A 2006 literacy survey revealed Memphis was ranked seven in a list of 10 least-literate U.S. cities, according to Literacy Mid-South. Furthermore, an estimated 30 million Americans over the age of 16 read on the same level as the average elementary student.
But a new website created by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger and managed by Joe Thomas, a Memphis man with a background in organizational psychology at FedEx and NIKE, aims to change those statistics.
Reading Bear is a free online phonics tutorial that teaches beginning readers vocabulary and literary concepts. The website, which launched in late September, primarily targets pre-kindergarten and kindergarten children but can be helpful to individuals of all ages.
"It teaches kids to read in about 20 hours. It walks them through 1,200 vocabulary words, over 100 phonics rules, and 50 separate modules," said Thomas, managing editor for Reading Bear. "We now have a resource that's available to anyone with access to the internet. It has knocked down the barriers to learning how to read. I'm a firm believer that if you can read, you can learn and do anything."
The website teaches kids how to pronounce and utilize basic words like "dog" or "cat" and more complex ones such as "dictionary" or "conclusion." The kids are taught through the website's 50 learning presentations, which are exhibited progressively from basic to more advanced lessons.
To make the presentations appealing as well as informative, each vocabulary word is illustrated with a picture and also used in a sentence illustrated by a video. Each of the 50 learning presentations lasts up to 15 minutes and ends with a quiz.
Nat Burning Orange Mound Learning Center is one of the first schools in Memphis to utilize Reading Bear. Eric Cooper, executive director of the Learning Center, said many of his pre-K students are already showing positive results from using Reading Bear.
"I can see their responses becoming more focused, and I'm really looking forward to what's going to happen as we move forward," Cooper said. "We incorporate [Reading Bear] in our daily learning modules for literacy. Reading Bear takes what they've learned from the alphabet, augments it, and puts it together in words and sentences."
Reading Bear is a project of WatchKnowLearn, an initiative that offers free educational videos online, and is funded by an anonymous benefactor from the Memphis area. Thus far, the Reading Bear website generates more than 10,000 weekly visitors.
The site also helps kids who speak other languages adopt English as their second language.
"More than half of our student body is Spanish-speaking and comes from primarily Spanish-speaking homes," said Angie Cramer, principal of Kingsbury Elementary. "We're trying to build a lot of vocabulary in the early years. [Reading Bear] has been really helpful for us. We're happy to use it. Our big goal is that we create readers."
Although the program is primarily for children, all age groups that struggle with illiteracy can benefit from its resources.
Mary Tucker, co-founder of Orange Mound Outreach Ministries, said the program has helped students from different age groups who come to her facility after school.
"The program is great," Tucker said. "We're really seeing results from Reading Bear. It can help everyone who wants to read better. I don't care what their age is. This is [a program] that I recommend for anyone who is trying to help a child or grown-up read better."