Literacy Director Julie Christman Helps Make Reading Fun for Pinellas County Youth

Imagine a world filled with codes you just couldn’t seem to crack… For far too many kids in under-resourced communities, this is a difficult reality. Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast (BGCS) Director of Literacy Julie Christman’s life-long goal is to make literacy attainable to kids who are most in need and to help teachers successfully teach reading. Christman’s program, Unlock Reading, gives Club kids the keys to quickly catch up in reading.

Unlock Reading is a three-pronged, incentivized, blended-learning program comprised of individualized intervention, personalized online learning, and chilling with books. This hands-on, disguised-learning approach is based on years of research and seeing firsthand how classrooms are not always equipped with the materials kids need to learn reading skills. Unlock Reading provides kids with experiences that don’t quite sound or look like school.

“We strive to hook the kids into believing they can be readers, so we watch our language!” Christman says wryly.

“We steer away from saying silent reading, test, time to work. Instead, we say chill with books, fitness check, come play a game with me!”

Christman was a literacy product developer and designed most of the activities her teachers use to teach phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, and comprehension. “Kids love time with our dedicated teachers because they think they’re just playing fun games, yet they’re accelerating their growth in reading skills.” Teachers carefully select games based on each child’s data.

Let’s Go Learn (LGL) is used for members’ online curriculum. LGL provides diagnostic assessments that generate a customized game path of padlocks or lessons for each child. LGL pinpoints needed skills to maximize learning time.

“Many of our kids are one to three years behind so they have no time to waste,” Christman says.

This intrinsically motivating program allows kids to earn bronze-, silver- and gold-level mastery as they unlock locks.

Kids who participate in Unlock Reading just one to four months grow an average of one year in reading skills, and some kids grow more. Christman says, “Directors see the positive change as Clubs foster a more literate culture. Kids are choosing to chill with books, and we see far fewer behavior incidences.” Christman adds, “Many of our kids, for the first time in their lives, see themselves as readers. To see their confidence explode is so fulfilling.

All Clubs are filled with culturally responsive books—"Books that look like our kids and have topics that interest them,” says Christman. This has been a hit—kids cannot resist these books. Teachers use engaging decodable books with activities which follow a skills scope and sequence to accelerate readers.

Unlock Reading helps bridge the literacy gap by arming students with the materials and support needed to succeed, including take-home books. “Many of our members’ households have fewer than five books, so we encourage families to select free books to build their own collections.” Christman shares.

“We always enjoy updating families on progress.” Christman tells kids: “It’s not your fault reading has been hard for you, and we’re going to catch you up by playing games!” Christman tells families: “It’s not your fault reading’s been hard for your child. You’re in good hands, and your child is having fun learning to read here.”

As a result of Unlock Reading’s excellent outcomes in three original Clubs, funds were awarded to expand the program to benefit eight Clubs. This high-value learning opportunity is available to our members at no additional charge.

If you would like to support BGCS’ literacy program, please consider: donating culturally responsive books; volunteering as a reading buddy; and providing financial support for prizes and special treats.