This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Regina Bartels had tried everything.
She could not get her 5th-grade son, Sam, to read. Seeing how he loved the iPad, she tried e-books, but he wasn’t interested. She took him to the bookstore and let him pick any book he wanted, but no luck. As an educator herself, she knew the long-term benefits of cultivating a love of reading, but eventually she resorted to forcing Sam to read, a strategy she knew could quickly become unproductive.
But this summer, Meenoo Rami, an author and former Philadelphia public school teacher, came to Bartel’s hometown in Texas with a possible solution – information about Readocity, a company designed to improve literacy skills.
Rami helped launch the company with Vidya Joshi, a frustrated parent with a background in technology, while fulfilling her first year as a teaching fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Joshi had reached out to Rami to see whether she’d be interested in creating a platform that would help overwhelmed parents and teachers improve children’s literacy. Rami was interested, and this year, the two started Readocity.
The premise of Readocity is threefold:
- Give parents and teachers a free app that provides easy access to targeted book recommendations for individual students.
- Open up communications between parents and teachers about the books read in class so that discussion can continue at home.
- Offer a subscription service that provides child- or classroom-specific book bundles that are chosen by expert reading coaches based on a survey of needs and interests.
“In today’s world, you have two-career families with intense time commitments with work," Rami said. "I think it can be quite overwhelming to support your child as a reader.”
According to a study released by the American Educational Research Association, "a student who can’t read on grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate by the age 19 than a child who does read proficiently by that time.” That process starts with practices like reading out loud to children at home and ensuring that children are regularly reading independently. Research consistently shows that the more a child reads, the better his or her reading skills become.
Readocity aims to pick up some of that work. A three-month subscription costs $75, and each book bundle is created specifically for one child based on an extensive survey that the parents and children fill out about interests, reading level, and other factors. Then a “pathfinder” — a group made up of educators, literacy coaches, reading specialists, and librarians — picks out three books to send to that child per month. The parents can leave feedback about the books they received so that the process becomes progressively more targeted to that child.
A beta version of the app and the subscription service were launched in July. The fully functional app will launch Sept. 15. In the two months that Readocity has been available, about 45 people have signed up for the subscription service, and the beta app has had about 75 users.
Susan Dee is a literacy coach who works for Readocity on a pathfinder group. She says part of her job as a literacy coach is to stay on top of all the children’s books that are published and think critically about which books would benefit different types of children. According to the American Library Association, more than 20,000 children’s books are published per year. When she heard about Readocity, she figured that her expertise could be useful for overwhelmed parents.
“There are just so many books to choose from," she said. "How do parents know which books might be the best fit for their kid?”
For many parents, the answer is: They don’t.
When Bartels heard about Readocity, she wondered whether the personalized model would work for her son and signed up the next day.
When the first packet came, Sam was reading on the iPad, but he put it down to see what had come for him in the mail.
“He was so excited to get a package. Kids love to get mail,” said Bartels. “He ripped the package open, looked at all the books. The books were great!”
Sam started reading, and when Bartels checked an hour later, he was still reading. He read all the books in the pack in four weeks and asked when the next package would come.
“That is unheard of. I was blown away!” said Bartels.
Next month, the same thing happened. Now Bartels wants to sign up for her younger son as well. She thinks that because someone outside of the child’s typical authority figures is picking the books, the process seems more fun and not a “chore” imposed by a parent or teacher.
The price of the subscription service makes it difficult for some families to afford, but both Rami and Bartels stressed that the average price (three books for $25 per month) offers books for below the retail price at a bookstore or through Amazon, with the added benefit of experts curating the selections.
For those who can’t afford the subscription service, the Readocity app provides an up-to-date list based on the child’s age. If there is a specific book that a parent wants to try for their child – on the list or otherwise – the parent can look up the book and either buy it directly from the app or find out from the app which three closest libraries have the book.
“Those equity issues are problematic for someone like me who has taught in almost every single zip code in Philadelphia and knows the difference that access to good resources makes in the lives of readers,” said Rami.
She said that she hopes to work with libraries in "book deserts" to make it easier for parents to put a book on hold through the app, but that will take the cooperation of complicated library systems.
“I want to make it as easy as possible for a parent who has just finished their pay-by-the-hour job who is waiting for the bus to feel empowered,” she said.
A support for teachers
As a teacher, Rami is also excited for the company’s potential in the classroom. One of the goals is to support teachers who face the daunting challenge of finding the right match between the book and the child when the students have vastly different reading needs. Readocity also allows teachers to scan the ISBN number of a book read in class and send it to all the parents in his or her classroom so that they know what book was discussed. Teachers can also include a short question or comment about the book so that the classroom conversation can continue at home.
“Something as simple as that prompt or question can create powerful conversations around the dinner table, on the drive to the soccer game, or walking back from the bus stop at the end of the day. And that’s what we want to do. We are not asking parents or teachers to do one more thing just for the sake of doing it. We are creating this loop between home and school and the child, as the reader, lives in the middle,” said Rami.
Readocity also offers a classroom version of the subscription service. For example, if a teacher needs more biographies of people of color for his or her classroom, a classroom subscription can fit those needs. Right now Readocity has a back-to-school offer that includes 10 months of deliveries for 10 classrooms for an average price of $210 per classroom. Rami hopes that something like this will be used by administrators or librarians, but her experience in Philadelphia’s public school system has taught her that for many districts, this is unlikely, if not impossible.
“We think that there should be 100 percent fully funded and staffed libraries," she said. "We are not a replacement for teachers or librarians. We are simply one more tool in your toolbox.
“But if I am a first-year teacher and I walk into a classroom without any books – it only has textbooks that are 20 years old and there are no books that reflect the diversity of my students and their communities – and I don’t have a librarian or a functioning library in my school, and I am already overwhelmed by all the things I have to do, can Readocity help that teacher? Absolutely.”
And for many teachers who use their own money to pay for resources for their classrooms, including books, this could be a more economical and effective way for them to add to their classroom libraries.
“Unfortunately, as a teacher in Philadelphia, I paid for many, many books. I often had second and third jobs just so I could buy books for my classroom,” Rami said.
Dee, who is a pathfinder for Readocity and has tried the service herself as an educator, said that the price “seems like a lot, but when I thought about that investment for myself, I thought that I know that the 30 books I’m getting are going to be the best of the best and it’s going to help me because someone else has already vetted them. So for me that seems like a cost-effective way to allocate resources.”
Part of the reason that Readocity is promoting the “10 for 10” package is because Rami and Joshi believe that the program would be most powerful if multiple teachers in the same environment are getting new books and can collaborate around the different ways of teaching literacy.
“If you really want kids to be critical writers, readers, and thinkers, you have to go beyond packaged curriculum and packaged textbooks. You have to go to books that allow kids to see themselves in between the pages and allow them to see the world in new and different ways,” Rami said.