Technology team receives national grant to create early literacy tools
January 24, 2019
The path that led to Cathy Callow-Heusser receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation started close to three decades ago.
She was developing software for a reading program at the time, and she had an idea to create English-learning books that were culturally appropriate for different sub-groups in the U.S. She sat on the thought while working on other projects, but she decided last year to set her plans in motion.
Callow-Huesser and her business partner, Charles Major, received a grant from the National Science Foundation last month to create a web-based system that will guide people through developing their own early-literacy materials to help readers learn English and other languages. She said the software she and her team plan to develop will auto-generate assessments and practice items for teachers to use to accompany the literature. She intends to complete the project, called READ! Toolkit, in three years.
The software is designed so someone with no experience in linguistics or early literacy can write books to help people learn a language. The software will guide users toward using words with a limited source of simple letters and sounds at the start of the books. As the books progress, more letters and sounds will be able to be introduced. All the users need is to tell a story.
The hope is that if we can get kids interested in learning the language and learning how to read in the language, that it really can revitalize language,” Cathy Callow-Huesser, Betterment Labs
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Callow-Huesser's idea for the software originated 28 years ago while she was working as a programmer for Utah State University. She helped develop the Reading for All Learners program, curriculum and materials to teach children to read. One of the main differences is that Reading for All Learners was only for English. The program was also limited, she said, because it was white-centric and did not take different cultures into account.
For example, while studying how the English-learning Reading for All Learners materials were being used on Native American reservations, she learned that snakes are extremely taboo in Navajo culture, and one of the characters in the books was a snake.
At the time, she realized different students needed English reading materials that were culture-specific, including the characters and the stories told in the books. She thought about how to do it for years. She submitted grant proposals to develop pieces of the project, but she never received the grants.
"The idea just kept coming back that we needed to do something differently," she said.
Then, last year, she decided to submit a grant to develop the entire project. She spent months preparing her proposal, working with groups like the technology-based economic development agency Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative to refine her proposal.
After receiving feedback, she realized she could expand the software to have an even bigger impact. It could be used to write books in languages that were going extinct. She started talking with Native American tribes and different leaders jumped on board.
"It was time to put in a proposal that targeted the whole picture to try and create software tools to help people develop early literacy materials in any language with a phonics-based approach," she said.
Two months after submitting the proposal in July, she received a call from a project officer with the National Science Foundation. They were interested. After another two months, she was told she would likely be receiving the funding, but it was not finalized until she received a letter at the end of December.
Callow-Huesser was ecstatic.
"This has been a 28-year dream," she said.
Two years ago, she and Major launched their own company called Betterment Labs, which helped make the project possible. The company's mission is to create applications and other technologies to improve people's lives, and she said she believes the READ! Toolkit has the potential to do a lot of good in the world.
She and Major plan to first test the software in English. One of Callow-Huesser's colleagues in Texas plans to create an English-learning book from an African-American perspective. She also has consultants from the Navajo Nation and the Siletz Confederated Tribes in Oregon who are eager to use the software to create books to help people learn to read Navajo and Siletz. Then, the team plans to work on helping with the creation of books in Spanish and Ancient Greek.
Callow-Huesser said she plans to work with languages that are less common, because the National Science Foundation was particularly interested in the prospect of preserving languages.
"The hope is that if we can get kids interested in learning the language and learning how to read in the language, that it really can revitalize language," she said.
In one year, Callow-Huesser hopes to have a kindergarten-age program in each of those languages available. But first, they have to reach the six-month goals they set with the National Science Foundation. Callow-Huesser and Major received $225,000 from the foundation to complete the first six-month phase of the project. If the duo meets their goals, they could receive an additional $900,000.
"If we succeed at that, I will have spent the last 10 years of my career doing exactly what I wanted," Callow-Huesser said. "To help marginalized kids feel not so marginalized."