Empowering Young Minds: The Strong Start Program and the Right to Read


© Image 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—so it is disheartening to know that many children still struggle to learn to read.

However, there is hope in the form of the Strong Start program. 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.

Strong Start understands that everyone learns differently, and with a focus on early intervention and a proven track record of success, this program is changing the lives of thousands of children.

The Right to Read

Learning to read is not just a skill; it is a fundamental human right. The Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Right to Read report emphasizes that without the ability to read, children are at risk of lifelong difficulties. By teaching foundational word-reading skills, such as phonemic awareness and phonics, children are set up for success from an early age.

strong start program
© Image Courtesy of Strong Start

Reaching children early is critical; the earlier the intervention, the greater the impact. Strong Start has three programs that provide literacy support to children from six months to nine years of age: Baby Connections® (six to 12 months), Get Ready for School™ (ages three to four), and Letters, Sounds and Words™ (ages five to nine).

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. This high-impact program, which serves children aged five to seven and English language learners up to age nine, has been widely adopted by school boards and schools across Ontario, including Indigenous schools, private faith-based schools, and schools for children with exceptional needs. This program helps all children who need a literacy boost, including newcomers and children from low-income backgrounds.

All Children Read

Research from the National Strategy for Early Learning found that one in four Canadian children who enter Grade 1 are significantly behind their peers, which results in the tendency to fall further behind as they progress through schooling. The Right to Read report supports this: the window of ages four to seven is a critical time for intervention, and Strong Start’s approach is the key to changing children’s lives.

“Children have enough challenges growing up in society today. If reading is one of the challenges that we can take away from them through the Strong Start program, then it’s one less thing they need to worry about. I think that allows children to reach their maximum potential.” — Tim Jackson, Strong Start Supporter from Social Venture Partners Waterloo Region

The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the urgency of Strong Start’s mission. In his recent study on the impact of COVID on learning, Professor George Georgiou of the University of Alberta found that young children who were previously struggling with reading have now fallen an additional four to 12 months behind in literacy skills.

“Here’s the challenge: if we don’t manage to get them to become at least average readers by the end of this school year, we should expect an overrepresentation of struggling readers in upper grades,” Professor Georgiou explained. “Children who struggle in reading will also be struggling in other areas, such as mathematics and writing. If they are not receiving intensive, targeted intervention, these kids will continue to be struggling readers throughout their life.”

Strong Start works to help young children learn to read by providing unique programs through community-wide partnerships. Every child deserves the best chance for healthy development and the building blocks for a successful life—and that starts with making sure that all children read.

“The program just became another part of what she did at school, but it contributed so much to what she was able to do from that point on. I saw a change in her and now when I see her with all her books curled up and reading…I think, that was a little girl who couldn’t read.” — Susan Cook-Scheerer, Parent

© Image Courtesy of Strong Start

The impact of Strong Start is undeniable. Since its inception, the program has helped nearly 55,000 children learn to read, with the support of more than 37,500 caring community volunteers. According to data, an astounding 95 per cent of children participating in the Strong Start program achieve considerable, excellent, or outstanding gains in their literacy skills. These measurable results demonstrate the program’s effectiveness in bridging the literacy gap and leveling the playing field for all children, regardless of their backgrounds.

Supporting Bright Futures

Volunteers are the heart and soul of Strong Start. By dedicating just a few hours, they make a lasting impact on a child’s life, giving as little as 30 minutes a week for 10 weeks.

“I am watching a shy child come out of their shell and gain confidence as they are learning their letters,” said one volunteer. “This is why I chose to volunteer. It is so rewarding, and I feel like I am making a difference, one child at a time.”

“We have completed a full round of 10 weeks and are amazed with the transformation of the students. The post-assessments have shown us that significant improvements have been made. Teachers are reporting that students are much more confident and willing to take more risks in their literacy activities in the classroom. As a principal and co-coordinator, it was such a pleasure listening in on the interactions and seeing the joy on the children’s faces as they played the games provided.” — K. Kuiack, Principal

Empower young minds through the gift of literacy. Donate to Strong Start and help us build a world where every child can read, or become a partner and pave the way for a strong community.

Find more information and get involved at strongstart.ca

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About the Strong Start Program

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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