Magazine menu

Fri, Jul

Coaching Parents Digitally: ReadAskChat and the Mission to Close Achievement Gaps Before School Begins


Executive Summary

The ReadAskChat innovation addresses the decades-long quest to close achievement gaps between poor and academically at-risk children and those from more affluent families. In today’s marketplace, the majority of education apps are digital versions of worksheets, games, and puzzles. However, for education apps to be effective, educators and pediatricians agree they must deeply engage children and spur social interaction. Through digital technology, ReadAskChat delivers a profound learning innovation that empowers parents and caregivers of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers to participate in a sustained process of what pediatricians call dialogic reading -- back-and-forth conversation about the books they are reading together. Using the ReadAskChat digital library and its embedded, on-demand conversation starters, adults can guide their young children in mindful responses to varied, meaning-rich stories, verse, songs, and science and math features, and in so doing, lay the groundwork for all future learning.

A Chronic Educational Emergency

The increase of income inequality in the U.S. underscores the urgency of closing ever-widening achievement gaps.  Beyond the cost in blighted lives, our current waste of human potential has consequences for society at large. A population with low levels of adult literacy and numeracy stifles productivity and becomes a source of intractable, cyclical social problems. But if we invest in early childhood, our educational deficits are remediable. By coaching parents in a method of joyful, dialogic reading -- and measuring its effectiveness -- ReadAskChat aims to make a substantial contribution to ending school-readiness gaps, the precursor to persistent achievement gaps, and the pattern of disadvantage they perpetuate. 

The reason behind the failure of schools to equalize opportunity through education is very clear: research unequivocally demonstrates that children who enter school lacking readiness skills haven’t heard as many words or experienced as many books as their more privileged peers. Statistics best illustrate the vast inequities in access to early literacy experiences in the home: 61 percent of low-income children have no children’s books at home (Binkley and Williams, 1996); in low-income neighborhoods, the ratio of books to children is one book for every 300 children -- a shocking inverse of the 13 books per child ratio for children living in middle- and upper-income neighborhoods (Neuman and Dickinson, 2006); a child from a low-income family enters first grade with an average of only 25 hours of one-on-one picture book reading, compared with 1,000 to 1,700 hours for a child from a typical middle-class home (McQuillan, 1998).

When children start school behind, about three-quarters never catch up (Fielding, 2015).  Preschool and elementary school educators increasingly recognize that dialogic reading -- the focus of ReadAskChat -- must take place with children before school begins. Early exposure to dialogic reading has been shown to foster virtually all school-readiness indicators, from cognitive and social-emotional development to vocabulary attainment and concepts about print. Research also shows that science learning should be cultivated before kindergarten entry, so children begin formal schooling with age-appropriate content and conceptual knowledge and the capacity to observe, experiment, and problem solve. In other words, parents must be their child’s first teacher.

ReadAskChat’s content and method address all of these education imperatives and can therefore alleviate an urgent “pain” experienced by school administrators: growing achievement gaps between rich and poor students. Moreover, local, state, and federal agencies increasingly understand that the return on investment (ROI) for early learning is significant. The most recent study by James Heckman, the Nobel Prize winning economist from the University of Chicago who has led the field in analyzing such savings, shows that high-quality 0 to five programs for disadvantaged children can deliver a 13 percent per year ROI. Cost savings of this magnitude, especially when accrued annually, represent a significant diminishment of pain, especially for cash-strapped school systems serving disadvantaged populations (Garcia and Heckman et al., 2016).  

The ReadAskChat Innovation

ReadAskChat is more than a name; it is a research-based, brain-building process. Since 80 percent of brain development occurs during the first three to four years of life (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000), early literacy experience is essential. ReadAskChat guides parents and caregivers through an innovative method of pleasurable, text-based dialogic reading with children from six months to five years, the period of foundational brain development. 

ReadAskChat’s edTech innovation is threefold: 

  1. Families receive a critical mass of picture-book quality selections through accessible digital devices like their smartphones; ReadAskChat’s proprietary sequence of text-specific, on-demand prompts then provide parents with continuous guidance in honing their dialogic skills while having fun reading with their children. 
  2. ReadAskChat prompts are on a developmental continuum -- from baby to toddler to preschooler. These enable parents to gently extend and personalize their child’s learning through age-appropriate, open-ended questioning about text and art, as well as hands-on explorations and play that relate to each reading. 
  3. To build a habit of reading, ReadAskChat includes an array of metrics and features to increase engagement and reward ongoing use. Usage data (e.g., pageviews, time spent reading, use of conversation starters) enable institutions to customize supports for families and facilitate outcomes reporting to funders. Each family sets specific reading goals, and can celebrate successes when they read for their designated amount of time per day and number of days per week.  

ReadAskChat is not a babysitting app. It is designed to be adult-mediated because young children only learn language and social-emotional behaviors from people -- not from digital sources or media. Since the focus in ReadAskChat is learning through human interaction around appealing texts, artwork, and ideas, the resulting child-adult conversations are inherently meaningful, and lay a strong foundation for open communication about what matters most throughout childhood and youth.  For these reasons, ReadAskChat is fully compliant with screen time recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics (2016).

ReadAskChat aims to replicate the picture-book experience as closely as possible. Our selections do not include voiceovers and sound effects, or distracting animations, Easter eggs, or games, because these would detract from the child’s powers of imagination and the essential activities of child-adult reading and conversation. For example, rather than make a digital mouse squeak, we invite children to give voice to fictional characters—to be active participants in the reading experience, rather than passive consumers of media. The quality of illustrations in ReadAskChat also sets it apart from other apps for children. Great artwork can tell stories, too, and because we only work with children’s artists, ReadAskChat supports early-education learning goals, such as close observation, questioning, and exposure to new concepts and ideas.

Customer discovery conducted in winter 2017 confirmed that school administrators view ReadAskChat as a meaningful way to fulfill federal education requirements set forth in the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to involve families in their children’s education as early as infancy.  Interviews strongly indicated that while schools and districts embrace this principle, their strategies and tactics for doing so tend to be undeveloped. As a parent-mediated tool, ReadAskChat fulfills the ESSA requirement and can be paid for through Title I school improvement funds. While understanding that ReadAskChat was designed to foster school readiness, informants also recognized it as a means for educating adults, coaching them in how to support their children’s early learning and vocabulary acquisition in a developmentally appropriate way. Becoming confident with a digital device (ReadAskChat’s delivery system) is another parent-education objective. Additional levers ReadAskChat will use in promoting its innovation include improvement in school climate (because parents are engaged) and the extraordinarily high quality and variety of its selections, which research confirms is associated with greater learning. Another ReadAskChat benefit to administrators is its capacity to gather data to demonstrate the efficacy of their programs.  Finally, early childhood educators interviewed repeatedly stressed the importance of reaching small, in-home daycare providers, citing as a significant “pain” their lack of training in serving children from birth to age three who need the cognitive development that occurs during dialogic reading. The ReadAskChat tool uniquely addresses this need. By simply using the ReadAskChat tool, they receive ongoing, site-based, on-demand professional development at a very low cost.

ReadAskChat placed as a finalist in the 2016 University of Chicago Booth School of Business John Edwardson ‘72 Social New Venture Challenge, and is a current recipient of a prestigious grant from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovation Research program (SBIR). ReadAskChat will launch in summer 2017 with phase I of its digital library. More information about the ReadAskChat digital library, research base, and train-the-trainer framework is at 

Bios for Carolyn Saper and Alive Letvin
Carolyn Saper and Alice Letvin each has more than 30 years of experience in publishing high-quality, literature-based content and curriculum for students and creating professional development for teachers and parents. They led the development of the Junior Great Books Curriculum of Interpretive Reading, Writing, and Discussion for PK–12 students, which is widely recognized as an exemplary integrative language arts program, enabling students of all backgrounds and abilities to engage with rich, rewarding texts. They founded ReadAskChat in 2015.  
Carolyn Saper
Carolyn Saper, a former early-education teacher, holds an AB in English literature and a masters in curriculum and instruction from the University of Chicago. She is past editorial director of the Great Books Foundation; past senior editor of curriculum and assessment for the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute; and advised the American Writers Museum on the programming and design of its Children’s Gallery. 
Alice Letvin
Alice Letvin holds a PhD in comparative literature from Washington University in St. Louis. She is past president of the Great Books Foundation and past editorial director of Cricket Media, publisher of award-winning arts and sciences magazines for children, including Babybug, Ladybug, and Click for preschoolers. 

References Cited

American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Communications and the Media. “Policy Statement: Media and Young Minds.” Pediatrics, October 2016.

Binkley, Marilyn and Trevor Williams. Reading Literacy in the United States: Findings from the IEA Reading Literacy Study. National Center for Education Statistics, 1996.

Fielding, Lynn. Predicting and Preventing Student Failure. Children’s Reading Foundation, 2015.

García, Jorge Luis, James J. Heckman, Duncan Ermini Leaf, and María José Prados. “The Life-cycle Benefits of an Influential Early Childhood Program,” 2016.

McQuillan, Jim. The Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions. Heinemann, 1998.

Neuman, N.S. and D. Dickinson (Eds.). Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Vol.2, 2006.

Shonkoff, Jack P. and D.A. Phillips (Eds.). From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. National Academies of Sciences, 2000.