Curacubby Team
January 26, 2021

The Steps to Literacy and Reading Comprehension, A Conversation with Zachary Silverzweig

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The Steps to Literacy and Reading Comprehension, A Conversation with Zachary Silverzweig

In this interview, Zachary Silverzweig, Founder and CEO of Tiny Ivy,  joins us to talk about what he has learned after coming from a career in the Healthcare field to Education. 

Inspired by his own struggle to help his child with phonics and reading comprehension, he came up with the TIPS concept. Silverzweig set out to create a new and improved perspective to the English alphabet that could help children and foreign language learners alike. 

It may sound like a  radical reinvention, but teachers are wondering why they haven’t thought of this method before.

By the way, this conversation was originally featured on our podcast K12ish, which you can listen to here or wherever you get your podcasts.

From Healthcare to Education

Prior to founding Tiny Ivy, you worked in the Healthcare technology industry. How did you end up in Education?

I was CTO and Head of Product in a healthcare technology company for nine years. What happened was, I sort of grew up in that role. 

So, I've always been a social entrepreneur. I've always wanted to find something where my work was fulfilling on multiple levels and trying to give back as much as we could. 

After I had my son, I spent a lot of time, as any parent would, working with him on letters, sounds, and teaching him, first, his colors and shapes, and eventually his letters. Finally, how to read, and I  just became frustrated with that process. It's almost like a shark tank episode. 

I was trying to do it myself.  I felt like there had to be a better way. There had to be a better product. 

I use a couple of available options, and I wasn't a healthcare expert when I started healthcare technology. What unique skill set is around listening to folks that aren't used to using technology. 

So, when I was working in healthcare, I was working with nurses. They’re not used to using technology in the same way in their business, as many other people do in their work, Like they're there to put bandages on and help with patient care, versus using a computer or a tablet. 

So, translating what they needed into a product was always my specialty. I feel that the same skill set is what I'm trying to bring to education. 

Except, here, it's around: What does a child need to learn? What's the right reading products from the child's perspective? How can you figure out something that will work for as many kids as possible? 

Because right now, 65% of the kids are not reading at grade level. That was before the pandemic. They're not even going to measure it this year. There's a lot of work that has to be done in this space.


The Idea Behind Tiny Ivy

How did you go about developing the pedagogy behind Tiny Ivy?

At first, it was this idea of: Let's just indicate the right sounds. My son couldn't decode words like "his" and "was." They come up a lot in print. 

So, I was like, "let's just give him a little accent mark here or there to help with that." The next question for me was: How can I create content for him using marks that he already has learned? How can I get a list of words that have that or the 'A' making the "ah." 

I'm a bit of an engineer, so I started working on this algorithm that decoded the dictionary. It broke down the words and their IPA pronunciations and mapped them all back together to figure out if you had to set up a one to one correspondence between letters and sounds, what would it look like? 

That data set then let us figure out: what are the most productive letters and sounds? What can I teach you that will give you the most reading value, especially for an early reader using a corpus of early reader texts. 

So, we structured much of the pedagogy around introducing those high-value letter-sound combinations early. Then over time, it's been an iterative process. My first experience was in Harlem at an after school program, and I learned a lot about how well kids can pick up the tips, which was very fast. 

They pick up the letter sounds fast, but there's still a lot of phonological awareness, a lot of blending, reading skills - word attack skills - that they need to work on. So, we started to incorporate those earlier on. 

Eventually, Briney Burley, our founding educator, joined forces with me, and she brought a great view of social and emotional learning. She's got excellent content that's STEM-oriented. It's very kinesthetic and trying to get kids to move, stand up, and engage in a multi-sensory experience. 

So, what we're trying to do is make the best of the established science of reading research. The one-piece that people haven't locked on to yet is this idea that you can learn to read 3x faster if you learn a transparent alphabet by adding these tips - 10 tips on top of your 26 letters, and you can decode 30,000 words. 

So, it's not even like you need to teach 40 or 50 different things. You just have this little, tiny addition, and it makes a world of difference.

TIPS - those are those little demarcations above the letters, correct. Could you elaborate more on this topic?

TIPS are - Tiny Ivy Phonics System. So, what our system is, is a series of diacritics - a series of accent marks. The same way that the 'n' in Spanish could be an 'n' or an 'ñ,' or you have a C in French that could be the soft 'c,' or hard 'c' sounds. Like the 'c' in the word race, for example. 

So, in our system, if you came across the word race, the 'a' would have a bar on top to indicate the long 'a' sound, and the 'c' would have a cedilla underneath it [ç] to show that should be a soft c - pronounced as an 's.' 

There are about 10 of these tips to get through more than half of the words in English. There are about 20 of these tips to get through like 95% of the terms. What happens is it transforms the decoding process. 

People who love phonics, phonics-based approaches, and science still know that the phonics-based system is complicated. It even has rules - ideas around like soft and hard vowels, long vowel sounds, and double consonants. A lot of this goes back to the country’s origin and the period that the word was coming from. 

Our language is like a historical guide to English more so than a Pronunciation Guide. By creating those marks, all decoding becomes very simple CVC decoding. It becomes left to right decoding where the children don't have to look ahead. 

They can just work through each letter naturally. What happens is that kids start to develop sight word reading skills on their own. So it's not the same process that you typically use where you've got to memorize exception words. 

There's rote memorization. There are different memorization games. They have this ability to decode, and they approach every word that way until eventually, they know that word by heart. 

That's the beauty of the system - is that the children end up doing a lot more of the work, and they do it successfully. If you forget that word that you've learned how sight-read, you're stuck. With our system, you can continuously reinforce through repeated decoding. So, it's a constant intervention to keep you on the right track.

There are 300 million people across the earth who learn to read in languages taught to kids exactly how we're introducing this. It's an entirely novel concept in English- the idea that all children's books should be written with these accent marks and diacritics, which is really what I believe. 

That scene is very audacious and very revolutionary, but for 500 years, it's how other languages that are orthographically complex have been taught. If you have an alphabet that doesn't communicate enough information that an early reader or foreign language learner can read it, then every other language like that in the world created a system to make it easier for people except for English. We're the only people that didn't do that. 

So, it's an ironic situation to be in. Fortunately, I think we've now got something that seems to work. We had nine teachers working with us in pilots in the Fall. 

The results were exactly what we expected from the research. So, we saw 370% faster progress than the norms data on letter-sound awareness. We started in 75% of the group was below the 25th percentile when we ended, 75% was above the 50th percentile. 

So, we're flipping the curve on early reading skills. As more students continue to go through the program and more teachers give it a chance, I think there's going to be a real groundswell of momentum for us.

Bringing TIPS to the Classroom

What's the deployment model for Tiny Ivy? How are you reaching students? 

The goal is to go to schools. Our business mission is to bring this into Title I schools, charter schools - that's the group of kids that need out the most. We're offering the program free for a year for the schools that sign up early. So, it's straightforward to get started. 

You can go to the website, you can register, and we'll set you up with training. It takes about an hour for a teacher to come up to speed in the system, two hours in, you're ready to give your first lesson to your class. 

We've developed digital tools for teachers. So, we have a virtual portal that a teacher can use. We've got flashcards, worksheets, and leveled readers. 

For interested parents, we have a digital game. It was initially created to be part of a blended learning environment for teachers. So, it's a very academic-focused game. It is a fantastic tool for getting kids to understand the system, practice letter sounds, learn all of our tips, and take those first steps.


When you bring it to teachers, what is their usual reaction to it? 

The most common reaction we get is: why didn't I think of this before? That was what we’d heard a lot of. We're entering a world where every teacher already has a method that they've used to teach kids how to read. 

They've probably tried one or two things. Indeed, they're aware of the whole language, blended, and phonics-based approaches and thinking about all the different models that are out there. 

When you get into the more specialized programs, we have many people coming from an “OG” background, using Fundations, or reading and writing projects. So, there's a vast ecosystem of how kids are already being taught that we're working through. 

What's interesting is that no one says that they've seen this before, and this hasn't worked. 

Think: What's been the last new thing to come into literacy instruction? What was the last new invention or innovation that came around? How do we teach differently? How do we do something different for our students? 

The phonics, whole language conversation has been going on for 30 years. For 30 years, we've had a stagnant number of kids that were reading at grade level. So, you would think, if either of those were vastly superior, we would have gotten to a different place as a nation when you look at the National Statistics. 

So, I think there's just a lot of excitement. Some people feel like, "wow, this is new. I haven't seen this before." 

Then I get the question: Does this work? Will this work? Can this work? 

We're lucky we found the nine teachers, who are innovative people, to take that first step with us in the Fall. We're very hopeful that the data set that we've collected from those teachers will help the next 50. 

The first 10 are always the hardest to find. The following 50 we're hoping can feel more comfortable because teachers could see that data.

Was there anything from the first nine teachers that surprised you?

One surprising result was how hard it was to measure. That's what was the hardest part. We use the dibbles framework for a lot of benchmark data. 

But when you get into those very first steps of reading - that letter sound to those first couple words - there's a real precise series of milestones that kids go from knowing one letter sound to decode words. 

There are probably 30 or 40 micro-milestones along that journey. Some of the assessment frameworks focus on later reading skills that are harder to measure at that early level. So, what ended up happening for us was that we had many students unable to score at the outset, scoring in the 75th percentile eight weeks later. 

It was a beautiful thing to see. These kids are making tremendous progress. The math just becomes a little bit tricky because they're moving through this phase that doesn't have an exact letter-sound measurement framework. 

There seems to be this inflection point at around six weeks in our program. So, suppose you're teaching kids letters and sounds and working through blending and decoding. In that case, the progress on those two fronts culminates at around six weeks, where the child has enough letter-sound knowledge and enough blending experience that they can read on their own. 

They can start to decode thousands of words, they can read their books, like short books with words they haven't seen before. They can do that effectively. As soon as they're there, they then take off. Because every step forward from that point on is just marginal improvement on skills that they've already learned.

When you usually teach kids reading, you learn letters and sounds, you know blending, you learn decoding, but then you learn some exceptions. Then you learn some syntax rules, and then you learn some spelling rules - it's kind of always this like two-step forward, one step back. 

Whereas for us, once you learn those letters and sounds, you learn blending, you just keep going.


How has Social and Emotional Learning been infused into your curriculum? 

At the most fundamental level, what's powerful about TIPS and our program is that kids are thriving. They are learning how they can get the right answer 99%, 95%, or 90% of the time, depending on what you put in front of them. 

The curriculum is sequenced so that they are always successful as they take those steps forward. We saw this in the data. We saw a reduction in the error rate on the decoding of 50%. 

So, they were getting the answer right twice as often as they were before. What that does for your self-concept and your feeling of confidence as you're approaching the text, I think, is fantastic. The curriculum itself, it’s broken down into different units. 

We have a different social and emotional focus for each of the various units and the multiple sections. To your point, one of the ones that are the most important is this idea of self-monitoring, self-regulation, and self-correction. 

So, we do a lot of explicit instruction about the concept that you can correct, and you can make a mistake - it's okay to make a mistake, you can come back. What's nice here is, again, they've got that constant intervention. 

They know that they've made a mistake. They can go back to the word. If it doesn't make the right sound, they can think: "That didn't make sense. Let me go back to the word. Let me look at those letters again." They can work through that mental Rolodex and have a successful experience that way.

Reading is a math problem. It's a probability. So, when I'm getting to a letter, there's a probability that it will have a particular sound. 

For many of the letters, the leading option is less than 30% - that was what that algorithm that I created to figure it out. So, you are in a position as a child where you can make so many mistakes, and it's so easy to make mistakes. 

So, I just imagine if 1 + 1 = 2, except when there's an exception because you're doing multiplication - if you try to create the same set of rules, it would be impossible to learn.

Lack of Funding for New Opportunities Within Schools

What has your work now taught you about education that you didn't know before?

I didn't realize how poorly funded schools were. That's been a real eye-opener to me. You come to understand the price points for different things that teachers and schools can purchase. 

Seeing what those numbers are, what the budgets look like for schools, how much they can spend per student, and how much of that is flexible towards technology or innovation was eye-opening. The other thing that's come up - an exciting challenge for education - is that there doesn't seem to be a very well organized way to innovate. 

So, I come from healthcare. In healthcare, you have teaching hospitals. They are continually being presented with new drugs. They're always learning new procedures, medical procedures, where they're introducing Da Vinci surgery technology and fancier MRI scans. 

There's this constant introduction of new technology in healthcare. There are academic universities that are top tier that is learning how to use those things - coming up with the best practices and disseminating that everywhere else. 

A single small study in healthcare can become like wildfire practice across the entire industry, relatively quickly. One of the questions I'm still exploring I haven't found yet is: Where do the innovative teachers hang out? 

Where are the administrators that are taking one classroom out of their school and saying, "Every year we're going to have one classroom that's going to try something different because we want to see what's possible? We want to see if there's a better way. We want to get used to using that muscle." 

One of the silver linings of COVID is schools have become incredibly adept at change by force. The benefit of that is I think there's going to be a lot more openness, willingness, and capability to change readiness that folks can bring to try some new things. 

We do this office hours call where we have all of our teachers come in, and they're sharing their stories. We're building that network, and I believe that those kinds of education leaders are out there. We're hopeful that we can put out the honey and have the butterflies come in, and they all work.