A $30 million grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will launch Reach Every Reader, a literacy program that combines the expertise from both Harvard Graduate School of Education and MIT.

Courtesy of HGSE

Campus & Community

Reach Every Reader targets early literacy crisis

6 min read

$30M grant from Chan and Zuckerberg supports cutting-edge education and scientific research

Reading is essential for learning, yet students across the U.S. are completing elementary school with inadequate reading abilities. A student who fails to read in first grade has a 90 percent probability of reading poorly in fourth grade and a 75 percent probability of reading poorly in high school, with implications for success later in life. Too many reading interventions are too late or too haphazard to change these outcomes, according to the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Amid this crisis, faculty at Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili) are launching Reach Every Reader, a five-year initiative that will combine both institutions’ expertise in cognitive science, reading, learning technologies, and evaluation to help all children thrive and succeed as readers — across schools, homes, and communities.

“Reading enables achievement in every dimension of life, and we have an extraordinary opportunity to combine knowledge of how individuals learn with technologies that will put remarkable interventions within reach for students across the country,” Harvard President Drew Faust said.

In addition to HGSE and MITili, Reach Every Reader involves collaborators and researchers from the Florida Center for Reading Research and College of Communication and Information at Florida State University, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District (CMS) in North Carolina. The initiative is supported by a $30 million grant from Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, co-founders of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

“We are excited to support the launch of Reach Every Reader, a unique combination of cutting-edge education and neuroscience research to better understand how we can help every kid stay on track to reading on grade level by the end of third grade,” said Chan, who is also founder and CEO of The Primary School.

“I know from my work at The Primary School how important it is to identify learning barriers students face early and provide them with the right supports to succeed. This new program represents the type of bold, innovative thinking that we believe will help build a future for everyone and enable transformative learning experiences,” she added.

“For a young child, struggling to read can be a crushing blow with lifelong consequences,” said MIT President L. Rafael Reif. “Multiply that experience by millions of children, and it’s a crisis for our society.

“At MIT, we approach the problem as scientists and engineers: by seeking to understand the brain science of how learning happens, and by building innovative technologies and solutions to help. We are delighted to be able to contribute in these ways to the exciting collaboration behind Reach Every Reader.”

To make significant progress in early literacy at scale, the team will engage in a rigorous, scientific approach to personalized diagnosis and intervention. They will develop and test a scalable, web-based screening tool for reading difficulties that diagnoses the underlying causes, and a set of targeted home/school interventions that change the way we approach intervention for young children with reading difficulties.

“HGSE is thrilled to partner with MITili on Reach Every Reader. This first-of-its-kind initiative will explore the power of personalized interventions on improving children’s literacy outcomes, and in doing so, may dramatically change how schools and families teach reading,” said HGSE Dean James E. Ryan. “Literacy is key to helping all children reach their full potential as learners and citizens, and we are grateful to Priscilla and Mark for their backing of this vital effort.”

Early identification is key to helping guide children to the interventions that will have the most impact. As one of the first steps in the process, the diagnostic screener will identify kindergarteners who are at high risk for reading difficulty, capitalizing on technology to make the screening widely available to all children.

“Nothing is more fundamental to all aspects of education and citizenship than the power to read. The web-based tool we are developing will be key for the early identification of reading challenges to help direct children immediately toward personalized interventions,” said John Gabrieli, professor of health sciences and technology at MIT and director of MITili. “This builds on our research on the neural and cognitive development of learning in children, and the ways research can inform and advance educational outcomes.”

The in-school interventions will build on a long-term research-practice partnership between CMS and HGSE to support early literacy development. The personalized interventions in schools will be designed to build students’ motivation to read and their ability to read and write about complex expository texts. In homes, personalized interventions will provide literacy activities tailored to an individual child’s skills and interests. Effective and personalized literacy supports in the school and home can build a student’s overall skill and will to read over time.

“One of my hopes for Reach Every Reader is that we not only contribute to joyful, equitable, and rich learning environments that support thriving readers, but also that we have a greater understanding of personalized interventions, and of how to leverage children’s talents and strengths and merge that with what they need to succeed. I’m excited to help change the way learning happens, even beyond literacy,” said HGSE senior lecturer Elizabeth City, executive director of Reach Every Reader. “There’s agreement across the field of education that we need to help practitioners on the ground, and yet we’re not delivering for them, or for children. Through this collaboration, I’m hopeful we will reach both.”

In addition to the personalized diagnostic screener and interventions for use at home and in school, Reach Every Reader will work with educators and families to improve their capacity to adopt and integrate these personalized tools and measures. Researchers will leverage and codify next practices for building capacity in adults and continually refine them through frequent analysis of data and users, creating an infrastructure for educators, parents, and community members to use in the future.

“Science is continuously shedding more light on how we learn, and how we ought to teach,” said Sanjay Sarma, vice president for Open Learning at MIT. “MIT and Harvard are addressing early childhood literacy head-on through this collaboration.”