A life-long struggle with reading difficulties has prompted Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Jeff Harrington to create a website to help others learn to read.
And he’s hoping Wuzzals.com will soon become the standard for teaching reading to young children.
Harrington grew up in London, Ontario, where he excelled in mathematics but struggled severely, right from the start, in reading.
Time spent in summer school, special education and remedial classes, even failing a grade and being forced to repeat, didn’t improve his reading skills. Harrington’s challenges with reading continued to dog him in high school, right through to his university education. He pushed through, though, earning a degree in history at Brock University.
About five years ago, he decided to visit his alma mater, and have himself analyzed. What he discovered surprised him.
“They told me I have zero phonemic awareness. Phonemic awareness is the ability to sound out words,” he explains. “So I learned every word by sight.”
Around that same time, his son was in Grade 6 at St. Michael Catholic Elementary School, and noticed that one of his classmates was reading a book that was far below what would have been expected for a student in that grade.
“It was like a flashback,” he says. “When you’re that far behind, you become self-conscious, and you don’t practise as much. These kids age out of materials, and become extremely discouraged.”
Harrington started researching the outcomes of children who struggle with reading. What he found was astonishing.
“If you don’t learn to read by the end of Grade 2, over 50 per cent of boys end up in jail,” Harrington claims (according to the website dosomething.org, two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare). “But at the other end of the spectrum, there are people (with reading problems), you watch Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank, and you’ll see there is a disproportionate number of people who reach a high level of success.”
He was interested in the dichotomy of the two ends of the spectrum, and this prompted him to start researching reading programs that are widely in use.
His research broke learning to read into two approaches. The first focused on phonics. The other approach, learning by sight, was closer to the way Harrington and many other struggling readers actually learn.
What began simply as something he wanted to learn more about, became a bigger project. He found that most people who have trouble reading are better off learning by sight. He dug deeper, looking at all the phonic rules.
“The rules only work 61.7 per cent of the time,” he claims. “There are 114 different ways to spell words, there are 44 sounds, and we wonder why we have dyslexia and other learning disorders with English. There’s less occurrence of reading difficulties in other languages.”
He came up with the idea of isolating the phonic rules that have the fewest exceptions, and focusing on them first. Harrington decided on a system of levels.
He began by looking at short, one- to three-letter words that children can learn by sight, and grouping them in tens. The first level, called level 10 on Wuzzals.com, introduces ten decodable words (words that sound the way they are spelled), so they are easy to sound out. Many of the words on this level are what Harrington refers to as CVC words (Consonant, Vowel, Consonant).
He mobilized a team of 14, including programmers, illustrators, editors and writers, and began putting together the website based on these levels.
A visit to Wuzzals.com today shows an easy-to-use system of reading progressions, beginning with those simple CVC words. Each level builds on the skills learned in previous ones, and includes a quick explanation and list of words for parents and teachers.
Children will find colourful, engaging stories featuring characters such as Pip and Sam, and Finn the Vegetarian Shark, with a number of online books available at each level. There is also an option to click on an audio button, which will have a professional voice actor read the book for the student.
By the time a reader gets to level 100, he or she has learned 100 sight words, which Wuzzals.com claims is over 50 per cent of the everyday language. It makes perfect sense, and Harrington is hoping others pick up on its simplicity.
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, he met with researchers at universities, expecting to get pushback from PhD candidates. He was amazed that they accepted his ideas. He was also in the process of meeting with the local school boards in an effort to start a pilot project to test the website. The closure of schools after March 13 put that on hold.
But he continues with his team to push on with the website.
Recently they have been working on a fully functioning system through which a teacher can create a classroom on Wuzzals.com, assign levels based on a student’s current reading ability, and track progress for a group of students based on their various different strengths. He hopes to have up to level 300 (corresponding to 300 sight words, which would correspond roughly to a Grade 2 level reader) ready to go by the beginning of September, with 100 books available at each level.
Harrington, whose boundless energy can be quite contagious, likens the whole website to “flash cards on steroids.” He wants to make learning to read fun. He says the website builds success for readers, as “the fewer words you have to learn at once, the more success you’ll have.” And he insists it’s not just for struggling readers like he was, but for all children learning to read. He hopes that eventually it becomes the new standard for education, and that parents use the site to support their children’s learning as well.
Harrington invites anyone who is interested to give it a try. Visit Wuzzals.com, create an account, and start reading with your child. It’s free, and they’re already learning online, so why not give it a spin?