How Strong Start Helps Build the Reading Brain

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© Courtesy of Strong Start

Literacy is the key to success, empowering the imagination and paving the way for bright futures. Literacy allows us to make sense of what we see, hear, and read; for many, it’s an integral part of our lives. But did you know that humans were not meant to read?

Humans have been speaking for more than 50 thousand years, but reading and writing for only around 5,000 years. We are born with brains ready to develop oral language and visual skills, allowing us to recognize speech sounds, faces, and objects, but we are not born with an area of the brain that recognizes words. When we learn to read, we create a new part of the brain called the Letterbox. This fascinating part of our brain can even be seen in brain scans!

The Letterbox is only activated in the brain of a person who can read—it does not exist in babies or non-readers. This tells us that skilled readers are made, not born. More importantly, it shows that with a strong start to reading, anyone can learn.

Founded in 2001 by philanthropist Lyle S. Hallman and esteemed educator Lynda Silvester and driven by dedicated volunteers, Strong Start is a community initiative that aims to ensure that all children can learn to read.

With a focus on early intervention, a deep understanding that everyone learns differently, and a proven track record of success, this program is changing the lives of thousands of children.

The Science of Reading

“Reading requires the brain to rearrange its original parts to learn something new,” said literacy advocate Dr. Maryanne Wolf.

Unlike walking and talking, learning to read requires specific instruction in order to create the connection between visual cues like letters and audio cues like how each letter sounds. Early readers must learn to identify letters and the sounds each letter makes and to blend the sounds to create words, starting with sounds in spoken language and play.

In February 2022, the Ontario Human Rights Commission released the Right to Read Report, which took a close look at literacy in Ontario and how well children and youth are learning to read. The report suggests changes to how reading is taught, focusing on the Science of Reading. According to this approach, it’s crucial to explicitly teach kids the alphabet symbols and the sounds they make, helping them understand how these elements come together to form words, often referred to as “cracking the code.” As kids make these connections, their reading skills and brain development improve.

In response to the report, the Ministry of Education introduced the new Ontario Language Curriculum. Good news—Strong Start’s programs align well with the Science of Reading and the updated curriculum. These programs use fun games and activities to give kids plenty of practice, helping them build basic literacy skills and confidence in reading, something considered a human right. By teaching foundational word-reading skills, such as phonemic awareness and phonics, children are set up for success from an early age. With their range of programs and partnerships with schools and school boards, Strong Start makes this possible.

Lifelong Literacy

In the Letters, Sounds, and Words program, Strong Start trains community volunteers to go into schools to work one-on-one with the children for 30-minute sessions two to three times a week for 10 weeks, using games and activities that focus on building early foundational literacy skills. Children learn the names of each letter, the sounds each letter makes, and how to blend sounds to build and decode words.

This high-impact program is engaging, fun, and easy to implement, evidenced by how widely it has been adopted by school boards and schools across Ontario, including Indigenous schools, private faith-based schools, and schools for children with exceptional needs. The one-on-one attention from a caring adult builds the children’s sense of belonging and confidence, and the stimulating activities foster a love for literacy.

Children in the Strong Start Letters, Sounds and Words program are provided with the opportunity to engage in literacy learning that will help them to competently progress in their reading journey. Children in the program practice basic language expectations outlined in the new Ontario curriculum and build oral language skills and vocabulary. Strong oral language skills help children become successful and confident readers.

strong start program
© Image Courtesy of Strong Start

The children in the program experience numerous opportunities to enhance their ability to recall foundational literacy knowledge and skills automatically and fluently. The practice and repetition offered by the structured program allows the children to build meaningful connections and apply the new information learned to future reading development. Establishing these fundamental literacy connections of letters, sounds and words in the early grades is critical to future academic achievement.

Strong Start’s programs help all children who need a literacy boost, including newcomers and children from low-income backgrounds, and the need is increasing. Given the number of children struggling, time is of the essence. Funding from TD Ready Commitment and an anonymous donor makes immediate program expansion possible, but further support is necessary to make an even greater impact.

The time is now for a literacy revolution, and with Strong Start leading the way, the journey toward unlocking the reading brain is well underway.

Learn more about Strong Start and the science behind learning to read, and make a donation at strongstart.ca

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A Strong Start to readingTM happens when adults spend quality time with children on specially selected games and activities to develop literacy skills that position children for success. Our programs are designed to ensure that children experience the joy in learning. We work through partnerships with schools, community centres, educators and volunteers to help young children reach their potential by learning to read.

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