Headsprout gives kids head start

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By Robin Bass

Long before children stepped into the classroom August 11, a select group of students were getting the help they needed to start their new year on the right foot.


Using a computer program called Headsprout Early Reading, about 30 elementary-aged students spent the later part of their summer vacation working on their reading skills. Qualified participants included 60 kindergarten and first-grade students identified by the Spencer County School District last spring as scoring below average in at least three of five reading components – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and reading comprehension.

“Every child that came in this program was reading substantially below grade level,” said Jaclyn Risden-Smith, director of Exceptional Child Services.

The key word in that last sentence: was. After only a few weeks of using Headsprout, Risden-Smith noticed a significant change in student reading performance.

“Preliminary data shows that 70 percent of the students will be at, or, in some cases, above grade level,” she said. “Which is huge because we’re talking about kids that had already failed.”

During one afternoon Headsprout session, a dozen young children could be heard reading aloud in the media center at Spencer County Elementary. Rather than the entire group being engaged in a single lesson, these students were following individual online story books – made possible with the aid of headphones. As the cartoon-like stories played out before them, each child spoke the corresponding words that flashed across their monitors.

Risden-Smith said the concept was simple: children “learned by doing.” The difference in this setting was the intensity and repetitive nature of the lessons that allowed students to progress at their own pace.

“But it’s not just computer-based. The lessons are combined with adult interaction,” said Risden-Smith.

Once students reached designated levels, they were prompted to grab the appropriate “Read to Me” book and sit down with one of the instructors.

“I love this part of it,” said SCES Media Specialist Bridget Murphy. “They read on the computer and then read with a person so we can evaluate where they are.”

Headsprout designed the “Read to Me” books to not only reinforce new words and skills, but to allow children to share in the joy of reading with others. Parents with Internet connections were also able to use the program in their homes. Risden-Smith said that parents were offered the opportunity to receive automatic email updates of their child’s progress in the program.

Use of the Headsprout Early Reader program was made possible by grant funding. The cost to the district was $50/child plus staffing expenses and was taken from the special education budget.

“I would love to see every kindergartner and first-grader have access to this program, but funding just doesn’t allow it,” said Risden-Smith.

Parents who registered their youngsters in the reading program could sign up for either the morning or the afternoon session. Students were encouraged to attend the daily three-hour session Monday through Friday. Of the 33 students who were invited to take advantage of the reading program, Risen-Smith said 25 regularly attended.