Q&A: READ 180 Creator Reflects on 20 Years of Intervention

More than 30 years ago, Ted Hasselbring (pictured above), now Professor of Special Education, Emeritus, at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, embarked on a mission. He set out to research the use of technology for enhancing learning in students with mild disabilities and those at risk of school failure.

Hasselbring’s work culminated in the development of READ 180, for which he served as senior program author. READ 180, now celebrating its 20th year, stands as a leading blended learning reading intervention solution. Hasselbring recently spoke with Shaped about the origins of the program and how it has evolved over two decades.

Shaped: How would you say the intervention landscape has changed in the last 20 years?

Ted Hasselbring: I think there are a lot more programs out there than there were 20 years ago! And the technology has become much more sophisticated, so I think that's a positive. I also think teachers are much more comfortable with technology around intervention than they were when we first introduced it. 

S: How has READ 180 also changed in that time?

TH: Well, it’s a day-and-night difference! When we first started—when I think back, it's hilarious—all the videos were on CD-ROMs that the kids had to load in to view their video before they could even get started. The technology certainly was not as advanced as it is today. It was kind of clunky. At the time, it was state of the art. But with the actual program, the foundational principles are very much the same. Not a lot has changed in terms of those founding principles, which I think speaks to why it's been such a success. It was based on good educational principles and learning theory. And that has stood the test of time.

S: What was the research that drove the program in its developmental stage?

TH: Going back to the earliest beginnings, which was around 1980, I had a Radio Shack Model I computer that probably had less power than every cellphone out there today. But I had been a teacher of special-needs students and I was a professor—at that time I was at North Carolina State University, in special education. And there was a body of literature around best instructional practices in reading, math, and spelling for these struggling students. Basically what I did starting back then was take the instructional principles that were effective, and computerized them. No one had ever done that before.

Around 1980, I developed a computer program that would do adaptive instruction in spelling. Again, we were looking at special-needs students, but it could be used with anyone. That early research actually became the Spelling Zone in READ 180 years later. So it started way back when, around the best instructional principles that we knew, and I simply computerized them. After spelling, I did the same thing with math facts, and then eventually we went forward with READ 180.

S: You did a lot of research on the brain and how children learn. What's the most fundamentally fascinating or groundbreaking thing you discovered?

TH: There were multiple things that we found, but again, focusing on struggling learners, I felt that the whole issue of fluency was critical to their learning—not just learning but also their ability to perform well in any instructional domain, whether it's spelling, reading, math, whatever. And what we knew about good learners was that they develop fluency in those fundamental skills that they can then apply to higher-order learning, like reading for comprehension, or doing higher-order math or whatever. What I was noticing in special-needs students at the time was that fluency was not something they had acquired.

So that was what we really started looking at: the whole issue of fluency first, to develop fluency in those foundational skills. Then they could apply those fluent foundational skills to more complex tasks. So I would say fluency was a huge part of what we were doing, and that continues today.

The problem with a lot of curricula is that teachers are forced to move at a fairly brisk pace, and struggling learners often don’t reach the level of fluency that they need for those more difficult skills that they’re expected to master. 

S: How would you describe your feelings about the success of READ 180, and the fact that it's reached this milestone of 20 years? 

TH: Probably the best thing that happens to me, on a fairly regular basis, is that I will get an e-mail from a teacher, or sometimes even a student, talking about how it really has changed a student’s life. And luckily I’ve met a number of these students firsthand, and it almost brings tears to my eyes. All of us would like to have a positive impact on our students, and I've been lucky because with the multiplier effect of the technology, it’s happened to hundreds of thousands of students whose lives have really been changed as a result of that program. It’s really humbling to think about that.

S: Is there any particular student success story that comes to your mind that you can share? 

TH: There are many students who have become READ 180 all-stars over the years. The one that really sticks with me is a young lady who lost her family in the earthquake that devastated the Dominican Republic. As a result, she spent several years in a Dominican orphanage before she was adopted by a woman in the U.S. When she came to this country, she had virtually no education at all—very little schooling. Luckily, she went into a READ 180 classroom and became an avid reader. I mean, this girl was just amazing. I met her when she was in high school, and she was so poised and so confident. It was just breathtaking that she came from that background and was doing what she was doing. I'll never forget that.

S: What’s your involvement with READ 180 nowadays? 

TH: Typically what happens is that when there’s an upgrade, I would be brought in and the company would go over what they were doing to the program, and, I guess in some respects, would ask for my blessing.

But I would say that HMH has been true to the original research, and they really don't want to change everything, which I find gratifying.

S: Where do you see READ 180—and intervention—going in the future?

TH: Unfortunately, if you look at the national data, the NAEP data, there are still so many students in this country reading below grade level. It would be great if we didn’t need READ 180 and every student was reading on grade level. But I don't see that happening. I think there are always going to be kids that need that kind of intervention.

S: Do you think there are still many things that we have left to learn about how the brain works, and how kids learn? 

TH: For sure. I think we’ve barely scratched the surface. We do know a lot, but I don't see us stopping that arm of research anytime in the near future—or even the distant future. I think we'll continue to learn more about the human brain for decades to come.

S: That’s kind of exciting, isn't it?

TH: Oh, it’s very exciting! If I were starting my career over again, that's the area I would go into: neuroscience. That is the next frontier for education.

S: How much understanding of the brain and neuroscience did you have before you entered this realm?

TH: When I was going through school, there really wasn’t a lot of neuroscience—that just wasn't really a field back then. That was back in the early and mid-1970s. There was psychology and cognitive psychology, and that's how I got into it, through the cognitive psychology part of education. And it was the split between the Skinnerian behaviorists and the cognitives that really, I think, spawned the whole area of neuroscience that we have today. 

It’s amazing what we can do now. The technology and being able to do scans of the brain while people are learning and seeing which parts are being used and how they're being used. That was a dream back when I was in school. No one thought you could do that.

S: It's like science fiction come to life. 

TH: Yeah, and it'll only keep getting better and better.

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Learn more about READ 180 Universalwhich is celebrating 20 years of innovation and acceleration, and how it uses neuroscience to target areas of the brain that are integral to reading proficiency.