Equity Grants Stirring Literary Adventures at Sylvia Mendez

“Playaways are really interesting,” professed Amir, a 4th grade student at Sylvia Mendez Elementary. “It’s like you’re going inside an adventure!” 

What is a Playaway?

What is a playaway? The Berkeley Public Schools Fund wondered the same thing when we received a grant proposal earlier this year from Sylvia Mendez’ 4th grade teacher Erika Englund. Playaways are essentially easy-to-use, pre-loaded audiobooks. When the audiobook is accompanied by a hard copy text and headphones, they make for powerful package of literacy learning. Ultimately, the Schools Fund awarded Englund a $5000 LEARNING for Equity grant to purchase 70 playaways with accompanying texts for the Sylvia Mendez fourth grade. 

“It’s been a huge success so far!” wrote Englund. “The kids love listening and it has clearly added to the positive energy and habits of reading and enjoying books.” These coveted literacy tools have created a buzz around reading which is especially important for struggling readers. Playaways can be used solo, similar to an audiobook, or they can be used with the accompanying text. Described one student named Astrid, “reading can get tiring so playaways are nice. You can just read along for a really long time because you can listen to the book for as long as the book goes!”

So Many Reasons to Love Playaways

For Englund, the playaways provide powerful access to high quality texts for struggling readers. With grant funds, Englund was able to purchase playaway copies of Island of the Blue Dolphins, a fourth grade California history-themed classic. This meant that their readers who weren’t quite ready for unsupported reading could still access the story with support from the audiobook. And this brings additional benefits, “Since the students are so engaged with the book,” described Englund, “I am able to get high engagement on other challenging literature and writing elements of our assignments.”

And the fourth graders, too, had long lists of reasons to love playaways!  Of critical importance to the students was hearing fluent English readers bring printed words to life. One fourth grader, Amir, emphasized the power of this audio learning, “It makes you practice the words and gives you a bigger idea of how to pronounce the words.” Another classmate, Camila, explained that since “Spanish is actually my first language, it really helps me to hear the words and see how they are spelled.” 

Students also praised the variety of playaways on hand in Englund’s library. “We have a lot of them in our classroom so it’s easy to find something that you think you would like,” noted Astrid. “Everytime I listen, I like it a lot.” And Leo feels the same. “When you’re done with a playaway, you go to the corner and pick out another one. They’re soooo good that it takes forever to actually pick one!”

In addition, educators and students alike remark on the high quality reading performance. In describing the “When Stars Are Scattered” playaway, Englund noted, “The full cast production is spectacular, and really brings the book to life in a different way.” Students agree, including Leo, who noted that, “The people who talk in them are always better than I thought they would be.” 

Still other playaway features were notable to the students, including the convenience of automatically saving your spot in a text, the flexibility to choose your own reading speed, and of course, the  ‘sneak (audio) preview’ of the next book in a series.

Reading Happening Everywhere and Anywhere

In a strategic attempt to extend reading time, Englund offers playaways for mostly at-home use. And has been wildly successful so far! 50 of their 54 fourth graders have taken playaways home this winter, and many of those students – English Learners – are already onto their sixth or even tenth book!

During a recent visit to Sylvia Mendez, the Schools Fund learned that playaways can be found in the hands of 4th graders:

  • “On the bus to school”
  • “Before bed”
  • “While doing my chores”
  • “On long car rides so I don’t get bored”
  • “In the other room, when my brother is having a hard time and I want to muffle the noise”
  • “Alone in my room”
  • “While walking to school”
  • “I also let my brother listen to them.”

Englund even reported that some of their parents complain they can’t wrestle the playaways out of their kids’ hands – a good problem for any literacy teacher to have! (Note to families: playaways are not connected to the internet, do not have a screen, and are totally safe for students to use independently for long periods of time!)

Real Reading Growth

With all those students spending so much time “in a book,” are the playaways at Sylvia Mendez having the desired impact? Englund says yes, and more! The Playaway devices have given students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) access to books and language in a whole new way during the school day. Englund also reported that three of their students who were reading below grade level really got into playaways at home. These students prefer listening while reading along in the book, and are now consuming book after book. One of those students moved from a second grade reading level at the beginning of the year to a fourth grade level by winter, according to two different BUSD reading assessments. And the student identified the playaway listening as part of his success! The Schools Fund looks forward to more growth findings at the end of the year.

The Berkeley Public Schools Fund honors Erika Englund for thinking outside the box (and the classroom!) in creating a real buzz around reading at Syvlia Mendez this year. Englund acknowledges the effort, “It’s been some significant work for me to set up and manage the check out system for both classes, but from what I see, the energy I put in is producing huge positive gains, and so it’s very worthwhile.”