Literacy Lady

“Who is the LiteracyLady?” Is she an entrepreneur, professor, parent, artist, designer, or a teacher?  I have been all of these things, at one time or another. More than anything, I am passionate about teaching young children to read.

In September 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks in New York City, I drove to the Hunters Point area of San Francisco. I was scheduled to read to small children at a daycare center in the basement of a church. Even though the city was frozen by fear, I felt it was important to keep my date. I drove through streets where buildings looked bombed out—windows were broken and bricks were on the sidewalk. There were homeless people lying in the street. This is an area of San Francisco that few tourists see. As I parked, two women came out to greet me. The director of the center introduced me as the “Literacy Lady”. Children grabbed me by the knees and said “read to me first!” When I left, I felt a new dedication to my country and to our children. I will always remember those children–their excited eyes and expectant faces. They were angels and I was looking for a miracle.

In the United States, too many children fall through the cracks and never learn to read. Thirteen years ago, only half of our children could read at an appropriate level in the third grade. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on research, assessments, corporate-based reading systems, looking at healthy brains, and today fewer than half of our children read at an appropriate level in the third grade. I strongly believe we don’t need to spend more money on assessments. We don’t need more research. We do need a better understanding about what teachers and students face in the classroom everyday. We also need to look to countries like Finland, with the highest literacy rates, to better understand how second language learning, high-quality resources, and a culture of respect between parents and teachers can lead to academic excellence. To do this, we must remember a simple fact: one hundred years ago children learned to read with one book. The literacy skills students needed then are needed today.

I grew up in a home without books. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school and there were no expectations that I would go to college. Still, I always wanted to be a teacher. As a child, I lined up my dogs and cats and tried to teach them to read. I suppose it was a natural response to being dyslexic; a desire to help others do what I found so difficult. In medicine the signature pedagogy is, “see one, do one, teach one”. I worked hard, and in the end, I graduated with honors with a B.A. in English and Fine Art. I won a scholarship to study at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri where I received an M.F.A. While a graduate student, I received a full scholarship to study at the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine and then a Fulbright scholarship to study painting in Finland. I then moved to England where I received a certificate in Teaching English as a Second or Other Language (TESOL) from the University of Surrey. I taught at various universities including the University of Surrey, University of Helsinki, and the College of Marin.

I met my partner, Wolfgang, in London in 1989. He was studying for an M.A. in a new subject called Interface Design, which is basically designing human computer interaction. It includes navigation design, color theory, typography, readability, usability and much more. Together with another German designer, we wrote a three volume thesis, which received the only distinction, in the United Kingdom, in Graphic Design, during a three year period.

We moved to San Francisco in 1995 and I started the first professional Internet design company specializing in Interface Design and User Experience. I taught Interface Design at the College of Marin and we began designing and developing some of the first virtual reality applications for the Internet. We worked with brilliant engineers who were developing an ISO standard for presenting real-time 3D data. We knew we were in an enviable position when large companies started hiring us to visualize the quickly evolving technologies.

In 1999, I spent one year loking at the simple task of learning to read. I interviewed scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, artists, musicians, from multiple countries. I looked for patterns and cultural differences. I read constantly about educational methodologies. I traveled to conferences and talked with some of the most brilliant educational researchers. I sat on panels and gave papers. The Internet opened so many doors but this one seemed locked shut. Children in the United States were simply not learning to read and no one could figure out why. Parents and teachers told horror stories about being trapped in a huge revolving door.  Each district bought different products and as soon as a method was introduced into the school it was replaced by a new and improved method or product. Everyone was frustrated.

In 2000, I was invited to speak at a conference in Lubbock Texas by one of my 3D buddies–Marcia. She is a physics teacher who used virtual reality to engage her students and teach the principles of math, science, and physics. I demonstrated a new site we were working on that would give teachers access to language basics for preschool age children. It was called We offered lessons in English and Spanish. A young teacher came up to me after my talk and said she loved the website but she was not allowed to use it with her students. At the time, it was forbidden to show Spanish speaking children Spanish. Startled, I asked why not? Even then, the research was conclusive. Children who learn to read first in a first language will do better at all subjects later. I was furious with the old “melting pot” ideas about language learning. After all, I had lived for eight years in Europe where children learn to speak and read in at least two languages. When I returned to our design studio,  Wolfgang said, “all we need to do is add more languages”. So, we added German and French. The young teacher soon wrote: “Thank you so much. We can use your site now because it is a foreign language site”.

Since then, we have served more than one hundred and fifty million free lessons to preschool age children. We are still developing new innovative ways to reach English Language Learners (ELLs).  Every time I look at our website statistics, I remember sitting on the floor of the cafeteria eating glazed donuts asking teachers what they wanted and needed to teach children basic language skills. It was Interface Design 101. If you are going to make dinner, you should always start by asking your guests what they like. The same is true in design. The best designs start with what end users want and need.

After years of working with parents and teachers, I believe we are getting closer to understanding the relationship between technology and early childhood education. It is true, the Internet holds great promise. We can use it to change the world or we can use it to confuse children and exacerbate attention deficit disorders. Ultimately, digital technology is nothing more than the emperor’s new clothing. At best, digital media is  fast and green and efficient. It is able to reach children with the greatest learning needs, around the globe, at the speed of light. At its worse, digital media (like television)  is hypnotic. It provides yet another avenue for marketing professionals to sell products to you and your children.

The good news is that parents, pediatricians, and teachers are in the driver’s seat. We can choose to use websites and digital content as positive tools in the education process or we can allow others to use digital media to destroy the process and diminish the intellectual capacity of  our children.