Study shows Catholic students double the rate of reading growth in 50 days

Partnership between the Archdiocese of Denver, the Zarlengo Foundation and Learning Ally Supports Educators and Students in Breakthrough Reading Strides

Any teacher will tell you that reading when young increases students’ academic success as they advance in school. But in the Archdiocese of Denver’s Catholic schools, literature does so much more in the formation of the souls, hearts, and minds of students. Literature gives students the chance to delight in story, to develop a sense of the human story, humanity’s choices and struggles, and to explore virtues worthy of imitation and the consequences of evil, which is the development of a moral imagination. Literature helps students to be more empathetic and live harmoniously with others. Providing access to literature for all students, then, is mission-critical.  

With support and funding from the Zarlengo Foundation, the Archdiocese of Denver has been working with Learning Ally on a literacy study to support our students who struggle to read. What began as a pilot program in 2015 with a small handful of schools in the archdiocese was later expanded to all of its Catholic schools. Teachers set aside time for students to read texts with the support of Learning Ally Audiobook Solution, a tool that provides students not only the text read aloud but highlighting the words visually as each is read aloud.  

The study sought to answer the question: how well was the program working? Were the results what parents, teachers and principals hoped it would be? Results from the study conducted with 1,300 students in our 34 elementary schools showed that through the implementation of the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution, educators were able to double the rate of reading growth.  

“To double the rate of growth is just incredible,” says Abriana Chilelli, Associate Superintendent of Academic Renewal. “Literature makes known the nature of the human person, our problems, and our experiences. When we have tools that help more students access the beauty and depth of literature, it’s just an incredible gift. This study proved that gift worked– that each and every student can learn to read well and grow in our schools!”  

Teachers using the program say it is making a big difference in their classrooms. “Students using Learning Ally at our school have an increased level of confidence, motivation, and certainly independence,” says Kristen Trinder, reading intervention teacher at Shrine of St. Anne Catholic School. “Because of the Learning Ally audio platform, students know ahead of time that they’re going to have a higher chance of understanding and comprehending what they need to read, and they are much more willing and ready to engage in their work.”  

The study compared student performance on the STAR assessment and the extent to which implementation of the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution showed correlations to reading level performance. The results were a breakthrough in literacy instruction success. Previously, educators in the Archdiocese of Denver could expect to improve reading levels among a student who struggles to learn, at .grade levels of improvement. When studying students who engaged with Learning Ally Audiobook Solution at rates indicative of frequency of reading, a typical student achieved double the rate of reading growth (.9).  

“The Zarlengo Foundation has provided Learning Ally for each of our schools for more than five years now,” said Chilelli. “I’m so grateful for the critical role the Zarlengo Foundation and Learning Ally has played in advancing the mission of our schools. Learning Ally provides all students, regardless of learning differences that might make reading more difficult, a chance to experience the beauty of reading literature, a chance to be formed with a sacramental and moral imagination through stories.”  

“We wanted to bring the entire Learning Ally Audiobook Solution program, with audiobooks, peer-to-peer mentoring, and teacher training to a whole school district in Colorado. We reached out to the Archdiocese of Denver, knowing that some of their schools have limited resources,” said Katie Zarlengo, Executive Director of the Zarlengo Foundation. “The teachers have been fantastic about embracing the program and really incorporating it into their classroom instruction, and for reading at home over the summer. It really opened up the world of reading to struggling readers.”  

“We worked with a team of champion educators who were able to deliver outstanding outcomes in terms of student achievement,” said Dr. Terrie Noland, CALP and VP of Literacy Initiatives at Learning Ally. “We are so grateful to our partners at the Denver Archdiocese and the Zarlengo Foundation, who have helped us to further our goals around equitable education.” 

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  


Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash