Word Detectives crack the case of child literacy

A Word Detectives student uses a magnifying glass to inspect a word during an activity at the Northeastern University summer reading program. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Take a stroll around the Boston campus any weekday morning this July and you might notice some Northeastern students who look a whole lot younger than you’d expect.

You’re not seeing things. A group of children between the ages of 7 and 11 years old are here as part of a month-long literacy camp called Word Detectives where they take reading comprehension classes and play games around Centennial Common.

“It makes a huge difference to have them on campus,” says Sarah Young-Hong, clinic director of Northeastern’s Speech-Language and Hearing Center. She helps run the camp, which was remote last summer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Learning to read is really interactive, and it’s much easier to keep their attention and help them when you are physically present,” she says.

Run by faculty, reading specialists, and speech-language pathology graduate students, Word Detectives serves students from second to seventh grade who are reading below grade level. The program helps them improve through intensive phonics lessons and reading workshops.

The half-day camp breaks students into small groups where they receive two hours of reading lessons per day before they all head outside for an activity break. On a recent Thursday, students played a game similar to tag called “I’m a shark.

“Everyone who can hear me, put their hands on their head!” Hannah Pandey told students in an effort to grab their attention. Pandey, who then launched into an explanation of the game, is one of the many staffers on hand keeping an eye on the kids during lessons and activities.

“The activities give them a chance to grab a snack and reset before they go back to lessons,” says Young-Hong. Plus, the fun atmosphere is part of what keeps the children engaged. The program has themes for each week of camp, including a detective week, a nod to the name of the program that helps students inspect text and figure out words they might have trouble recognizing.

The lessons involve small group instruction using two evidence-based literacy programs, says Young-Hong. The Wilson Reading System teaches children about word structure and how to approach unfamiliar words. RAVE-O reading intervention curriculum helps them break down words so they can learn their meanings and grammatical functions. 

The lessons are customized based on the students’ learning level, says Young-Hong. Word Detective has run for the past three years, and she says one of the biggest rewards is seeing kids gain confidence over the four-week course.

“You can really see them get more comfortable with reading,” says Young-Hong. Another benefit, she adds, is the group of 20 or more kids get to interact with students who are facing the same difficulties.

“Often at their school they are the only student facing these issues. Here they get to see they’re not alone,” she says.

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