free access to evidence-based content and guidance.
Finally, our focus on teachers as the key to creating measurable improvements in student achievement sets us apart. Teachers have been left to sink or swim, without the evidence-based training and support they need and deserve. So this focus on building a reading comprehension program that addresses student needs and the demands of the Common Core and State Standards, while explicitly supporting teachers in improving their own practice, seems to differentiate ReadWorks from others in the non-profit and for-profit worlds.
Question: How has ReadWorks been able to focus on quality and not the bottom line or marketing?
Answer: Focusing on the quality and effectiveness of ReadWorks for teachers is our marketing strategy. Teachers themselves have driven and sustained our viral growth, which is facilitated by their ability to access and share ReadWorks without barriers. We already have 530,000 registered educators on ReadWorks because teachers are sharing with each other. They share ReadWorks with their grade team and school colleagues, school and district leaders, and online communities because they’ve seen success in their classrooms.
So on the marketing front, the best thing we can do to expand the reach and impact of evidence-based instruction is to keep improving the quality and quantity of our curriculum and teacher guidance.
As far as the bottom line, we’ve been able to maintain a singular focus on supporting teachers to solve the nation’s reading comprehension crisis because of the existing work of the research and practitioner community in evidence-based instruction, along with the philanthropic support of our loyal donors.
Because of the strong, existing research base, and the access we have had to leading researchers and practitioners, we have been able to make rapid progress in developing ReadWorks in a cost-efficient manner.
We’ve also made modest, strategic investments in technology that have enabled us to create and maintain an extremely efficient operational and delivery model.
Having such a cost-efficient model has given us the time and means to focus obsessively and continuously on improving and expanding the ReadWorks offering.
Question: What grade-level are ReadWorks resources focused on? Why did the group choose this cohort?
Answer: We create resources for K-8th grade, with a particular focus on elementary. The research is clear—children who can’t read proficiently by 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out before completing high school. In order to greatly increase their chances of lifelong success, it is of critical importance that students are receiving the most meaningful and effective evidence-based instruction in reading comprehension as early as possible. And given the severity of the reading comprehension crisis, it is important for ReadWorks to support teachers and students all the way through the transition into high school.
Question: What additional partnerships would you like to develop (I know you partner currently with NearPod)?
Answer: In addition to our partnerships with Nearpod, Curriculet and Corespring—we’re currently in a period of intense exploration and discovery. There are a lot of talented entrepreneurs and a lot of promising EdTech companies entering the market. And while technology is important, it is the quality of the curriculum and instructional practices being delivered and supported by the technology that matters most in improving teacher practice and student achievement. So we are evaluating potential EdTech partners on their effectiveness in supporting teachers and students in a manner that is consistent with the reading research. It is also part of our mission to disseminate best practices, so we have a responsibility to try and support other organizations, whether for-profit or non-profit, in ensuring that evidence based instruction and curricula become the norm in our classrooms.
Question: What unique challenges are present for sharing completely open, free learning material?
Answer: First, an important distinction for us is that our materials are completely open access, but not completely open source. We fully embrace the open access elements of the OER movement. However, at this point in time, for reading comprehension in particular, it’s essential that curriculum retains a consistent and coherent pedagogy based on the research. So it remains important to ensure the integrity of the research-based content and pedagogy in ReadWorks, while also ensuring unfettered, open access.
Second, relative to the benefits of an open-access, free model, the challenges have been insignificant. Benefits like a direct feedback loop with our teachers, access to data to help us improve, and the network effect that has supported our viral growth, have been huge assets as we work to continuously improve our offerings. As long as we continue to focus on consistent quality and recognizable value for teachers, fidelity to the research, and on providing an ever-improving user experience, there shouldn’t be any meaningful challenges specifically related to our open-access model.
Question: What are your goals for ReadWorks in 2014?
Answer: As always, we’re working on improving the quality of our existing curriculum, as well as creating a great deal of new research-based content in advance of the 2014/2015 school year. New content will include a vocabulary offering, a more sophisticated leveled text offering, additional unit designs, and a great deal more teacher guidance. On the technology side, we’ll be making dramatic improvements to our site, and will be introducing our first apps, along with student and parent-facing features.
As of December 1st we have 530,000 registered users, 466,000 of whom self-identified as public elementary and middle school teachers. In 2014, we’re hoping to reach, and exceed, 1 million teachers using ReadWorks to help them improve their practice and the reading comprehension achievement of many millions of their students across the country.
Image: From the ReadWorks.org site