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California Extends Popular Digital Literacy Program

A literacy campaign by the California Department of Education and Wisconsin-based Renaissance Learning has yielded impressive results, leading state Superintendent Tony Thurmond to extend the partnership.

A child reading a book.
A partnership between the California Department of Education and a Wisconsin-based educational software company, fostered at the tail end of last year to give families unfettered access to digital reading materials, has produced such promising results that the state has extended it through February.

The Gift of Literacy campaign, announced in November by state Superintendent Tony Thurmond and Renaissance Learning Inc., gave K-12 students and their family members unlimited access to digital books and daily news articles during winter break through myON, the company’s digital library. In two months, students across the state read more than 2 million books and spent in excess of 16 million minutes reading, according to a news release from Thurmond’s office.

“The success of this program demonstrates how access to quality literature can support literacy growth for our students,” Thurmond said in a public statement, noting his enthusiasm to extend the program through Feb. 28. The digital reading partnership is part of his statewide literacy campaign to help all California students reach the goal of literacy by third grade by the year 2026.

“This literacy initiative is one of a number of ongoing efforts in California that aims to reduce learning and opportunity gaps for students,” California Department of Education spokeswoman Maria Clayton told Government Technology in an email. “Literacy is a key benchmark in measuring student success. And when students don’t learn to read by third grade, they are at greater risk to drop out of school, and they are at greater risk to end up in the criminal justice system.”

Clayton stressed that promoting literacy by third grade not only ensures kids will be able to read, but also puts them on a path to broader success.

“Our students can learn and overcome obstacles, and providing free access to books helps remove barriers to literacy for many students,” she said.

Renaissance Learning is a global software-as-a-service and data analytics company that aims to accelerate learning not only in school-aged kids, but in adults as well. Through California’s Gift of Literacy initiative, students and families can read books and news articles in English or Spanish using a special shared account on Renaissance’s myON digital reading platform, the education department said.

Clayton said the department created the initiative to extend myON access to schools and districts that were not already using it. The myON platform — which is actively used in hundreds of schools throughout the state, according to Clayton — is compatible with computers, Chromebooks and tablets, with low-bandwidth and offline reading options for those who need them.

All myON books and news articles include natural voice audio narration, which helps younger learners during time outside of the classroom through read-aloud and read-along functions. Students using the platform are provided with their own personal logins to enhance personalization.

“We are amazed and thrilled to see the students of California taking part in this program and participating at an unprecedented level,” said Renaissance Chief Executive Officer Chris Bauleke in a public statement.

While there are currently no plans to make the partnership permanent, Clayton noted that the California Department of Education is continuing to explore other ways of increasing students’ access to books.
Giovanni Albanese Jr. is a staff writer for the Center for Digital Education. He has covered business, politics, breaking news and professional soccer over his more than 15-year reporting career. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Salem State University in Massachusetts.