Helen Darling Discusses Reading Plus

Former WNBA star Helen Darling has put her passion for literacy and education to good use as the Community & Partnership Manager for Reading Plus. As a professional basketball player, Helen took much pride in giving back to her community, even being awarded the WNBA Community Assist Award in 2003. She played for four WNBA teams throughout her tenure as a professional basketball player, retiring after the 2010 season as a member of the San Antonio Stars. Since 2007, the mother of triplets has published series of seven children’s books, the first being entitled Hide-N-Seek Monday.

As part of Connecticut Sun’s Month of Reading, Helen took the time out of her busy schedule to speak with ConnecticutSun.com about the Reading Plus program, the importance of reading, and how the WNBA has prepared her for a career in literacy.

For those who don’t know, what is Reading Plus?
“Reading Plus is a proven, online cybermedia program. It helps all students become proficient readers by working with them to improve their comprehension skills, reading rate, essential vocabulary and their ability to handle complex text.”

Why and how did you get involved with Reading Plus?
“After I retired, I had gotten my masters and I began working at a family life center church. A friend of mine was offered the job, but she declined it. Then, she referred me and, so, they interviewed me, and I got the job. I’ve been working with them ever since. It’s really been a blessing for me, not knowing that there’s actually a profession out there in literacy with intervention programs and supplement programs. I was actually considered a Professional Development Coordinator. Growing up, you don’t even know that profession. It kind of landed in my lap.”

Efficiency, Motivation, Capacity – Can you talk a little about the importance of these and how Reading Plus helps improve these qualities in students
“What we really focus on when we talk about efficiency is just being able to read and comprehend. The program has you reading through this little guided window, so that you don’t focus at anything else. Your eyes aren’t jumping around, you aren’t skipping ahead, you aren’t going back to read. So, it really helps you focus on what you’re reading at that moment, and really take it in. When we talk about efficiency, we mean reading a line and comprehending it, and not having to go back to reread it."

"When we talk about motivation, we have what’s called an Insight Assessment, which asks students about their motivation. ‘Are you motivated by intrinsic rewards or extrinsic awards?’ ‘Do you like to read?’ ‘Do you not like to read?’ Throughout the program, we provide students with immediate feedback. So, you read a story, answer the questions and get immediate feedback. Also, research has shown that students like choice and the control to be able to select the books and stories they want to read. We allow them that. We have many different categories that students can choose from. You notice that a lot of young boys choose what we call ‘get in the game’ stories, because it’s related to sports. When they click on that, the program will cross-reference other subject areas, so kids are reading about sports, but they are also reading about geography or history. Then, kids are able to level up and unlock the next level, so that motivates them. It’s kind of like a game, where they can unlock levels as they go along." "Capacity is being able to take in a longer text. Say for instance, sometimes we break it down and have students read stories that are 1000 words. For some students, reading 1000 words at once is tough, so we break it down into groups of 250 words. They read 250 words, then take a break and answer a few questions. Then, they read another 250 and so on. Once they improve, the next time we will give them 500 words. So we are building that capacity for them to read complex text.” Can talk about how you measure the skills of a reader?
“It’s all computerized. First, the student would take the Insight Assessment on their vocabulary, their reading rate, and then their comprehension. There’s a whole logic behind it. You may have a fifth grader that has a vocabulary of a third grader, the reading rate of a first grader, but can comprehend on a second grade level. So it takes all of that information and places the student at a particular level. And even if the student can read on a third grade level, we may place them at a first grade level, because their reading rate is so slow. We put them where the material is easy so we can build that capacity and efficiency to read faster. Then they answer questions at the end that are all aligned with Common Core standard. They are really higher-level thinking questions to make sure you really understand the story. The great thing about it is when you complete the story at 80% or better, you are actually given a writing prompt. The writing prompt asks you to answer a question and use evidence from the text to support your findings. So, it also incorporates the writing aspect of it as well.”

Do you get to see the results of the program in schools? What have you personally seen in students who’ve gone through the program?
“When I first got hired, I lived in Memphis, and I worked with the whole district for three years. I was the Implementation Coordinator, so I did the training, I did the data, and I supported teachers or students that needed help. I was overseeing 250 schools in Memphis. What I saw was, and this was amazing, we had a fourth grader that ended up reading on college level. They were so motivated and it became a competition between the friends and these kids were just rocking it out. They started by going at a third grade rate and ended up at high school level. We were like, ‘What’s going on?” So we actually sat in to see and talk with the kids. They really got into it. Basically, when students complete at least one hundred lessons, we have seen at least two to three grade level gains, if not more. I’ve seen kids make five level, six level, and even seven level gains. It all depends on the student and how motivated they are to improve their reading.”

In your words, why do you think it is important for children and adults to read? “Oh man… to read or be able to read takes you to places that you’ve never been. It’s really an adventure. I started reading at a young age, but really got into it as an adult. I’m still an avid reader. I would rather read a book than watch TV. It’s just amazing what the world has to offer. We look at the little city that we live in, and sometimes you can’t travel to these places, but to read about it… It’s amazing. And then to go there after you read about it, it is really an enlightening opportunity. We have to read in everything we do, so why not enjoy it.” How do you think your involvement with professional sports has prepared you for your work with Reading Plus?
“I was one of those players who was very into the community. I know not every player is like that, I wish they would be, because you are a role model to so many people. I have to be honest though; it wasn’t until after I had my triplets that I truly realized the importance of reading. Once I had my kids, I became an avid reader, because they had to read a story every night, which means I have to read three books every night to my kids. I became a spokesperson for the WNBA’s Read to Achieve throughout my last five or six years of the league. I was going out to schools. I was a part of Teach For America. I really just got involved in literacy and education, because I really felt there was a need, more so in family literacy, to get parents involved. I think as a professional basketball player, I was able to inspire women and parents to just say, ‘Look, I have a job to do, I know it’s hard, just take 15 minutes a day to sit down with my child and read to them, or let them read to you.” So, I really became an advocate of that. After I got finished playing, my passion and my journey throughout the WNBA has allowed me to network and familiarize myself with some of the teachers, and see what they are going through. Even though I work for Reading Plus, people knew I played professional basketball so I got, ‘Can you come speak at my school? Can you speak to my parents?' Even though it wasn’t in my job description, I did it, because I am so passionate about literacy and education."

Where can parents or teachers get more information?
Our website is a great resource to get more information - www.readingplus.com.