Interview | Fun with StudyDog

It’s been named the best reading program in the country, selected by thousands of teachers and selected by AOL. Co-founder of Apple, Steve Wozniak said it’s “the best educational product I’ve ever seen. Period!” It was developed on principles described by the National Reading Panel and other key reading experts. What is it, exactly? StudyDog is an innovative expertly designed reading system for pre-K through first grade, and is among the fastest growing reading programs in schools nationwide. A little context: back in 1999, the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Health both determined that the country had a reading problem; more than 30 percent of fourth-graders were classified as “reading below basic”. They formed the National Reading Panel (NRP) to determine the cause and propose a solution. Deme Clainos (pictured), CEO of StudyDog, saw a big need in teaching children pre-K through first grade to read. “I thought I could contribute in a new and better way that had not been done before,” he says. When the NRP released their December 2000 findings, they said that in order for students to learn critical reading skills, their instruction needed to address five areas – phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension and the method of instruction needed to be explicit (versus implied), one-to-one and systematic. “Some schools were not doing that,” says Deme. “It turns out that I have a background that I thought would be valuable here.” In fact, Deme is a technologist with experiences at Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computer; he also has a U.S. patent in the Expert Systems area, embedding the actions and performance of a human expert in software. “I thought that expertise would be appropriate in this case,” he says. “What if we built reading lessons that were so engaging for young children that they would stick with them for several months with little or no direct and dedicated supervision—even if these children have already failed to learn reading skills—and, while they are engaged, the correct curriculum was taught to them exactly the way the NRP specified?”

Victor: Where did your questions go from there? 

Deme: Could we create these engaging lessons when no one else had done so? And, if we could, would a child learn the reading skills even if they had tried and failed before? I thought both could be accomplished.

Victor: Then what did you do? 

Deme: I raised the capital necessary, attracted absolute stars who thought the same way I did and StudyDog was formed.

Victor: Did you do anything unique? 

Deme: Organizationally, I did one thing that I don’t believe has ever been done before in educational companies. I divided the company into two groups; one responsible for the development of the lessons and the other responsible for the curriculum and instruction. Each had a simple objective. The Lesson Developers had to make sure that young children (ages 4-7) loved the lessons so much that they took lesson after lesson and kept coming back for more. The Curriculum Group had to make sure that students actually learned the reading skills. If you think about this, these goals are not complimentary, but competitive, which is what I wanted. Each group was fiercely committed to reaching their objectives.

Victor: How did they play off each other? 

Deme: Often times one group complained that the other was impeding their progress and I would personally be the “referee” in those cases. In all other educational companies, either the creative or the curriculum groups are dominate, not equal.  If the creative group is dominate, then the lessons are a lot of fun, but there is little or no educational value (as defined by the NRP) and if the curriculum group is dominate, the lessons are rigorous but they are so boring a human instructor is needed (remember Hooked on Phonics?).

Victor: What was the result? 

Deme: The result for us was reading lessons that are so engaging that even struggling students stick with them all year and, during that time, the exact curriculum is taught the exact way required for them to learn. There is no other reading program that does this.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Deme: The name StudyDog was chosen because it is unique, easy to remember and—along with the logo—loved by children, elementary teachers and parents.

Victor: What is it? Who created it?

Deme: My daughter, who is a graphic artist, created the original StudyDog logo. She now works for StudyDog in the marketing department. The logo has since been improved slightly.

Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?

Deme: The benefit to schools is that classroom teachers can teach more children than they could before. With StudyDog, they can teach a skill to an entire class and then let them work with StudyDog (StudyDog has created an individualized reading program for each student based on their needs). Students work at their own pace and StudyDog is constantly measuring their performance so it knows when a student starts to struggle.  When that occurs, that student is automatically given additional and different instruction to bring them back to mastery. The teacher is comfortable with the fact that StudyDog is exercising the students exactly the way she has taught them, as well as, the way the NRP has specified. Also, the teacher is happy the students are engaged and she doesn’t have to constantly keep them on task; they refer to this as “independent learning”. The teacher can work with other students.

The benefit to parents is the same as with schools but with the additional benefit of having an expert reading specialist available to them. If a parent is not a certified teacher, she can still achieve the same results for her child because StudyDog engages the child and then teaches him or her expertly.

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?  

Deme: StudyDog is unique in that it both engages a student and, while engaged, teaches expertly. No other reading program does that. There are numerous reading programs in the market, but none do what StudyDog does.

Victor: When was it developed? 

Deme: It took a long time and several millions of dollars! We started in 2001 and we had some lessons to test in late 2002 to 2004. All the lessons were completed and validated by 2005.

Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?

Deme: StudyDog is an online reading program. It is sold to schools thru a sales organization. It is sold to parents through a consumer portal that was just introduced and is just now fully operational. Marketing partners, like Amazon and Homeschool resellers are being signed as we speak.

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

StudyDog costs a parent $8.99 a month and it goes down to $4.99 per month if a 12-month program is purchased.

Victor: What are some examples of it in action?

The Pocano Mountain School District example (click video) is typical for schools. For parents, here is a typical response:

“We have tried everything with Ryan, so I was at first skeptical as to how much of an affect it would have. Ryan has a very difficult time with auditory learning. What pleased me most was his attitude towards StudyDog. He has become confident and most importantly he wants to learn. What used to be a battle has turned into a pleasure. Working with StudyDog has far exceeded my expectations.” —Daliah L.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it not for?

StudyDog is designed for children ages 4-9. It is not intended for older children unless the child is severely struggling. Here is an example:

“I agree with Steve Wozniak—Study Dog is the very best educational software I have ever seen. My daughter is a special needs 16 year old child who has been using Study Dog ever since she was in the 6th grade in the Centennial school district and believe me she loves Study Dog and still uses it and that was almost 3 years ago. I am home schooling her since she was told that she would never be able to read and we used Headsprout this last year and also Hooked on phonics and neither one of them holds a candle next to Study Dog. Not only does she love Study Dog but she really learns from it without any help from me and she enjoys it as well. I wish that you had a program that would be beyond the 2nd grade as she is now ready for something a little harder and I really do not know where I am going to go to get it. If you do add some lessons could you please advise me so I can order whatever it might be. THANK THANK THANK YOU for all you have done for my daughter and me. We Love Study Dog.” —Tom H., Parent of 16-year old

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Deme: Getting better every year due to measuring student achievement—versus forming an opinion—and schools being accountable.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating StudyDog?

Deme: I observed how painful it is for a child when they fail academically and how much it affects their life. I knew that reading was the first academic challenge a child encounters and for most it is the greatest obstacle in their life. I then realized that when a child fails to learn reading skills, they start on the downward slope towards academic failure, which alters the quality of their life forever. If that is not enough, I also learned there is a time element; if a child does not learn to read by age 7, it is highly likely they never will—due to the way the brain develops. This observation exposed a chilling fact for me: if a child does not receive rigorous reading instruction between the ages of 4 and 6, the damage is very likely already done. Hence, if a parent first realizes a reading problem with their eight year-old child, there is little that can be done. I think of StudyDog as an “immunization against reading deficiencies” when administered between the ages of 4 and 7.

Victor: How does StudyDog address some of your concerns about education?

1. StudyDog is ideally aligned with the latest research on how to instill reading skills. It is based on recent discoveries on brain research, namely how to teach healthy reading versus non-healthy—like memorizing—methods which lead to a “false positive”  in young children and failure at ages 8+.

2. StudyDog measures a child in the beginning—to determine an individualized reading program—and in every lesson. Educators call this “response to instruction” versus an instructor’s opinion.  This is important stuff.

3. StudyDog was designed to captivate a child’s interest and to turn-around the reading instruction paradigm. Instead of a teacher or a parent teaching a child, the child learns from StudyDog over a long period of time, not a few lessons. StudyDog does this better than any other reading program available.

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Deme: Positive.

——-

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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