Q&A with Kali Woodward, Founder and Director of the American Youth Literacy FoundationBy Stephanie Bartusis |
The crisis of illiteracy in U.S. schools has been a growing problem for decades. According to “The Nation’s Report Card,” more than three-fourths of all schoolchildren have not attained reading proficiency (this includes millions who are functionally illiterate) by the end of eighth grade. Many adults see the literacy crisis as an intractable problem, one of such great scope, dimension and cultural inertia, that it is virtually impossible to resolve. Kali Woodward takes a different point of view. He believes the problem is utterly simple and solvable, given the right approach, and he has created an organizational model to execute a 20 year solution.
As Founder and Director of The American Youth Literacy Foundation, Kali began his career as an ESL instructor in South America when he was 19, then as an Arabic and Spanish translator for the 101st Airborne Division. Later, he studied law at UCLA, and was eventually a Co-founder and Executive at three separate telecom companies. Kali grew to become an entrepreneur running an after school enrichment program for gifted kids, then a stay at home dad homeschooling his son.
At Youth Lit, all of his skills and talents have come to fruition. His past experiences gave him the insight and exposure needed to invent and develop a new kind of reading curriculum and an organizational model capable of distributing it. This past March, Woodward’s foundation received a patent on a new phoneme decoding system that makes learning to read significantly easier for schoolchildren. Instead of wallowing in overwhelmingly depressing statistics, Kali used his experiences in teaching and learning languages to formulate what became a code. The code became a curriculum. And the curriculum has become an Occam’s Razor to the literacy debacle, and the swift, sharp slash of Youth Lit glimmers with promise.
Why do you feel so drawn to eradicating the problems presented by illiteracy?
First of all, I believe that illiteracy is the root cause of so many of our other complex social problems. How can we hope to be a society of ultimate achievement when so many of our citizens are lacking this basic skill…when literacy is the foundation of all learning, knowledge and success in our modern society? I came full circle to literacy when my oldest son, in second grade at the time, began having reading difficulties. I took him out of the school he was in (which, admittedly, didn’t have the resources needed to help him), and decided to home school him for a year—primarily to fix his reading problems.
Reading always came relatively easy to me. In fact, when I studied Arabic at the Defense Language Institute, a 63-week, six hour per day, total immersion experience, I found the Arabic alphabet (not so much the spoken language, grammar or syntax) to be simple and straightforward. In hindsight, I now realize it is because the ancient Arabic written code is virtually purely phonetic, which is the way written language was originally designed to be.
When I first sat down to help my son, I really didn’t know anything about teaching reading. I obviously had a father’s desire to help, but I also had a gut feeling that learning to read shouldn’t be so difficult. Without getting too deep into the details of our curriculum, I’ll just say that I felt there had to be a better way to show children how to pronounce a given word that they had never seen before. I knew that all of the rules about “i” before “e” etc., weren’t going to work for my son; that just wasn’t the way he processed information. So we played some games with letters and words, and then I had one of those “Eureka” moments. I realized what I had to do and began fabricating a system to teach reading by showing my son how to pronounce the letters and different letter combinations (called “phonograms”) within the words. Once that happened and I saw that it was working, I became laser focused on the larger cause. I simply felt that there was no reason that any child should lose the battle of literacy if it was this simple. What I didn’t realize at the time was how long it would take me to find a model to distribute our (now patented) approach to literacy instruction to the broadest possible audience.
Why do you think that teaching children to read has become such a challenge within our schools?
In our foundation’s organizational plan, we talk about all of the challenges that face kids in school systems today, and about how each of these challenges contribute in a small way to the reading/literacy crisis, things like: changes in our culture, broken homes, less support for kids’ schoolwork at home, video games and other distractions: television, the internet, poverty, crime, hunger, homelessness, and challenges inside the classrooms such as: overcrowding in schools, insufficient training of teachers, and the list goes on.
But there’s one underlying cause of illiteracy that very few people ever talk about or think can effectively be addressed. The written English code itself is irregular and difficult to learn, even in a perfect environment with total family and teacher support. I believe that the code is so difficult, in fact, that each small change in our social and school structure began to add pressure to American students’ ability to learn how to read until one day, the proverbial straw broke the camel’s back; the flood of illiterate graduates could not be stopped. Pandora’s box opened and all of these relatively minor impediments to literacy became greater than the sum of the parts and literally impossible to box back up. Once the initial breach was made, other socioeconomic and sociopolitical forces caused the problem to accelerate and cascade upon themselves until finally, we were left with an intractable crisis of incomprehensible proportion.
You say that illiteracy has a simple solution. What is Youth Lit’s approach to literacy instruction?
Here are the basics. Sound awareness, or “Phonemic Awareness” (a precursor to “phonics”), is now considered the core foundation for all modern, evidence-based reading curricula. At the core of our foundation’s reading curriculum is the Phonibet, a 26 symbol supplement to the English alphabet that associates child-friendly and easy to remember symbols with the many “phonemes” (sounds) of the English language that are not specifically attributed to a single vowel or consonant. One example would be the “Paw” symbol, which represents the sound /aw/ as in the word “paw,” or “saw.” Children learn that the “Paw says /aw/”, and in this way, we introduce them to that specific phoneme in the English language.
Phonemic awareness has been proven to be the fundamental building block for literacy instruction yet, until the Phonibet, there has been no single chart or set of symbols that delineates all of the sounds of the English language and compiles them in a way that even pre-school children can easily learn and remember. So you could say that our “simple” solution is comprised of both what we are delivering and how we are delivering it.
It could be said that you are an educational, nonprofit entrepreneur. How is working within the nonprofit sphere in education different from starting a for-profit educational center, and why have you chosen to present the curriculum in this way?
I think part of it has to do with me and my personality. I worked in the for-profit sector for a long time and I simply felt that something this important and this critical to the long-term potential of not only the kids, but also our country and our future, required a different approach. I feel comfortable raising money to support our work, but I also feel that a lot of the underlying intellectual property that we own should be given away for free (or in some cases, licensed to provide additional funding for our charitable efforts). That’s why I donated the patent and all of the copyrights and trademarks to the foundation when I formed it.
I was also a product of the hard crash of the dot com bubble in 2001. I noticed that the new companies that began to dominate after the crash were different than the original dot coms; many of them were entities like Google, companies that were giving something away for free and looking to monetize their services later. Clearly Google went on to become a multi-billion dollar company and our mission is to remain a charitable nonprofit, but I think that the general concept of giving something to get something of much greater value had a big influence on me.
Ironically, many of the lessons I learned in the entrepreneurial sector have become important guideposts in the nonprofit world. I’m hyper-conscious of cash flow and managing overhead costs and I believe in developing creative, sustainable income sources rather than only going after big grants in order to fund our operations. I’ve seen too many other nonprofits go essentially bankrupt since 2008 when times got tough and funding sources dried up.
What is required of potential tutors who join Youth Lit?
We’ve always had a minimum training requirement. When we first started, it was two hours of initial training with several more hours of follow up. That requirement grew to four hours of initial training, and then eight. But this past year, with the help of some online, off-the-shelf training software, Youth Lit has developed and converted all of its tutor training modules to a series of 30-45 minute online tutorials and quizzes. Tutors now must complete a rigorous 16 hour online course in order to become certified as a “Literacy Mentor” for Youth Lit. The course is designed for highly motivated and highly achieving students who have a passion for teaching reading and for working with children.
Unlike the curriculum itself which is easy for schoolchildren to follow, the tutor training is intensive and full of details about every aspect of literacy instruction: how the English language is constructed, phonemic awareness, phonics, and all other critical reading skills. Furthermore, we instruct how to teach them to kids, and how to recognize reading problems and what to do about them. We try to make it as fun as possible, but the goal is to educate our tutors, so we get a fair amount of attrition—tutors who sign up, but decide the program isn’t right for them. But we’re okay with that. From the beginning, we wanted to set the bar high and hold our tutors to a very high standard. We’ve found that the training serves as a filtering process so that only the most persistent, qualified, passionate, and dedicated tutors go on to actually work with the kids.
In addition, our tutors earn community service hours for all of the work they complete. Many of the tutors use these hours to comply with volunteer requirements for clubs such as Key Club, National Honor Society, Community Service Club, or for other school requirements such as senior projects.
If the program is not launched in a given area, what can parents do to instruct their child if they are struggling with reading?
If there are no tutors available in your area to provide our free service, the number one thing to help pre-schoolers and children up to about age six or seven is to focus on phonemic awareness: teach the Phonibet to your kids, emphasize the individual sounds in words, the rhymes and syllables and other component parts of words, and to read books together.
For older kids who can’t read at or near their grade level, the key is to get them help quickly before they finish third grade, if at all possible. That’s when the window of opportunity starts to close, and learning to read becomes exponentially harder for kids due to a variety of social, psychological, and neurological factors.
What is the rate of growth of the foundation and how do you see Youth Lit’s expansion for the future?
Youth Lit began basically as a 20 year plan, and as of now, we’re completing the fourth year. We designed a multi-staged approach to solving the literacy crisis permanently and universally across the U.S. utilizing both the “what” and the “how,” as I mentioned before, which are the key components of our core curriculum and the organizational model that can realistically disseminate that curriculum to achieve critical mass. Our model is now four years old and is growing exponentially. Stage I of the model currently consists of a cadre of volunteer high school and college undergrad reading tutors who are trained in the fundamental concepts of literacy instruction and then sent off to libraries, YMCAs and other after care programs to provide one-on-one tutoring to underprivileged and under-served grade school students who are having reading difficulties.
The program started with one tutor in 2008 and grew to 37 tutors at 15 locations during the 2010-2011 school year. During the 2011-2012 academic year, we began preparing for the launch of Stage II by making the training material comprehensive and fully accessible online. Actually our work on Stage II started during the summer of 2011 when we had 14 interns helping to spec out the conversion plan and doing a lot of background research. We’re starting to recruit now for the regional launch in the Greater Philadelphia/Central New Jersey area and along the Eastern seaboard, so I’m hopeful that we will see extensive growth yet again during the fall of 2012.
How do you tie all of these threads together to offer a viable solution to something as large as the literacy crisis?
The short answer is: “One thread at a time, but all of them simultaneously.” My avocations are neuroscience, nonlinear mathematics, Zen Buddhism, and abstract art. In fact, I recently e-published a book that ties all of these disciplines together. The key to Youth Lit’s success, I believe, will be to follow the fundamental principles that I outlined in my book by setting a trajectory to achieve critical mass and momentum through the interconnecting of multiple social networks, sociopolitical, and socioeconomic systems. In other words, collaboration, persistence, and persistent collaboration.
The name of my book is “Touch: An Introduction to a Unified Theory of Connectivity and the Fundamental Principles of Neuroscience, Nonlinear Mathematics, and Zen Buddhist Philosophy, for Exceptional & Gifted Children, Ages 12-24.” My thesis, developed over an 11-year span, attempts to define most of humanity’s complex socioeconomic and sociopolitical problems in simplified terms of nonlinear math and in terms of patterns (some of which are called “fractals,” or in other cases, “dissipative structures far from equilibrium,”) that can easily be observed (but typically go unnoticed), reshaped, and reformed to deliver rapid solutions to real world enigmas.
What are your final thoughts about what you need to succeed?
We need collaboration. We need cooperation. One thing is for certain, we can’t do this on our own. It’s going to take a lot of people working together. Hopefully we will find likeminded people as we continue on this journey, people who share the vision and who can embrace the big picture with us. Taking on a project of this massive scope and scale like this is daunting; failure is not unlikely, at least statistically speaking, but it makes sense for me. I don’t have any fear of failing at this—my only fear is of not trying and forever wishing that I had.
In addition to internal operations and external collaboration, we’re focused on funding to ensure that we can maintain our momentum and growth. We receive an amazing amount of support from the Philadelphia-based law firm of Duane Morris, an internationally-renowned intellectual property firm that we found through LinkedIn, and through my UCLA Law Alumni group. So there’s an example of social media helping to incubate this effort.
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Photos by Andrew Reiner