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How We Came up with SmartyReader

Make reading a challenge

  • November 05, 2015

Whenever I went shoe shopping as a kid, my mom would always buy shoes at least a size too big and then make me run around Footlocker (or wherever we were) to make sure I wouldn’t trip over myself in the months before I grew into them.  The same was true with clothes—everything I wore was always a little too big, as if to challenge me to grow.

At twelve, I had other shoes to fill. When a family friend read a short story I had written, she pointed to me and said, “You’ve got a lot of potential as a writer.”  Within days, I found myself locked in my room, reading books by Hemingway, Tolstoy, and Faulkner. I wanted to be just like these literary giants, though at the time I understood only half of what they were saying.

These days, I realize how lucky I was to have had these experiences. I was fearless in my approach to reading and writing. I knew there were always bigger shoes to fill, and making mistakes along the way wasn’t just par for the course but an indication that I was on the road to improvement.  And this mindset proved immensely effective.  I left high school with a perfect score on the critical reading section of the SAT and went on to study literature at Vanderbilt, where I’d breeze through long books and papers with comparative ease.

Now that I have become an educator, I’ve discovered that most students aren’t so fortunate. As a tutor for the SAT, I’ve witnessed how difficult critical reading passages are perceived less as exciting challenges than as threats to my students’ self-esteem.

My conception of SmartyReader thus began with an intention to tease out why my students possessed this static mindset in their approach to reading in the first place. I quickly found that the very structure of the English classroom, in which insightful comments are rewarded with praise and misunderstanding means potential embarrassment, doesn’t leave much room for students to grow.

Cultivating critical reading skills, I realized, wasn’t so different than my awkward strides around Footlocker as a kid.  We all need shoes to grow into that are just a little too big. 

Initially I thought that this level of personalization would be impossible in the typical English classroom of 20 to 30 students. However, I soon became convinced that an adaptive modular learning platform could produce the very data English teachers need to see what’s going on “under the hood” as their students read.

SmartyReader does exactly that. By incorporating comprehension questions and vocab acquisition tools into a unified platform, SmartyReader propels and tracks holistic critical reading improvement among high school students, providing students with immediate feedback and teachers with valuable data on their students’ evolving abilities.  The technology adapts to each student’s needs, making more challenging reading exercises available automatically as critical reading performance improves.

So far, we’ve seen outsized gains with our SAT students at my Baltimore-based tutoring company Streamline Tutors, and we’ve since begun incorporating SmartyReader in local Baltimore high schools. We feel like we’re just getting started.  Next step? Incorporate SmartyReader into every high school in America.

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