We reached out to Carolyn Saper, the cofounder and president of ReadAskChat, so that we could learn more about her and the work she does with her organization. ReadAskChat is a digital library that provides content for children, caregivers, and family members. Below, Saper shares some thoughts about ReadAskChat, its mission, and what education means to her.
Saper is the cofounder and president of ReadAskChat, which is a a picture-book quality digital library that uniquely embeds guidance for parents and caregivers in reading interactively (or “dialogically”) with their babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.
Dialogic reading has been shown to foster virtually every reading- and school-readiness indicator—from vocabulary attainment and concepts about print to executive functioning and social-emotional development. The National Science Foundation (NSF) invested in ReadAskChat because of the innovative way we harness emerging app technologies and smart personal devices to support adults in fostering their children’s cognitive potential during the critical period of human brain development—0–4 years. In fact, we’ve been recommended for a second NSF investment to expand into kindergarten and first grade and to offer our adult-learning program online. (We should hear in August whether we will receive the grant.)
The ReadAskChat innovation—which NSF reviewers believed could be societally “transformative”—is threefold:
(1) We focus on reading for meaning beginning in infancy. Effective dialogic reading requires rich content that supports open-ended interpretation. To enable parents to do this well, we offer an easy-to-follow method (i.e., Read, Ask, Chat) and content-rich stories, poems, and math and science features—all of which include text-specific conversation starters (in English or Spanish) on each page. These prompts coach parents to listen, respond, and facilitate natural back-and-forth (dialogic) engagement with their children about what they are reading together. Because each child’s experience with the library is mediated by a responsive and caring adult—and not by AI or an algorithm—RAC offers the ultimate in personalized learning.
(2) We offer a developmental continuum. ReadAskChat’s on-demand conversation starters are tailored for three phases in a child’s cognitive development: baby, toddler, and preschooler. These developmentally appropriate prompts act as a sort of coach for parents by providing multiple entry points for joint exploration. Our flexible, but text-based, system develops habits of close observation, elaboration, and sustained focus that foster discovery and deeper conceptual understanding. Our approach contrasts starkly with the orientation found in most other education products for children, which are based on skills-drills and rote memorization.
(3) We complement the ReadAskChat library with a series of train-the-trainer adult-learning modules for purchasing organizations. While the modules were primarily designed for staff deliver to parents, we have been gratified to see that clients see the value of presenting them to their teachers and aides. They recognize how the modules distill and demystify higher-order thinking practices that build confidence and change the mindset of all the adults concerned with children’s early education.
ReadAskChat’s tagline tells us its main goal: fostering school readiness through joyful family reading and conversation.
I want our nation to better understand and value the precious window of early childhood, so we can collectively put in place policies and practices that will open the mind, tap creativity, and nurture the full potential of all children—and their parents.
In addition to working with Alice around content creation, I think my favorite part of my experience with RadAskChat must be hearing from so many stakeholders about how excited they are about ReadAskChat. Our appeal is very broad, crossing cultural and economic boundaries, as well as goals and educational philosophies. Hardcore corporate “reformers,” child-centered progressive educators, and educationally astute parents and grandparents have almost uniformly embraced our method and product. Some focus on ReadAskChat’s capacity to promote early literacy, while others see the parent-bonding element as its most crucial contribution. Still others see the professional development we offer ECE teachers and aides as the most important. The newest buzzword is “2-Gen Education”—educating two generations (parent and child)—for maximum results. That’s precisely what ReadAskChat does!
ReadAskChat is the culmination of Saper’s career as an educator, curriculum designer, and publisher of children’s literature.
For years, Alice (ReadAskChat’s COO) and I have shared a love of reading and discussing books—a passion that has also defined our professional lives. But the inspiration for ReadAskChat comes from my personal experience as an adoptive mother. When my daughter first came home at 9 months, she was clinically failure to thrive. She couldn’t even hold her head up or babble or reach for shiny objects—things that much younger babies should be doing. But after only one month of reading picture books, singing songs, playing and snuggling, and “chatting” about anything and everything, my daughter was a fully caught up and happy 10-month-old. (Aside: she just graduated from college cum laude with special honors in philosophy.) My daughter’s cognitive and emotional blossoming as a baby was never far from Alice’s and my thoughts when we first began conceiving ReadAskChat. We both continue to marvel that the simple act of creating a routine of sharing wonderful stories with a baby was so immediately impactful, with lasting effects. We are deeply committed to scaling the potential of ReadAskChat to enable all families to have a similarly joyful and brain-building learning experience with their own babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.
Saper thinks children should be excited to learn.
As far as what I would change about the way we talk about childhood education, I would throw out every standardized test and go back to the child-centered, experiential mode of learning that was popularized in the early 20th century by education giants like Maria Montessori, John Dewey, Carlton Washburne, Colonel Francis Parker, Helen Parkhurst, and so many others. What is happening now in the so-called “academically rigorous” ECE classrooms borders on abuse! Quit stressing kids and adults out, and stop teaching to the test. Instead, let children question and explore, and learn organically and developmentally. Put JOY back in learning by reading kids great stories and introducing decoding in context. Children will learn to read and to write when the groundwork has been laid appropriately and when they’re ready. Let children be children: they are hard-wired to learn.
When starting up with ReadAskChat, perhaps the most critical decision was to pursue company “incubation” through the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
In order to qualify for Booth’s Social New Venture Challenge, an MBA student had to partner with us. Enter Matt Rubin, who interviewed a number of teams before choosing ReadAskChat. Our partnership was so successful that we not only placed as a finalist in the 2016 competition, but also benefited beyond words when Matt joined us a cofounder after receiving his MBA. We absolutely could not have come this far without Matt at our side.
Since ReadAskChat is a startup, Saper wears many hats in role.
I present ReadAskChat to learning organizations (including CLA!); lead staff and parent trainings for organizations using ReadAskChat; and I work with my partners to deal with the plethora of administrative tasks. But the most gratifying part of my role at ReadAskChat is working with my cofounder Alice Letvin, my colleague and friend for 35 years, to create the content—selecting stories and art, composing and editing text, writing THOUSANDS of enjoyable, open-ended, and text-based conversation starters—and creating what we believe is a distinctive, effective, and fun adult-learning program.
If she had to choose only one book as a favorite from her childhood, Saper would pick the Anne of Green Gables books.
Do I have to choose only one? All the Anne of Green Gables books were very meaningful to me. I wanted to know Anne, learn from Anne—be Anne! And I often reflect that through life’s twists and turns, I ended up being Marilla Cuthbert—adopting the most wonderful daughter in the world and becoming an instant parent in my, er, middle age. But I’ve also been indelibly shaped by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (life IS Wonderland—especially right now) and also the Oz books, The Jungle Books, Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books, The Arabian Nights . . . . . I’d better stop now.