Category: News

Why Names Matter for Literacy


Your Child’s Name Can Help Him Learn to Read

Scientists multiple countries have put a lot of effort in trying to understand how children learn to read. A study in Israel using Israeli children, and drawing on research done in the United States, has looked at how children use their name as a tool for learning to recognize letters and words. (If you’d like to read the full study, you can access here.) But the short story is, your child’s name can actually help him learn to read. 

It is no surprise that family members encourage toddlers to learn their name and print the letters in them. Studies have shown that at the beginning, children do not recognize or understand the letters in their names or the sounds they signify. Often they cannot write their names reliably. A possible explanation is that young children have a memory for only a small number of letters.  It also appears that children are best able to recognize the first letter in their name, and maybe three letters total if it is a long name.  Most recognition of the first letter comes when it appears as a capital letter rather than a lower case letter. In many cultures, first names are very short, so it is easier for kids to learn the sounds and read their names.

First Letter Recognition

But generally, kids recognition of their own names, or names of people familiar to them, comes from that first letter recognition and word picture identification. Even though they may know the alphabet sounds that  letters ions in pronunciation of letters, and rules, sounding out his name is often not easy or intuitive. In teaching names to children, parents tend to name the letters rather than focus on the sound each letter makes.  Where the letter reliably represents the sound, the children better learns the sound along with the letter.  That, of course is often not the case. Zōē, for example, is an easy name to sound out … because two letters say their name. William, Joseph, Sarah are harder, because of variations in the letter sounds. 

Use your child’s name to help teach the concept of words and letter sounds. Explain that her name is a word that has a very special meaning, and belongs to her. Sound out each letter, and explain that sometimes the same letter has different sounds. The  two As in Anna are different (and neither one pronounced like the two As in Sarah). William has two different pronunciations of the letter I, as does Olivia.

Sounds Don’t Correlate with the Name

No wonder they focus only on the first letter!  But understanding their name as a word made up of individual sounds helps them understand the concept of letters making sounds that blend to form words that have meaning and lead to knowledge. An interesting side note, is that kids identify with, and recognize their first names, but far more often than not pay very little attention to their surname! 

Even though our TIPS™ system is leveled, introducing more frequently encountered sounds first, showing your child that each letter in his name has a unique sound is helpful. Like this:

In TIPS™, “Sophie is a Level 12 word”, largely because of the /ph/ sound, which is relatively rare in the English language. But here you have 6 letters, giving 4 sounds, with 1 silent letter. Try explaining THAT to a 4 year old! But if you explain that the diacritics have a meaning and a purpose, like a line means the letter says its name, or an x under means that letter has no sound, they can apply that concept as they learn other TIPS™ and learn to read. And looking at the name above, you can see how easy it will be for kids to make the transition to no tips as they start to internalize the word pictures.


Useful Teaching Concept

Despite the difficulty in relating the letters in your child’s name to the sounds they make,  a child’s name, family and peer names can be a useful tool for teaching reading concepts. It’s a good way to illustrate blending, showing how the discrete sounds combine smoothly to make their name.  If your child’s name has more than one syllable, it’s a good way to illustrate segmenting, another skill important in reading. 

Parents who talk, talk talk to their kids generally have kids with better phonemic awareness, because they hear so many words. Parents who read, read, read to their kids generally have kids who are more fluent readers. But every child likes to feel special, so focusing on your child’s name as a learning tool can be very beneficial.

So if you want to get started by teaching your child their name in TIPS™, make a request HERE, and we will be happy to send it to you!


Understanding Reading Fluency




Fluency in reading is a critical skill that is the goal of learning to read. Reading fluency is what motivates kids to read more, because it is enjoyable, not frustrating. It is what leads to reading to learn, after learning to read. The problem is that children who are not reading fluently by 3rd or 4th grade generally never do, and struggle the rest of the school years, and often the rest of their lives.

What is reading fluency? When we think of fluency, the first thing that comes to mind is learning a foreign language. How accurate are we? Can we communicate without hesitation? Can we communicate with expression? Can we understand not only the content, but the nuances of the conversation? what other people are saying If we can do all those things, we consider ourselves “fluent.”

Same is true for reading English. Can we decode accurately, that is, sound out a word to get its meaning? Can we decode automatically so we are not stumbling and making mistakes? Can we read smoothly, at an appropriate pace? Can we read with the expression and intonation that communicates the meaning of what we are reading? If we can do all that, when we read aloud, we are reading “fluently”. And this is the level we need to get our kids to, early on, so they can maximize their success in life.  Accuracy, smooth speed, and expression.


How does it happen? First, a child needs a firm foundation in the ability to decode words. Decoding has to become second nature. At first that means knowing the sounds the letters make, and sounding out the word. With practice, a vocabulary of sight words begins to accrue, and the “sounding out” form of decoding is limited to new words. At this point, a child can read with what is called “automaticity”, that is, they can read most of the words on the page, have some hesitation as they come across new words, but don’t necessarily understand the content of what they are reading, or how it relates to their world. It’s still just words strung together on a bumpy road. 

The next step is a big leap. To gain fluency, readers need to be able to recognize words automatically, so they don’t need to decode except occasionally.  They need to be able to know which words group together to form meaningful phrases. They need to read aloud smoothly and with expression.  group words together to  And it comes with practice, practice, practice, and then more practice.

Let your child read simple books, even if they are below what you consider her intellectual ability. Have older children read to their younger siblings … those toddler board books are great practice for the learning-to-be-fluent reader. Have your child read to you, books she is familiar with. Make sure she reads the words correctly. Have her stop if she stumbles, or guesses wrong, and sound out the word. See if you can identify problem sounds, and work on those. 

Fluency in reading is what creates joy in reading, and that joy is what leads to reading to learn. The focus shifts from figuring out words to figuring out the meaning of what they are reading. And that opens up a world of possibilities.


Looking Beyond Our Borders

Looking Beyond Our Borders

English is unique not only in it’s complexity, but also in the lack of a commonly adopted system to make it easier to learn. That is not the norm in many other countries.

For example, every single student of Chinese and Japanese learns a phonetic alphabet in the first grade. It takes only a few weeks to learn, and the system is the foundation for teaching literacy in those countries. Every child learns to read by sounding out these symbols. No complex phonics rules and virtually no exceptions. Kids simply teach themselves the words they need to know to read. As they develop fluency, the “aids” are removed, and children become sight readers naturally.

In Hebrew, there is a simple system used to teach kids to read.

The black portion of the characters above is what an adult would read or write. The red and green marks are only added when reading is taught to children. As with English, Hebrew doesn’t include enough information in its standard written form for a child to read without error. So, two thousand years ago, they added “tips” to make things easier. This works wonders.


A Simple System Is Needed.

Take a group of kids who speak English as their primary language and teach them to read in Hebrew. By the end of 1st Grade, they read better in Hebrew than they will read in English 4 years later. When a written language is easy to pronounce, kids learn to read with ease.


Put all of this together and the message is extremely clear:

  • English is so hard to learn that only half of our kids become proficient. 
  • English is hard because our spelling is “complex” and irregular. 
  • Most “complex” languages have some kind of “tips” that teach kids to read.
  • Kids easily remove these systems as they achieve mastery of the language. 


So we know, from lots and lots of research, that a system that makes it easy to read English will make it easier for kids to read. Kids will read faster and with more joy. 


That’s why we invented TIPS™!  Check out  ReadingWorld  for starters!

How to Avoid COVID Learning Loss?


Every year, “the big summer slide” holds back the educational progress of millions of American kids.But this year, if we don’t act to avoid a massive COVID Learning Loss, the education gap between high and low-income kids will widen to historic levels. This year, Covid Learning Loss is a real thing, and it’s huge.

Studies show that TWO-THIRDS of the reading level gap in 9th graders can be attributed to the fact that many of them read way less over the summer, and lose proficiency. But it is not just 9th graders. Because kids who aren’t reading at or above grade level by 4th grade rarely catch up. And here we are in May, already starting the slide. No end in sight.

With most schools unlikely to reopen until fall, kids will have lost a lot, even the ones lucky enough to still be going to school via video conferencing. Kids from lower-income families generally fall even further behind. So the “Summer Slide” has come early for millions of American kids this year, and no, that doesn’t mean the slide at the playground or the slip n’ slide in the backyard. It means sliding back from the progress achieved during the school year, and nowhere does this have a more pronounced effect than in reading. And this year, the effect will be felt like never before.

So what can you do, as a parent? How can you avoid COVID Learning Loss?


Rule #1: Read. Read, read, read with your kids. They watch what you do, they want to imitate. You read, they will read. We are all bored, and looking for things to occupy our Stay Safe-Stay Home time. Most parents are trying to structure time during the day for their kids to maintain their own sanity, so make sure that part of that day has at least two 20 minute sessions devoted to reading, longer if possible. And let them stay up ½ hour later … in their bed … but only if they read. Even kids who can’t read will look at picture books, or their favorite books, and pretend to read.

Rule #2: Read. Read, read, read with your kids. Repeat Rule #1!

But even with all of this reading, the reality for most kids now is that the day is less structured and includes less educational content than it did before. That means, we need to find a way to teach our kids that is actually easier. Easier for parents to deliver, but also easier for kids to learn.


To avoid COVID Learning Loss, put your kids in the driver seat (of reading). I had one 5 year old who loved to read chapter books. I had another 5 year old who early on didn’t like reading books at all. But he loved reading encyclopedias about animals, or space, or sports… anything that was only a few sentences long. Both were, and still are, voracious readers, of anything they can get their hands on. So let your kids choose what they read because they are more likely to read what they are interested in. It’s about language early on, not literature. They are discovering how a writer can manipulate words to create feelings, portray mental images, and tell a tale as well as learn stuff.

If your children are too young to read on their own or are just learning to read, the key is to read to them. Let them pick the book, and don’t be surprised if they pick the same books over and over. They love the sounds the words make (don’t you love Pout Pout Fish?) or they go wild over the pictures (anything by Maurice Sendak). They have a fine time with rhyme … you can never go wrong with Dr. Seuss! Point to the words, so they get the idea that a group of letters blends together to make a sound called a word. Soon they will start to recognize those words, especially the fun ones like BAM! and WHOOSH! and GLUG! and THWACK!


Here’s a hard fact. Households without books produce the majority of the kids who cannot read at or above grade level. But books cost money and are a luxury item to many people. Libraries are helpful to bridge the gap, but right now the libraries are closed, and there is even less money to spend on “luxuries”.

But you have a smartphone. We often hand our kids the phone to keep them occupied at some point, to keep them entertained (and perhaps quiet during an important conference call). How can we make the best possible use of that technology? How can we turn that moment into a mechanism that delivers something that will help them succeed in life? ReadingWorld (available here in beta) is a fun activity to do with your children. And it’s something they can absolutely do on their own (after a few plays). Full of games, and revolutionary way to teach phonemic awareness and reading, ReadingWorld will help them learn to read super fast, and put them on the path to success. There are a lot of other programs to download also, on a wide variety of subjects. Take advantage of them.


Parenting at any time is tough. Right now it is extraordinarily difficult. As caregivers to our children, we have an even greater obligation to see that not only do we keep them safe by keeping them healthy, but that we keep them safe from falling behind in their reading ability. This is the single most important factor in a child’s success … the ability to read above grade level proficiency. It’s ok to use your phone to help you get through this. And by the way, there are lots of free books for you to read too!

So let’s stop the Covid Learning Slide, and every Summer Slide from here on forward! READ, READ, READ. About happy things. Fun things. Interesting things. Any things. And while you are reading with your kids, don’t forget to snuggle.

Stay Safe. Stay Home.

There and Back Again

Hi there.

My name is Zach and I’m an entrepreneur.

Over the last eight years, I had the most extraordinary experience building an amazing company. When we started, it was a horror show. I couldn’t believe that so small a group could hate each other so much and still come to work shoulder to shoulder in a tiny office in the armpit of Manhattan. But we did. 

Eventually, a few people got off the bus and a few more hopped on. That was key. Then we started winning deals, converting customers from pilots to paid, expanding to system wide accounts, six figure contracts, then seven figure contracts. We smoked competitors ten times our size, assembled a ridiculously talented team, became true partners with our clients, saved hundreds of thousands of lives, saved billions of dollars in unnecessary medical expenses, and delivered incredible returns to our investors.

It wasn’t viral at all. It was super hard work. Late nights, early mornings, countless hours in planes, trains and automobiles. It was eerily similar to most of what you saw on Silicon Valley, but it wasn’t a caricature, it was real. There really was a foosball table and we played all the time. We actually divided ourselves into Harry Potter houses and (at least at the time of this writing) have a really awkward Sorting Ceremony, with music and slides, for every new hire. It was incredibly rewarding and immeasurably fun. We did great work and we changed a lot of lives, not the least of which was our own.

So why did you leave?

Great question. It started about 3 years ago, when my son Conrad was born. I suppose every product-minded human worth their salt goes through the same process and frustration I did. We try basically everything, eventually pruning down to some set of solutions that we think gives our little beings a fighting chance at getting a job in some dark AI dystopian future. The best out there do some amazing things and move the ball forward for everyone: like Melissa and Doug or the amazing LovEvery team. Those guys rock. 

For me, being a nerd, I focused on literacy. I believe that reading is true magic. There are these peculiar little runes on dead tree pulp that can make you cry or laugh, enlighten you and rile your enemies. If you are a writer, start calling yourself a wizard. It’s not far off.

Not having a background in early childhood education, I read nearly everything I could get my hands on. This study was a key starting point. I chased down many of the supporting studies, like this one. This book. That book. This NPR podcast. Then I started hacking. Literally. Chopping up paper to make hundreds of flash cards and labelling everything in our house down to the sconces. And then, perhaps a little woozy from the laminator smell, the lightbulb went off.

The alphabet isn’t perfect. What if we fix it? 

Some schools teach the ‘ā’ for Āpe vs. the ‘a’ in Cat. But what about the ‘a’ in About? That’s a “u” sound. Or Wand, where it’s really an “o”. In Care it’s more like an “e”. English is filled with this garbage! (The second “a” in Garbage is more like an “i” is it not?).

This sort of language game can be amusing as a literate adult, but the difficulties it presents to a child or ESL students are enormous. Without an attentive teacher, parent, or caregiver, you can’t learn to read on your own. There are more exceptions than rules. Exceptions exist everywhere, in the simplest words, crippling early readers.

This really annoyed me. So I got serious. I started hacking for real. I dusted off my keyboard. I read this book and took this course and some of this course and a little of this course, and began building a system that would create the foundation of a new way to teach kids to read, the TinyIvy Phonics System: TIPS™.

TIPS uses specific marks to denote exactly how to say every single letter so that it can be sounded out, from left to right, without exceptions. We introduce letters in a standardized progression, so that we can be confident that every single word the child is asked to read will be a word they are capable of reading. By using a more refined system, our ability to use data and machine learning to drive improvements in children’s outcomes is unprecedented. We’ve now coded over 125,000 words into our system.

In the weeks to come, I invite you to listen. It’s not a simple thing to wage war on the Alphabet. I will need help. Your help, probably. So I hope that as you hear more about what I’m working on that it all becomes clear. I hope you see what I see. For those of you with kids, I really you have the courage to try something new on the most important person to you in the whole world.

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