TFS - Spring 2024

Q&A: Machelle Denison, Chief Executive Officer, Strong Start® Charitable Organization

The FlipSide is published as a voice and resource for Canada’s teachers and educators. At times we come across unique programs that we find intriguing and that we believe can enhance an individual’s ability to learn and thrive. 

We recently sat down with Machelle Denison, CEO of Strong Start® to learn more about the programs they offer to help children learn to read. 

    1. Can you give us a brief overview of Strong Start®?
      Strong Start is a beautiful example of community rallying around its children to help them learn to read. We are a registered Canadian Charity which began in 2001 as a community project, in one school in Kitchener, Ontario. Today we are a thriving growing organization that offers programs for children 6 months to 9 years of age in hundreds of locations across Ontario.  We work in partnership with school boards, schools, community centres, EarlyON centres , libraries and other agencies. To-date, nearly 57,000 children have benefitted from Strong Start programs and we are poised to grow.
    2. What are the primary goals and objectives of the Strong Start programs?
      Strong Start’s programs are focused on helping young children learn to read. We provide coaching, instruction, learning materials and experiences to help in the early development of foundational language and literacy skills. We work with program partners to deliver our programs and mobilize and train thousands of volunteers to help us.
    3. I believe there are a number of programs. Are you able to explain to our readers what services and resources the programs offer to children and to their families?
      Strong Start offers three programs as well as free downloadable at-home resources for families. All Strong Start programs are free to families. The Baby Connections® program provides parents/caregivers with a kit of quality learning materials including books, a sensory toy, full-album music download, printed resources and coaching over 4-6 sessions. Parents learn how to use the resources to provide the meaningful face-to-face interactions that will help their baby develop the neuro connections that lay the pathways to language and literacy. They make a deeper emotional connection with their baby as attachment grows through these interactions.

      The second program is Get Ready for School™. This program is for children aged 3 and 4 and delivered in a community centre setting over 44 two-hour classes from January to June, just prior to Year 1 kindergarten.  Trained instructors deliver a curriculum that helps children develop phonological and phonemic awareness, letter-sound knowledge, vocabulary, and classroom readiness behaviours, including self-regulation.  This program targets children primarily from low-income backgrounds and children who are learning English as an additional language to give them the skills for a successful transition to school.

      Our flagship program is Letters, Sounds and Words™ which supports children in Year 2 Kindergarten, grades 1 and 2, and Multilingual Language Learners up to grade 4.  It is really for that early reader, who is struggling with the foundations and needs extra practice to give them a boost. This program is delivered by trained Volunteer Coaches, during the instructional day which ensures there are no barriers for families to access this support for their children. I believe this program will be of the greatest interest to your readers.
    4. How does the Letters, Sounds and Words program support development of strong reading skills?
      This 10-week program is game and activity-based and has been designed to provide children with targeted 1:1 support from a caring, trained community volunteer. In their 30-minute sessions, the children have fun learning and practicing the foundational literacy skills that are needed to be able to read. Strong Start provides community volunteers with four hours of training before they work with a child. The program and its delivery are very prescribed and align with the Science of Reading. It has four Strands. The Letters Strand helps the child learn the names of the letters; the Sounds Strand helps them learn the sound each letter makes. The Building Words Strand helps the child learn sound blending to help them decode and encode words.  The Words Strand provides practice decoding words alone and in sentences, building automaticity over time. It is recommended that a child be in 2 or 3 strands at the same time.
    5. Are there specific criteria or enrollment requirements for the program participants?
      The children in the Letters, Sounds and Words program are selected by their classroom teacher. Their teacher chooses which 2-3 Strands they will be in, based on their individual needs and as well what time of day, would work best for them to work with their volunteer. All children in the program participate with the signed consent of their parents.
    6. Can you tell us about the approach used by the Letters, Sounds and Words program to promote literacy skills?
      This program makes learning and reading FUN! The 62 games and activities were designed by experts and appeal to all learning styles. It not only helps build children’s foundational literacy skills, but they also build their confidence and belief in what they can do. The children make an important social-emotional connection with their volunteer over their 10 weeks together as they experience the one-on-one attention and encouragement from their Coach. The goal is for both the child and volunteer to have a positive experience.  Strong Start even provides both with a celebration certificate and little gift.
    7. How do families connect with, and become involved with the program?
      Do opportunities exist for family/parent engagement, education, and participation? In the Baby Connections program, the parents/caregivers participate in the program.  In the Get Ready for School program, parents attend 4 meetings over the 22 weeks.  They learn about what is happening in the classroom and how they can support their child’s learning at home. The program also provides some take-home learning materials that the families can keep and use. In the Letters, Sounds and Words program, parents receive a Reading Every Day resource to promote reading at home. They can also become Volunteer Coaches where they will receive four hours of training in preparation for supporting a child in the program.  These new skills can be used with their own children and grandchildren at home.  This program provides valuable training and experience for pre-service teachers and others contemplating or pursuing a career working with children.
    8. How effective are the programs in the schools, and how is the program’s success measured?
      All three of our programs include measurement. After completing the Baby Connections program participants complete and evaluation. We have found that 91% of participants/caring adults indicate that they have changed their literacy habits as the result of the program. Children in Get Ready for School participate in pre- and post- assessments that includes one standardized test. On average, over only 4 months, they make an 8-month increase in their vocabulary with 31% making a full year developmental gain. In Letters, Sounds and Words, the children participate in a pre- and post-assessment, the gains are measured and reported back to the school and school board. The Volunteer Coach uses the pre-assessment data to customize where the program starts for each child participant. When they play the games, they include game pieces for the letters and sounds the child knows and build from there. For over 20 years, our results consistently show that 95% of the children in the program make a substantial gain in their literacy skills. We also gather stories and testimonials of the difference the programs have made for children. It is so rewarding for our volunteers and donors to know that their gifts of time and treasure are having such a positive impact for young child and for their future.
    9. Is there any other information that you would like to share with our readers to create more awareness to ensure the programs become more accessible?
      Strong Start is in an exciting, unique position right now. We can offer the Letters, Sounds and Words program to more schools and communities in Ontario and in Canada.  Through a generous grant from TD Ready Commitment and an anonymous donor, we can implement the program in 750 more schools! It is truly their gift, ready to be received. We can bring more capacity to schools and educators to help them help more children develop their foundational literacy skills. Strong Start programs align with the Science of Reading and are very easy to implement.  All resources, learning materials and training are provided by Strong Start Charitable Organization.  We would love to hear from your readers! Please see our ad on page XX of the CAP Journal to connect with us directly and learn more about our high-impact programs and how to become a partner.

    Machelle Denison, Chief Executive Office, Strong Start® Charitable Organization

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