As you read this sentence, many of the words you saw were automatically recognized. Those words that you just “know” are called sight words. For young students, sight words are the most common words in the English language (words like ‘the’, ‘and’, ‘to’) and memorizing them is essential to learning how to read.
That doesn’t make them fun.
I still remember the frustration I felt in the classroom, sitting with students and testing them on sight words. It’s not that I failed to see its importance, or even that I didn’t enjoy it (we made games out of it, like most things). I hated how it took me away from teaching. Working with every student in my room on sight words, for just one minute each, cost at least 45 minutes of total instructional time. But if we let them practice on their own for too long, they ran the risk of reinforcing misconceptions.
This nagging annoyance was the impetus for Reading Hero.
I wanted to use voice recognition in some way to automate this process. I thought, I could even use text-to-speech to talk to the kids as they learned. This inspiration, I drew from my father, a much better engineer. He programmed a TI computer from the 80’s to talk to me as I learned math facts, combining the words ‘an’, ‘than’, and ‘he’ to sound like ‘Anthony.' The only thing that stood in my way was the fact that I had no idea how to do it. I hadn’t coded since high school, which is a few millennia in coding years. After a few months of being in way over my head, I had an app. But that was literally it; it was an app that did nothing—in fact, I couldn’t even figure out how to get the WWE logo off of the template I was using.
Still, I proudly showed my piece of junk to a longtime friend who coded for a living (Josh Glazer). He seemed to like the idea, and we decided that we would team up. As we began to collaborate, I realized how much time I wasted trying to do this myself. After we developed a wonderfully-functional, but ugly, product, we asked Erick Gil to bring his incredible eye to our work. In Reading Hero’s first month, we reached 1.4 thousand kids across the world, without spending a dime on advertising.
The reason we were able to thrive in an already flooded market is because our app has two essential qualities: it solves a problem, and it’s immersive. Immersive learning places students in an interactive learning environment, either physically or virtually. My work as an educator spans both, but I’m most fascinated by the virtual side. Teachers have taken huge strides to make physically immersive learning more fun than the alternatives of goofing off and socializing. If the ed-tech world wants to follow suit, they will need to develop content that is somehow more appealing than Minecraft, Fortnite, and the games that replace them.
With every step we take as a team, we check back in with our core values. No matter how we scale this app, we will always have a free, ad-free version, because we believe in leveling the playing field for all students. We will always keep the game fun. And finally, we will keep the experience as immersive as possible. The way I see it, if we don’t, then someone else will—and they might not share our vision.
Anthony is an educational consultant for Baltimore County Public Schools. He is also a bartender, and the co-founder of Reading Hero. Download the app on Android or Apple, and follow Reading Hero to stay up-to-date on their progress.