What’s Working: Read by 4th Responds to COVID-19 Crisis

April 29, 2021

During the COVID-19 pandemic, partner organizations in the Read by 4th Campaign, Philadelphia’s coalition for grade level reading, convened and aligned to produce new resources for Philadelphians. These resources gave families, learners, and teachers the knowledge and tools needed to support grade level reading across Philadelphia.

Supporting Learners

Developing summer learning opportunities has been a key grade level reading strategy for the Read by 4th Campaign since its inception. After recognizing a gap in summer learning opportunities for K-2 children in May 2020, the Read by 4th Campaign convened a group of partner organizations around the shared goal of reducing the COVID slide by making a free, virtual, self-guided, PreK-2nd summer curriculum available for all students in Philadelphia. Led by Dr. Lori Severino at Drexel University, a small group of campaign partner organizations developed six weeks of online summer learning activities in under two months. By collaborating with the School District and other Read by 4th partners like TeachPlus, Vantage Learning, Philadelphia Writing Project, and First Up, the group was able to create a curriculum that was aligned with the District’s English Language Arts standards and science/social studies themes, effectively continuing the learning that should have taken place when schools were shut down in March 2020. Named “The Ultimate Summer Learning Adventure,” the curriculum was made available for free, online, to all Philadelphia families starting June 28, 2020.

There have been nearly 6,000 unique visitors to the site since its launch, with over 33,000 page views, in 10,700 unique sessions. Due to a partnership with the local public broadcasting company, WHYY, the launch of the site  coincided with the launch of aligned public TV programming. Online promotion occurred on Read by 4th’s newsletter, on readby4th.org and readingpromise.org, social media, and through paid digital advertising. Digital outreach produced nearly 360K impressions for the Ultimate Summer Learning Adventure

Equity is a guiding value for the Read by 4th campaign and permeates our work. Read by 4th content development partners created both online and printed versions of materials to ensure those with limited internet access could practice learning skills at home. 15 Reading Captains, Parent Council members, and other caring neighbors delivered 8,900 packets (2,225 per grade) to 41 free summer meal sites across Philly, with 350 packets distributed directly to families by Reading Captains (our block captains for literacy).

Website data suggests that we were successful in reaching a Philadelphia audience digitally, and that the site was effective in positively engaging young students. In a sample of over 120 students per grade band, 75-84% of our respondents (per grade band) lived in Philadelphia validating our approach to promotion through the partner network. A sample of 21 students also responded to questions about their experience on the site. Over 90% of respondents reported learning through the curriculum and that the most popular subjects were science and reading. In-depth interviews with families are being planned for November and December–a process delayed by an IRB request which will allow Dr. Severino and her team at Drexel University to submit a manuscript for publication about the creation and impact of the ultimate summer learning adventure. The paper aims to contribute to a sparse knowledge base about considerations for designing quality, autonomous, online curriculum for young children. Through the existence of a strong, aligned, diverse partner network of organizations and local community leaders, Drexel University and other Read by 4th partners were able to create a PreK-2nd curriculum that reached thousands, invigorated our community, and may contribute lessons to the field at large.

Supporting Families

One unanticipated consequence of COVID-19 is that some families may have much more access to their children’s learning, especially at younger grades. This increased parent engagement is a valuable potential resource, as we know that parent engagement in the learning process can normally have demonstrably positive effects, particularly for early literacy acquisition. However, this is moderated by whether or not teachers and parents reinforce the same concepts and ideas. When it comes to early literacy, we know that the science of reading is not fully understood in the general public (it’s not even fully understood in the teaching community) and therefore it was a priority for the Read by 4th Campaign to develop a workshop that would help parents understand the science of reading so they could be the advocate and support for their child’s learning that they want to be, and to make sure that the workshop and it’s materials was available online with so many parents closer than ever to their children’s learning.

The Read by 4th Campaign’s Parent Workshop on Early Reading Skills (PWERS) provides families with the information they need to support their child’s learning through the science of reading. Because of the large and diverse partner network of the Read by 4th Campaign, and their shared alignment, partner organizations were able to take the lead on creating and supporting the PWERS, including: AIM Institute for Learning and Research, Drexel University, and local Reading Captains (block captains for literacy) like Monique Smaller-Rush of South Philly Kiwanis.

In the PWERS workshop parents learn about the fundamental skills of reading and what activities they can practice at home. Parents who attended when workshops could be held in person went home with a brand new tote bag full of vocabulary cards, alphabet cards, tip sheets, instructions, and more during the workshop. Before COVID the Read by 4th Campaign was able to train over 130 workshop facilitators which resulted in 36 workshops reaching over 640 parents. Although formal workshops had to be paused because of logistical difficulties in distributing physical resources to virtually engaged families, what materials and resources could be moved online were moved online, and in the first 90 days of the COVID Pandemic, the Read by 4th Youtube Channel had over 14,000 unique viewers, 98% of which were for videos related to PWERS. Since the COVID Pandemic, we estimate that we’ve reached 25,000 unique users on our youtube channel with over 98% of those viewing PWERS videos. Given the enormous popularity of youtube as a teaching tool it is likely that some of these views were not just parents, but also teachers who were using them in the classroom (a hypothesis that some comments on the videos seem to support).

Although the amount of parents reached so far is too low to expect to have a population wide effect, we have seen parents across the district at schools that serve K-3 children, rate the extent to which they feel informed about their child’s education go up year over year. This suggests that the district, and other partners, are using an effective parent outreach strategy about curriculum goals–of which the PWERS can be considered a small part. We are proud of our collective for making this happen!

(CT_Commquality3: My child’s school gives me information about how I can help my child be successful in school.)

CT_Commquality4: My child’s school gives me information about what my child is expected to learn.)


Furthermore, these results are replicable for some disaggregations. Although schools with 100% of the student body qualifying for free school lunches (“CEP”) had less parent agreement on both items than all schools serving K-3 students taken together in 2019 those 100% CEP schools experienced more positive response growth since 2015.

The virtual version of the PWERS has also received national attention and was requested by the Oregon chapter of Decoding Dyslexia. The group’s feedback was very positive–including in evaluating our work with a racial equity and social justice lens.

Supporting Teachers 

The Read by 4th Campaign was also hard at work to support teachers in response to this crisis, by providing resources about teaching literacy virtually. Research suggests that using of a variety e-learning software increases the effectiveness remote education, likely because it has the potential to resolve difficulties in student engagement as well as teacher implementation of curriculum. Read by 4th Campaign partners Drexel University and AIM Academy supported teachers in this way by creating Teach Reading Virtually (TRV), a website that integrates a collection of online learning resources under the organizational structure of the science of reading instruction, with different sections for Phonological Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary, Comprehension and other resources.

Through promotion with digital fliers on partner social media accounts and other communication channels, TRV received 5,454 pageviews in its first two weeks online and over 3,500 users since launching. The website also received a small sample of positive feedback on a feedback form, indicating the positive experience of educators with the site. Perhaps more valuable, and also proof of positive engagement, was feedback which encouraged the Campagin to develop the site further, and include materials explicitly relevant for Pre-K teachers, as well as to find or create youtube assets that center non-white educators.


Reaching an estimated almost 15,000 children with it’s Summer Learning Adventure, hundreds of parents with it’s Parent Workshop on Early Reading Skills which is now online, and over 3,500 teachers with it’s Teach Reading Virtually website the Read by 4th campaign took a comprehensive approach to supporting learners, families, and teachers in the coronavirus pandemic which was enabled through the hard work of it’s partner network, especially Drexel University. 

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