Vera Blau-McCandliss, Square Panda

Describe your background as an educator and how you became interested in studying reading

Like many educators, I’m driven by a strong desire to help, and the feeling I get in return. I remember even way back in elementary school, my teachers would comment on my drive to help teach other children, to the point where somehow I became the ‘go-to’ girl whenever one of my classmates struggled academically or emotionally.

When it comes to reading, however, I realize I am coming from a very different path than most educators. I was actually trained as a brain and cognitive scientist, rather than as an educator. As a college student and doctoral candidate in the Netherlands, I fell in love with the topic of understanding the development of reading and literacy. Its one of the most profound ways education changes the brain. My department at the University of Maastricht was one of the first in Europe to use brain imaging to study how reading development unfolds in young children. Luckily for me, this same University also housed a highly successful dyslexia clinic.

They provided diagnostic and tutoring services to children, and welcomed involvement from university researchers. Working with the clinic leaders, it quickly became clear to me that the two disciplines I was being exposed to were intricately related. The experience of practitioners was invaluable to inform the right research questions; at the same time, brain and behavioral science could help me to investigate and explain causes and mechanisms that lurk behind questions that educators faced, such as why certain reading interventions work for one child but not another. I wrote my PhD thesis on the multi-sensory integration of letters and speech sounds in the dyslexic brain. We were trying to find out if the dyslexic brain combines visual and auditory inputs differently, and if so, how, and at what age in the course of reading development did these differences first appear. Our ultimate goal was to find ways of using multi-sensory training to help these children, and to see if we could use intervention techniques to change the way their brains processed this multi-sensory information.

Were you familiar with Orton-Gillingham prior to IMSE?

I had heard about the Orton-Gillingham approach during my training. I realized we had integrated some of the same core concepts into our research. We wanted to demonstrate why multi-sensory training of basic letters sound associations is such a crucial step in learning to read by observing how it changes the brain. We found that with children as young as 8 years of age, we could already see dramatic brain activity patterns in response to letters and speech sounds, and these brain activity patterns were quite different in dyslexic children when compared to typical children who were reading at grade level.  

When we presented visual letters together with matching letter sounds (e.g. visual A with auditory /a/), typical readers robustly activated an area in the temporal lobe of the left hemisphere. If we did the same thing by presenting a visual letter together with a letter sound that did not match (e.g. visual A with an auditory /o/), typical readers showed a reduced brain response.

It was like their brain “wired up” these culturally invented associations of sight and sound, based on their educational experiences of learning to read. Even more remarkably, this elementary form of literacy learning in the brain was impacted in 8-year-old dyslexics. For the dyslexic children (and even the adults!) we did not see this differential activation in the brain between matching and mismatching letter sound combinations. Clearly, we had discovered that the integration of letters and speech sound in the dyslexic brain is disrupted in a way that shows up early in the learning process, and seems to continue to impact dyslexic individuals even well into adulthood. We were also launching studies to use principles of multi-sensory integration for letters and sounds to create and study interventions that might change their brain activity. Again, this novel science finding fit so well with the original theorizing of Dr. Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham, and their focus on building multisensory associations in the early remediation of dyslexia.  

Rather than the abstract explanatory theories and frameworks of brain science, the IMSE training provided me with a specific plan and process for multi-sensory teaching for the complexities of English that can be implemented in a clear and explicit way…

How did you come to take IMSE’s training and what was your impression of it?

It wasn’t until after my post-doctoral training that I started to become interested in pursuing more formal training in the Orton-Gillingham method and applying their specific methods to tutoring kids. By that time, I had moved to the U.S. and worked at a brain lab at Vanderbilt University where we were trying to better understand the development of multi-sensory integration even earlier in life, in the minds and brains of in infants as they are just beginning putting sights and sounds together into meaningful ways for the first time.  

The question we were trying to address was whether multi-sensory processing is already fundamentally different in dyslexic children as early as birth given the genetic component of dyslexia and whether this early difference is then propagated to affect the ability to learn how to read. While these were fascinating questions, I missed seeing the direct impact of my work in children’s lives and began working directly with struggling readers in an educational clinical setting under the supervision of a reading specialist. Even though I was sufficiently fluent in English to speak and read at a PhD level in a University setting, when it came to tutoring children, I started to more fully realize how the complexities of mapping sounds and letter patterns in English were far more challenging to teach than print systems like German and Dutch. That is when I realized I needed formal IMSE training in Orton-Gillingham.

Entering this training program was like entering a different world from the brain research labs I was working in. What I noticed first about the training was how I was the only non-educator in the room. I learned so much by just listening to those who had been in the classroom for years, and even decades, trying to teach children how to read in the most effective way possible. Rather than the abstract explanatory theories and frameworks of brain science, the IMSE training provided me with a specific plan and process for multi-sensory teaching for the complexities of English that can be implemented in a clear and explicit way, and in a way that all the teachers knew were tested by time across generations of students and teachers. Of course, it was also important to receive a thorough description of important teaching concepts such as the syllable types, spelling rules, blending, syllabication rules etc. beyond what I had been exposed to in an academic setting.

Following the initial training, describe your path: did you use it in a classroom setting or complete the IMSE practicum? 

My initial training in the Orton-Gillingham approach came right around the time I decided I needed a break from science and shift toward a more immersive experience in teaching.  I started to focus exclusively on my work as a reading tutor in a reading clinic in Nashville, Tennessee. Although we used a wide variety of approaches, it was my OG training that turned out to be a foundational piece for my work with students.

I worked with kids of very different backgrounds and started to appreciate not only the academic challenges but also the behavioral challenges that many of these children face as a result of struggling with reading for many years. It takes a lot to keep children engaged and help them re-learn the joy that can come with reading. Staying focused on multi-sensory teaching practices and tuning into each specific child’s needs eventually helped me to see progress in several of my tutees, which was deeply gratifying at a personal level. Reflecting on this, I started realizing that many teaching programs would benefit tremendously by spending a little more time re-focusing on the aspect of ‘teaching joy.’  Clearly as a teacher, experiencing concrete evidence of success brings a notable sense of joy to the teacher, which if one’s focus is solely on concrete gains it is too easy to underestimate the power that is inherent in helping build a joyous learning experience with a child. Such an experience can help students find their own internal motivation to learn and believe in their ability to overcome their challenges, and can be a sustaining force for me, the teacher. Teaching motivational skills for success in reading is at least as important as teaching reading itself. Although I’ve found this to be the case most directly in one-on-one tutoring sessions, I’ve known many amazing teachers who can pull this off in a classroom as well. I continue to strive to find ways to combine the content of the training, with the elements of teaching that allow room in the process for authentic teaching and learning joy.

squarePlease describe Square Panda—how the company got started and the multi-sensory techniques of the product

Square Panda is a Silicon Valley-based startup that is creating a novel, play-based approach to early reading, by taking advantage of a few key insights. Most kids love playing on touch-screen tablets like the iPad, yet they also love to interact with physical objects they can touch, move, feel, and move around—like little toys and plastic refrigerator magnet letters.

Square Panda has found a way to let children play with both at the same time via ‘smart letters’ that children can interact with in the real world.  Through a Bluetooth connection, the iPad detects the letters on the playset’s tray and brings them to life within 10 different learning games on the iPad. This platforms allows kids to take a playful approach to learning, learn at their own pace, and engage in a variety of game apps that are designed to support skills such as letter-sound mapping skills. The prospect of using innovative technology to help children learn to read is one of the reasons why Square Panda exists today. Tom Boeckle, who helped found the company in 2014, struggled with dyslexia as a child and eventually overcame many limitations. Square Panda’s CEO, Andy Butler, has a daughter who is dyslexic and has also been successful in becoming a reader over the last several years. Their combined vision is to improve early literacy outcomes for all children using the context of a fun digital learning environment that is accessible to all. I was drawn toward this company precisely because of this combination: its strong sense of mission as well as innovative product that incorporates multi-sensory play. Every time a child puts a letter in the tray, a character in the game sounds it out, thereby reinforcing the auditory to visual associations of letters and words with the corresponding sounds. This allows children to bridge their digital and physical worlds of manipulating real letter objects. Square Panda is bringing multi-sensory reading instruction to the digital age as children get to touch, see and hear what they are learning. The product is specifically designed for young children ages 2 to 8 years of age.

How did you first become involved with the company and what is your current role in it?

I first got involved with the company when they were starting to apply for grant funding from the National Institute of Health to study the efficacy of the Square Panda product and how to improve upon it. The company is dedicated to research and to creating a serious educational curriculum that will move the needle for children learning to read. This philosophy resonated with me both professionally and personally, as it provided me a unique way to put on my ‘researcher hat’ and study how this approach is helping children, in addition to putting on my ‘teacher hat’ and help them to improve the pedagogical impact of their learning games. There is a lot of fantastic research from both the cognitive and brain sciences on effective reading programs and interventions, but these findings rarely get translated into fun and engaging educational products for children. In partnering with various research institutions including researchers from Stanford University, Square Panda is trying to do exactly that. I started out a few months back as a research consultant to the company to aid with developing research ideas and grants, then to advise on educational curriculum questions. Since then my role has evolved to span a wider range of responsibilities and I am just now beginning my new role as role as the Director of Educational Research and Curriculum Development.  I’m excited to participate in the development of a digital learning product that could truly make a difference for young readers in a way we measure directly.

lifestyle_4What impressed you—again as a reading researcher and someone with practical training to teach reading—about Square Panda’s approach to phonics and multi-sensory?

Square Panda’s approach to teaching phonics has a clear and explicit focus on teaching early letter-sound associations in a fun multi-sensory learning environment. To me, there is a huge potential in combining play-based learning with multi-sensory learning experiences. The use of this multi-sensory approach is in line with studies on multi-sensory learning that show better learning outcomes when multiple senses are engaged as compared to just a single one. When children play Square Panda they see a letter on the screen, hear the sound it makes in isolation and in the context of a word, and they can touch, pick up, feel, and move the corresponding physical letter at the same time. This is a natural way of learning that lets children do what they do best: investigate, explore, and discover through self-directed play. I was also impressed with Square Panda’s focus on building an evidence-based explicit and structured curriculum for early readers. In today’s digital world many educators have access to iPads for their students and a plethora of learning products to choose from. However, it is not always clear whether these products embody time-tested early literacy curricula. Furthermore, there’s a dearth of efficacy studies in the ‘app world’ that might help us know which games will actually move the needle on children’s reading progress.

By investing heavily in research and development, Square Panda has made it a priority to find ways to truly impact children’s reading scores and have the necessary evidence to show for it. While the company is still in its early stages, getting, collecting input and advice from educators and practitioners is a crucial component for achieving this goal. After all, they are the ones on the front lines teaching children literacy and understand the opportunities and challenges best. I think for digital technologies to have a real impact in the classroom educators need to work closely with industry experts and researchers to figure out what works and what does not.

The IMSE training is one way for educators to advance their understanding of the OG approach to teaching reading and spelling. I found it quite helpful for my needs, the central design principles on which it was founded mesh remarkably well with the research on early literacy that continues to emerge.

What are your future plans either in studying reading or working with Square Panda?

First and foremost, I am excited to get started as Director of Educational Research at Square Panda. My role will be to work on developing an even stronger educational curriculum and conduct scientific research studies and peer-reviewed federal grant dollars to support the efficacy of Square Panda’s multisensory phonics platform. Beyond that, I want to stay closely involved with educators and practitioners through testing our product in schools and within the dyslexia community. My Orton-Gillingham training will continue to play an important role in my thinking about how to teach reading systematically and effectively and how to address reading failure in students with dyslexia.

If you were able to speak to other educators, school administrators, etc. would you recommend the IMSE training for teachers?

The IMSE training is one way for educators to advance their understanding of the OG approach to teaching reading and spelling. I found it quite helpful for my needs, the central design principles on which it was founded mesh remarkably well with the research on early literacy that continues to emerge. I would recommend it for its focus on a multi-sensory teaching style as well as its explicit and structured teaching sequence. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all teaching approach so other programs may have different strengths. I think it is important that the specific training educators choose fits with the specific goals there are trying to achieve in the classroom and with individual students. It will be very interesting to see how the content and teaching process in IMSE eventually starts to change in the face of increasingly rapid changes in the Ed tech world, and which parts endure. For now, I can say with confidence that the ISME training I received was quite valuable, and I’ll take the lesson learned forward with me as I continue this research-innovation path into the “Educational Technology” world.