Literacy crisis in Nevada – state educators launch a digital reading platform

Two-thirds of Nevada’s school-aged children score below a basic level of reading proficiency. The National Assessment of Educational Progress rates Nevada in the bottom half of states in reading achievement for both grades 4 and 8.  

Nevada has made progress boosting its scores, but the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ study still shows that Nevada is a state full of struggling student readers. This achievement gap exists within all subgroups of students and especially affects disadvantaged students.

When children struggle with reading, it is a predictor of possible problems later on:  behavior issues, depression, anxiety, lower high school graduation rates, fewer opportunities for advanced education, and an increased likelihood of ending up in the criminal justice system.

The READ Nevada Partnership, co-launched by the Nevada Department of Education (NDE), the Nevada State Library and Renaissance Learning, Inc, is a summer reading program that incorporates a comprehensive digital library of books and materials. Renaissance Learning’s digital personal library is called myON. myON is much like a Netflix of books, comprised of the myON Reader and myON News.

myON an easy to use digital platform that gives students, even those in the most difficult places to reach in Nevada, access to thousands of digital reading choices: fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, and age-appropriate news, all within a wide range of reading levels. The digital platform is divided into student interest, grade, and reading levels. Titles are in both English and Spanish.

Todd Brekhus, with Renaissance Learning, Inc, is the founder and chief product officer of myON. 

“myON – 2  simple words, 2 words coming together. ‘My’ being my personal library, my own material, this is mine, the possessive pronoun my. ‘On’ is on-demand, always available, always ready for me to read, and always having something that’s on. Those two words came together. We put those two words together to create this concept of my online reading, my online library, my always-on reading opportunity, a reading platform for all.” 

Long Summer Slide

This year’s Summer Slide, which essentially began in mid-March of this year, will be the longest on record. It is projected to result in an alarming loss of student learning and a significant widening of an already disturbing achievement gap for most disadvantaged students.   

Students who fall behind rarely catch up. They are most likely to drop out of school and lose a lifetime of economic opportunity. 

Dr. Darl Kiernan, language arts specialist for the Nevada Department of Education, understood that this summer children would be exiled to their homes when Nevada went into quarantine. School wasn’t coming back until at least the fall. Reading skills would certainly suffer. Standard summer reading programs would not suffice.

“One of the things we know is that by providing easier access to books and materials over the summer we can greatly enhance reading achievement. We know that providing access at a student’s fingertips would be the best way to do that. 

“We also know that voluntary reading programs are related to growth in reading achievement and joy of reading for children. This particular partnership has been a large part of my work, especially during this time with COVID.” 

Dr. Kiernan has confidence that the myON Reader platform offers multiple advantages beyond previous years’ more structured summer reading programs. Kiernan advocates strongly for making sure that students don’t perceive reading as homework assignments.

“It’s not work. It’s voluntary. It promotes the joy of reading and encourages students to read for the love of reading. There are no prizes connected with this. It’s not summer school. It’s graphic novels, news articles, books to enjoy.”

For Kiernan, the myON Reader encourages family involvement. Families reading together has the potential of improving the reading and comprehension skills of everyone involved. 

The myON platform builds interest through an audio experience with natural voices, voices from some of the very authors who wrote the books, or voiced from actors who portray the content to make it engaging. 

“Families listening and reading the news together, that’s a big piece. The myOn platform is a place for them to learn about what’s going on in the world. It’s a great place to learn how to get involved and be active citizens.”

Todd Brekhus is a technologist and an inventor, having dedicated his professional life to finding the latest technological ways to confront the nationwide reading crisis affecting young students. Brekhus understands that Internet use has become the norm for most children. myON presents its text in a digital format that young users find it easy to navigate, stay onsite longer, and return often.  

“I remember being a teacher and realizing that with digital we could change the game, by making every book available … focused on interests as well as levels. The internet changed the game (for me), it’s changing for news, it’s changing for movies, for how we consume media. 

“We hadn’t really seen an effective education-based model for distributing books to read. Most school books are in classroom libraries or in the school library. And there’s definitely not enough books for kids to read in terms of the recommended amount of reading and books, even in those schools in general and then some school districts don’t have a certified library.”

Image provided by Renaissance Learning, Inc

Both Kiernan and Brekhus believed that the concept of reading for pleasure and reading for information gets lost amid all the curriculum and standards discussions.

“I had read a study out of the University of Nevada Reno,” Brekhus recounted, “that said, ‘if there were 500 books in a child’s home, there was a greater likelihood that they were going to expand their further education by 3.2 years, even more important than the socioeconomic status of their parents.’

“That’s a powerful statistic. That was the motivation to create myON. It was the idea of choice and unlimited access, personalization, the idea that what we offer is personal.”

Brekhus worked on the myON platform initially in 2010 -2011. 

“We rolled it out to the country. There are about 8 million students now reading books on myON. We have had a heavy increase in reading during this COVID period, where we were seeing upwards of 4 million books read per week on our platform. Some days, almost 4 million books are being read daily … kids reading 1,2,or 3 books a day.

“I’m a passionate educator trying to get kids to read more and trying to help them grow their literacy skills. Even though I’m in a corporate environment, I’m really focused on that mission-driven approach.

“We (as a nation) have flatlined reading since the late 1960s, even though there’s been billions and billions of dollars invested. And what we know from statistics, that if you have books in the home, that’s an opportunity. We can propel further education beyond where we are today.”

Reading Skills Development

The myON Reader calculates the time spent reading, which equates to vocabulary acquisition.

“Basically, if you read 1,000 words, you learn a new word,” said Brekhus. “Every time you read 1,000 words, you’re learning a new word. If you’re reading 15 minutes per day, you’re gaining more vocabulary words than your friend who’s not reading. Projected over the K-12 period, you can be exposed to 13,000 more vocabulary words than your peers if you’re reading 15 minutes a day,” said Brtekhus.

The myON platform removes the traditional barrier when books are bound to a physical library, guarded with sensors and alarms to alert librarians when a book might be leaving without being checked out. In a digital world, that barrier goes away.

“I’ve partnered with over 60 plus publishers to come into this unlimited reading environment,” said Brekhus. “It is an environment that any book that’s on our platform can be read by every student on that platform at the same time. There are no limits, no gates, no security guards. There is unlimited access for all students, welcoming, relevant, and engaging.”

myON News

To enhance the reading experiences for students, Brekhus’ team recently built an online news platform called myON News. 

“The news platform is a daily news program written for kids, at four different grade levels, in English, Spanish, and French. Daily news that engages kids with today’s headlines. Every student owns a library that is personalized, ready to read automatically, anytime. Today’s news, current events, history, biographies, news about voting across America.

“A daily reading habit is critical whether it’s a habit of news, whether it’s a habit of your favorite fiction book, whether it’s a nonfiction book that relates to something your teachers are teaching,’” said Brekhus.

Nevada’s Public Libraries Role in the READ Nevada Partnership

To facilitate access statewide, Nevada’s public libraries have set up numerous hotspots and internet availabilities throughout the state. Librarians are offering online video story-times, read-along programs on their websites, and curbside services for students who prefer hard copy books. The partnership dovetails nicely with one of the libraries’ core responsibilities to help kids get ‘Reading Ready’ for the 21st Century.       

Tammy Westergard, Nevada’s state librarian explains how the state libraries contribute to the program. 

“It seems like kids and families are in a weird free fall and none of us really know what school will look like come September,” said Westergard.  

“The idea of having an option to use the myON collection as well as public library e-book collections, library online storytime and play along programs accessible from library websites creates fantastic online choices,” continued Westergard. 

Summer reading packets can be picked up curbside at library branches. All of these tools give kids and families a chance to choose from a myriad of resources. 

“We hope these combined efforts give kids and families more summer structure. Asking librarians to join together with teachers has created a new professional development opportunity that sends an important message to both groups of professionals. We are in it together.” 

Librarians have engaged with teachers at the end of the school year to better understand what teachers are worried about right now regarding how to stem the learning slide and letting teachers know what libraries have available to keep kids learning.

What the READ Nevada Partnership Hopes to Accomplish This Year?

The impacts will be measured daily, looking at the number of minutes read and the number of books finished, across the entire state. 

“I’ve been doing this now for 10 years with this program,” said Brekhus. “And we’ve seen amazing results in many school districts and states. Sometimes it’s just getting kids immersed over the summer to avoid the summer slide, which is a big goal for the state of Nevada. With COVID, it’s longer than the summer.

“All summer long, (our) metrics will tell you how we’re doing? How much growth we have had in the north, in the rurals, in the south,” said Brekhus. 

“We will calculate how much time is spent reading by individual students, throughout each school district. We should see results in the next few weeks and months, as this summer reading program rolls into the summer, and see the growth of reading happening throughout the state.”

Dr. Kiernan knows that children need extensive reading experiences, both in school and out, to build reading stamina and become proficient, independent readers. Giving students time to read rich content texts and having the choice over what they want to read will help students gain confidence as readers while boosting their comprehension and general knowledge.  

“It is well documented by literacy experts that reading develops students’ word recognition skills, builds vocabulary, and is a powerful way to expand world knowledge. Students must have easy access to books that are engaging if we want them to read in volume. 

“Time to read and having choices matter most.”

Joe McCarthy is the general manager and development director of the Sierra Nevada Ally. He writes about education and the arts. Support his work here.

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