SACRAMENTO, Calif — With California confronting the lowest literacy rate in the country, the state’s Department of Education is partnering with the technology company Footsteps2Brilliance on a new bilingual digital reading and writing initiative. Available for English and Spanish learners, the online program is free to all Californians effective Wednesday.

What You Need To Know

  • Footsteps2Brilliance on a new bilingual digital reading and writing initiative

  • It is available for English and Spanish learners

  • It gamifies learning with 500 bilingual activities, from interactive books to games to songs

  • Footsteps2Brilliance donated $27 million to the California Department of Education to enable its use free statewide

“When students learn to read, they can learn anything,” State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said during a virtual press conference announcing the new partnership. “And when students don’t learn to read by third grade, we know the risk is greater that they may drop out of school and end up in the criminal justice system.” 

Footsteps2Brilliance is a technology company that was created 11 years ago to level the playing field for all children by providing families with the bilingual resources and services they need to prepare their children to read and write by the time they enter kindergarten. A system that gamifies learning with 500 bilingual activities, from interactive books to games to songs, all of its tools can be accessed online or through an app that can be used without internet service. 

According to Thurmond, engaging with the program 15 minutes each day for eight weeks can improve a student’s reading skills by an entire grade level. Already used by 42,000 classrooms and millions of students globally, Footsteps2Brilliance donated $27 million to the California Department of Education to enable its use free statewide.

“This will be a game changer for the state of California. We have never offered this anywhere in the world. In addition, this will be a model for the nation,” said Dr. Gregory Spencer. A former school dropout and gang leader in Oakland who became a school superintendent and principal, he is now the vice president of Footsteps2Brilliance. 

“As an organization, we believe in one thing, and that’s making sure that our children are on a pathway to lifelong success,” he said. “This is a preemptive strike against illiteracy before our children come to school.”

California has an adult literacy rate of 76.9%, according to the nonpartisan World Population Review. That means one in four residents age 15 and older cannot read or write a simple sentence, making it the least literate state in the country. 

The Review found that 35% of people with low English literacy skills in the United States are white, 23% are Black, 34% are Hispanic and 8% are other ethnicities. At least some of the low literacy results from being born outside the U.S. and being non-native speakers, especially among the Hispanic population.

California also has the second highest prison population in the country, following Texas, according to the World Population Review. About 70% of the inmates in U.S. prisons cannot read above a fourth-grade level. Two-thirds of students who do not read proficiently by the end of fourth-grade end up in prison or on welfare, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. 

Critics of the California education system point to a long history of underinvestment in public schools, coupled with growing income and cultural disparities. By making learning fun, and putting it in hands of families, the California Department of Education and Footsteps2Brilliance hope “we can help mitigate some of the issues that we sadly continue to see throughout this nation and throughout this state,” Spencer said. 

The 500 books and games in the Footsteps2Brillince program are organized by grade level, from pre-kindergarten to the third grade. Logging onto the website, young students and their families can learn to read with interactive books that sound out each word of a story when the cursor is placed over it, or narrate the whole thing in its entirety like a storyteller, in both English and Spanish. 

Learners can also click on the images that accompany those stories for animation and sound effects and record themselves reading and singing along.

“Kids are laughing, giggling, having fun, but they’re learning at the same time,” Spencer said of the system, that also caters to individual learning styles and the subjects they’re most interested in, including math, science and technology. 

“This really builds on the effort that we’ve announced to make sure that all students learn to read by third grade,” Thurmond said.

The 2022-2023 state budget includes $250 million for the California Department of Education to train and hire literacy coaches and reading specialists at high-needs schools.

“We are trying to build a comprehensive approach for addressing literacy in the state,” Thurmond said. “There have been many, many efforts initiated at different times. We intend to approach this in a comprehensive way to build strategy and capacity to help the state of California address literacy.”