This edtech CEO wants to change the way literacy works.
INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero
Andrew Friedman, CEO of Learning Ally, wants to change the way education works for the 30 million students who struggle to read in America’s schools. The Princeton, NJ education solutions nonprofit is leading the nation’s charge to champion a mission of “Literacy for All.” His organization develops solutions and professional learning services to support early and struggling readers, and the educators who teach them.
Their flagship product, the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution, is a three-time Cool Tool Award EdTech Digest finalist, a 2021 SIIA Codie Award honoree for Best Virtual Learning Solution, and a 2021 Fast Company World Changing Ideas honoree in the education category joining the ranks of trailblazing organizations and products at the forefront of world-changing innovation for the good of our society.
‘You cannot underestimate the power of reading to further academic performance and lifelong success.’
In 2018, Mr. Friedman was named a Global EdTech Leader honoree by EdTech Digest. That same year, Learning Ally received an honorary Library of Congress Literacy Award for outstanding achievements and research-based best practices to improve literacy worldwide. In this interview, Andrew talks about his organization’s national initiatives focusing on equipping educators with the solutions they need to understand how students learn, enhance instructional reading practices with an emphasis on whole-child literacy, and to drive student outcomes for reading success.
Learning loss remains a big challenge for U.S. schools, what is the state of education literacy and how does Learning Ally directly support the teacher and the student?
Andrew: Too many students are at-risk of failing because of reading deficits that go undetected and an inconsistent understanding by educators of how a student learns to read. Poor reading skills are a major factor in high school drop-out rates and the consequences can be dire. Learning loss has been exacerbated by the Pandemic too, pushing already at-risk students into precarious circumstances, falling far behind the curriculum and their peers. We want to pull these students out of this cycle.
Learning Ally has a cross section of solutions aimed at struggling readers. We are heavily focused on early literacy, and enjoy a partnership with Square Panda, a supplemental early literacy curriculum focused on helping students with phonemic-based decoding. Our Learning Ally Audiobook Solution now serves more than 1,500,000 students and is a proven reading resource to build fundamental skills in comprehension by helping students gain background knowledge, vocabulary and sight knowledge. Couple these resources with our professional learning series for teachers and administrators on the science of the fundamentals of reading and we believe we can make a big difference in improving student’s ability to read at an early age. This approach is geared to help the most vulnerable student populations – typically students of color, low socio-economic status, English Language learners and to help accommodate and accelerate learning growth for students in general education, such as those dealing with the challenges of dyslexia.
Let’s discuss technology and the evolution of accessible audiobooks. How does your audiobook solution help and what makes it different?
It takes a village to support the transformation of struggling learners. The content in our human-read audiobooks are narrated by skilled voice professionals, subject experts, and authors. The majority of our narrators are volunteers who are extremely passionate about helping students learn. As students hear and see text spoken with authenticity, they improve skills in prosody, deepen their comprehension, and enlarge their vocabulary.
The audiobook experience can be adapted to the personal needs of a child, including the speed of the narration, background colors and size of text. Our solution is easily integrated into the classroom experience. Features like highlighted text, bookmarking, and notes facilitate completing school and homework assignments effectively. Because our audiobooks are both what the students need to read for class and want to read for enjoyment, we enable students with reading deficits to take a more pivotal role in class discussions, work to their full potential, and build the learning confidence they need to achieve.
Another frequently discussed area: equitable access. You serve a large population of students with learning differences. What is the biggest challenge facing these learners and how do you solve it?
One in five students in our classrooms have a reading deficit. For many struggling readers decoding words is slow. They cannot process what they read with automaticity. They get hung up, and when a word or passage gets too tough in a printed book, they give up. We can avoid this learning obstacle and feeling of failure using our human-read audiobooks to access the curriculum.
Providing schools with an effective reading accommodation (built for learning) and access to a vast and comprehensive accessible audiobook library for education, more learners with reading deficits can receive required curriculum on their intellectual level. This is a much better solution than just providing leveled books. With a high quality audiobook, read by a passionate narrator, reading can be an informative and pleasurable experience. As students receive direct instruction, teachers can open new opportunities for students to read books that match their intellectual level and personal interests. They are more engaged and can read independently.
In regards to distance, hybrid and remote learning — remote learning has become an essential part of our education system. How has the pandemic increased the need for your solutions?
The pandemic has unearthed deep inequities in our education system. Last year was a pivotal turning point for students in disadvantaged populations and the educators and parents responsible for teaching them. The stats are staggering as 65% of students read below proficient levels and that number grows into the 80% range for our most at-risk students. If we can all agree on one thing – getting kids reading more helps ALL students. Listening to a great audiobook can be done anywhere — in the classroom, in a hybrid or remote learning setting. We can support students with anytime/anywhere access to both textbooks and popular titles. This is an ideal solution to help struggling readers get equitable access to class material, be able to work independently, and stay in study and learning mode.
As CEO for Learning Ally, Andrew has led the transition of a government funded library of audiobooks for students with disabilities, to a leading education organization, reaching over 1.5M students and over 200,000 educators, delivering multiple solutions that help new and struggling readers PreK-12 to become empowered and engaged learners. Through an investment in ongoing research with partners like UCSF and MIT and strategic partnerships with organizations in early literacy and professional learning, including Square Panda and AIM International, Andrew has focused Learning Ally on meeting the needs of new and struggling readers from PreK-12 and the educators that support them. He initially joined Learning Ally, then RFB&D (Recordings for Blind & Dyslexic) in January 2009 as its Chief Financial Officer. Prior to his leadership at Learning Ally, Andrew Friedman was founder and partner of iFOS Publishing ParentingTeensNetwork, where he raised capital to launch the company and run operations. He also served as Chief Financial Officer for Rosetta LLC. Additional roles of escalating responsibility for Andrew were with Petersen Publishing Company, where he served as general manager; Primedia Directories Inc., where he served as CFO and director of financial services; and ADP, where he served as finance director. He has a Bachelor’s of Science degree in business administration from Tulane University.
Using Learning Ally’s reading app on a smartphone, tablet or computer, students can enjoy direct access. They can self-select books and build a digital bookshelf. Additionally, teachers, parents and students can tap into our Distance Learning Resource Site. This site contains a collection of literacy-based activities, professional learning webinars, and content to assist parents who are schooling children from home.
To facilitate engagement and keep students reading, teachers can enroll students in educational reading challenges throughout the year to stimulate good reading habits and encourage reading frequency. A highlight of these activities is our annual Great Reading Games where renowned authors, like Kwame Alexander and Dan Gutman, host a live streaming event to talk with students about the importance of reading. Students of all ages love this annual event!
On the subject of early literacy, you recently partnered with Square Panda. Could you tell a little more about this area?
Research tells us that we must catch children before they fail. By age three, there could be a significant word gap between children from the wealthiest and poorest families. About 34% of children who enter kindergarten lack basic language skills necessary to learn how to read. Early literacy has shown to dramatically increase academic achievement, reduce grade retention, and improve higher graduation rates. A poor reader at the end of third grade has a 90% chance of being a poor reader at the end of fourth grade. We can stop this from happening.
‘A poor reader at the end of third grade has a 90% chance of being a poor reader at the end of fourth grade. We can stop this from happening.’
Our partnership with Square Panda, gives us the ability to provide early childhood educators with a multi-sensory phonics based adaptive literacy system to develop core fundamental skills in emergent readers. The Square Panda system, leveraging learning games grounded in neurological research, helps to build essential reading skills in children Pre-K -2nd grade, by engaging multiple senses – sight, touch, and sound. Research has shown this method is how young children learn best. When you combine Square Panda, which is heavily focused on decoding with our Audiobook Solution that builds strong comprehension, and our professional learning for teachers, we can build a strong foundation for reading. This combination solution can be a game changer to help educators meet the needs of students with a wide range of reading challenges and readies them to thrive academically.
There has been and still is a growing need for professional learning. Why is professional learning one of your core initiatives?
Our professional learning approach is evidence-based and continually updated, informed by studies with educators and incorporating applications with real-life scenarios with an emphasis on “whole-child literacy.” We employ an “Engaged Learning Model” to best serve the needs of educators and the students they support, recognizing goals for the immediate, as well as longer term positive student outcomes.
All professional learning courses are designed to give educators the opportunity to explore three basic tenets – learn, apply, and reflect. This methodology allows us to tailor an education plan to the educator’s learning needs, and help them immediately apply the learning to get results. Through our catalog of courses, educators learn how to get maximum impact from our solutions and take a deep dive into important content on dyslexia and early literacy. They can also receive accreditation and CEUs.
Learning Ally hosts two of the nation’s leading virtual conferences for educators and parents, “Spotlight on Dyslexia and Spotlight on Early Literacy.” The one-day professional learning events focus on dyslexia, understanding the science of evidence-based reading instruction, early literacy, and the importance of social and emotional learning and reading engagement. Experts share knowledge and practical advice.
Studies suggest that incorporating the current science of reading into class instruction will dramatically reduce the number of children who are on track to become functionally illiterate adults. A contributing factor to addressing this issue is teacher training. Working directly with schools and partners, including Square Panda, neuroscientists, like Dr. MaryAnn Wolf and Dr. Anita Archer, and researchers at UCSF and MIT, we can share information and effective applications. We help educators fully understand the science of evidence-based reading and how to deploy solutions to catch struggling readers, as young as kindergarten, before they fail.
It is our continued goal to keep expanding and providing equitable access to help school administrators reduce the achievement gap, while supporting teachers with knowledge and reading data so they can empower their learners to achieve socially, emotionally and academically, regardless of their race, background or learning difference. This year, 18,500 schools subscribed to Learning Ally and we supported as many as 200,000 educators in grades K-12 nationwide.
We also have some exciting developments on the horizon. We are expanding our reach and impact into early literacy through new partnerships that include an early literacy assessment based on the science of reading and upgrading our Audiobook Solution to better focus on Pre-K-2nd grade. We are also deepening our professional learning capabilities that focus on helping educators map student assessments on how a student learns, to instructional practices.
You cannot underestimate the power of reading to further academic performance and lifelong success. The Learning Ally team, along with our partners and investors, continue to be a champion of “Literacy For All.” This is the outcome that changes the trajectory for new and struggling learners and affirms the mission of our nonprofit organization.
Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: [email protected]