Episode 17 - Science at Scale: Using Research and Social Entrepreneurship to Improve Literacy Outcomes

Episode Summary
While the implementation of high quality, research-based literacy instruction benefits all students, schools must consider scalability and sustainability. In this episode, Magdalena Zavalia, co-founder of Intelexia, discusses the successful, scalable implementation of Aprendo Leyendo, a research-based literacy program and professional development methodology based on the PAF Reading Program. Using what she learned about the science of reading as well as her skills and experience in social entrepreneurship, Ms. Zavalia and her team transformed literacy outcomes for 430 teachers and 10,000 students in 70 schools across the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Ms. Zavalia explains how she navigated barriers for scalability including politics, cost, and resources and shares insights about unexpected challenges due to the pandemic. She offers expertise and experience in entrepreneurship and leadership, providing valuable lessons about the possibility, potential, and effectiveness of research-based reading instruction across all schools.

Top READ Bookmarks
Each episode, host Danielle Scorrano identifies key takeaways or “READ bookmarks.” 

1. Upon surveying of instruction across South and Latin America, Magdalena Zavalia discovered an incredible lack of research-based literacy instruction, particularly in her native country of Argentina.

“The concept of explicit, research-based instruction was not in the offering in [South and Latin America]… it’s a whole language continent.”

Teachers also face daily challenges related to curriculum, resources, and investment in professional development.

“The challenges teachers face in [Argentina] are titanic.”

You can also learn more about the state of research-based literacy instruction in Spanish-speaking countries around the world from Ms. Zavalia and Dr. Russell’s experience presenting at the 2020 DISFAM Congress.

2. Aprendo Leyendo is a multisensory, explicit, research-based reading instructional program and methodology for Spanish-speaking children, based on the PAF Reading Program.

Using direct instruction, the program incorporates fundamental reading skills like decoding, handwriting, morphology. In addition, it follows a deliberate, diagnostic sequence with opportunities for student practice and teacher feedback.

“It’s not about [the percentage of students] who have a language-based learning disability or dyslexia, it’s about better and more effective teaching strategies for all.”

In order to ensure success, investing in professional development and resources for teachers is crucial. Ms. Zavalia and her team have continuously remained committed to making instruction easier for teachers and their students, which has included ensuring teachers have enough quality resources to sustain instruction.

3. During the interview, Danielle cites Levin’s (2013) research on scaling up educational programs. You can read the full report sponsored by the National Education Policy Center, What Does it Take to Scale up Innovations.

Levin (2013) outlines five fundamental criteria for scaling up innovations in education:

1. Cost
2. Human Capacity
3. Infrastructure
4. Political Support
5. External factors

Intelexia’s work in Buenos Aires, Argentina provides an example of Levin’s (2013) criteria for scaling up innovations:

1. Political Support:

Zavalia and her team had to leverage political support from the local to national levels to implement educational reform, and this continues to be a challenge for further expansion.

"Political support is so important and it is one of the challenges for the future… it’s a huge problem in terms of continuity and change of policies in South America.”

2. Cost:

Cost has been a significant consideration for Zavalia and her team. Surprisingly, printing materials has been the main incurred cost. In addition, competition with technology for scalable solution has been one challenge that Zavalia and her team have had to navigate when seeking funding.

“Only if you have been in those 70 schools in Buenos Aires, where there is no connectivity… you’ll understand that to teach kids how to read, you don’t need an iPad.”

3. Human Capacity:

Investment in professional development, a key component of Aprendo Leyendo’s methodology, ensures sustainability in human capacity. From the beginning, Zavalia and her team sought to train teachers in methods supported by research to promote their knowledge and agency as well as reshape teacher beliefs about research-based reading instruction.

“[We seek to] arm teachers to go back into the classroom and immediately implement instruction.”

4. Key Lessons in Social Entrepreneurship

The overall success of Aprendo Leyendo in Buenos Aires illuminated key lessons in social entrepreneurship.

1. To implement an idea, it must be based in science, with the deep support and contributions from experts to bring the idea to life.
2. Use research to increase buy-in and shift mindsets. For example, seek funders with an understanding in the research or provide clear guidance in how the research informs the program.
3. Maintain an “I can mentality.”
4. Expect bumps and challenges in implementation and scalability. The pandemic forced Zavalia and her team to shift and reprioritize certain initiatives.
5. Continuously collect data and never be afraid to deviate and change to improve. Maintaining an open, learning mindset has ultimately proven to benefit the program and students.


Intelexia and Aprendo Leyendo  PAF Reading Program 
Dr. Russell and Magdalena Zavalia’s presentation
at the 2020 DISFAM Congress
Aprendo Leyendo and Haskins Global Literacy Hub

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READ Podcast is produced by The Windward School and The Windward Institute. READ is hosted by Danielle Scorrano.

About READ: READ, the Research Education ADvocacy Podcast connects you with prominent researchers, thought leaders, and educators who share their work, insights, and expertise about current research and best practices in fields of education and child development.
Note: All information and insights shared demonstrate the expertise and views of our guests.