A New Way to Teach Kids to Read, Ripped from the Headlines
Erin Stewart—Social AdVentures
When she was approaching 30, feeling unfulfilled, Danielle Brants left her job in corporate finance at JP Morgan. Giving up her old career was a big leap for Brants. She spent six months traveling, talking to people, researching and reading, trying to figure out a way to create a greater social impact. Out of this time of exploration, she formed the idea to try to boost literacy rates in her home country of Brazil.
In 2014 she founded Guten News, an educational technology company, to help foster reading comprehension in Brazil’s schools. “Guten exists to democratize reading mastery among students,” Brants says.
To illustrate the need, Brants points to stark statistics. On the 2015 PISA test, which compares students’ math, science, and reading skills across different countries, nearly 50 percent of Brazilian students scored below the basic proficiency level for reading. While these low-scoring students were able to read words, they had difficulty understanding nuances like subtext and context, and struggled to draw relationships between different components in the texts. Moreover, only 0.5 percent of students had an advanced grasp of reading. Reading skills don’t necessarily always improve with time: Functional illiteracy among Brazilian adults is estimated to be around 27 percent, according to local educational nonprofit Instituto Paulo Montenegro.
Brants sees literacy as key to individual self-determination. “Not being able to [read] impacts a person’s ability to gather information, acquire knowledge in different areas, distinguish facts from opinion, and take a proactive role in society,” she says.
Guten primarily targets comprehension by providing students with news-related texts that Brants believes are more interesting to students, and therefore more likely to encourage engagement and analysis, compared to other conventional reading tools. The texts, activities, and games included on Guten’s digital platform are developed by a team of journalists, designers, developers, linguists, and education specialists. The company has also partnered with the computer science department of the University of Sao Paulo and counts eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar’s Omidyar Network as an early investor. Guten takes real news articles and adapts them for different reading levels and school subjects like science or social studies. For every text, the Guten team creates four games, such as quizzes, mystery-solving puzzles, and exercises that involve matching images to text.
Using certain kinds of technology in classrooms can be controversial. Psychologist Nicholas Kardaras argued in Time magazine last year that excessive screen time has an adverse effect on students’ concentration levels and is even a direct contributor to “adolescent malaise.” Kardaras, claiming the support of several peer-reviewed studies and opinions of other leaders in education, believes most educational technology has thus far provided little pedagogical benefit.
However, as the BBC has explored, digital literacy—aside from being an important skill in its own right—can improve reading skills when used wisely. Success with digital literacy tools depends on delivering engaging technology that students actually want to use when they’re outside of the classroom, says Brants. Clever use of technology can enhance teaching in other ways. Guten, for example, can give insights into student performance over time without the burden of manual grading, and in a form that’s easy for teachers to interpret. Students enjoy using the platform as part of their classwork, says Brants, and teachers like the precision with which they can measure performance.
The platform operates on a “freemium” model. The basic, free version offers classrooms two Guten materials per week. For complete access to all content as well as services like sample lesson plans and reporting on student performance, schools can pay for an annual subscription. The complete platform is also provided for free to public schools as a result of an agreement between Guten and Fundaçao Lemann, a nonprofit educational foundation.
Although more than 30,000 students already use Guten across both public and private schools, for Brants one of the biggest hurdles going forward is extending the product’s reach. Schools that could benefit the most from Guten News are hard to reach for a range of reasons, like a lack of internet connectivity and appropriate hardware. “Brazil is a very large and heterogenous country with a very fragmented school market,” says Brants. “So it’s a challenge for a startup to be able to take its message all over the country.” Her goal for the next year is to address some of the biggest educational attainment gaps by signing on more schools in poor areas across Brazil, perhaps even expanding to schools in other Portuguese-speaking countries.
While Brazil has a long way to go to instil a joy and mastery of reading among all its children, Brants is proud that Guten News has been able to “provide a learning tool to those who are in most need of it.”