Episode # 48

Turning Students Into Capable Readers with Joel Kupperstein

January 18, 2024

About This Episode

On this episode, Kara and Caryn speak with Joel Kupperstein of Learning A-Z about how to build reading comprehension into more than just a foundational skill with students.


Joel Kupperstein

Joel has more than 25 years of leadership experience in curriculum and EdTech product development after beginning his career as an elementary school teacher. Before joining Learning A-Z, he was the Senior Vice President of Curriculum at Age of Learning, where he oversaw the planning and design of the company’s learning resources. Prior to that, he was Director of Product Management for PK-8 math intervention products at McGraw-Hill Education; Executive Editor for K-6 English Language Arts at Zaner-Bloser; Associate Publisher for K-5 ESL at National Geographic School Publishing; and Associate Director of PK-2 English Language Arts at Harcourt School Publishers, focusing on Early Childhood. He began his career teaching 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades in Santa Ana, California. He holds an MBA from Rollins College and a BA in Social Ecology from the University of California at Irvine.



Kara: Joining us today is Joel Cooperstein, senior vice president of product strategy for learning A to Z. So, Hey, Joel, thank you for joining us.

Joel Kupperstein: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be with you.

Kara: Yeah. And we’re curious now that you’re at A to Z, how did you even get into education to begin

Joel Kupperstein: with? Well, I only ever wanted to be a teacher growing up.

My, my mother was a math teacher back in the 1930s. My grandmother was a math teacher back in the 1930s. My mom, on the other side, was a kindergarten teacher. When I showed up and it’s just sort of in me. If you, if you’re a teacher, you just kind of know it. You don’t really choose it. You just kind of are.

And I figured out pretty early on [00:01:00] that that was for me. And so that’s what I studied to be a Todd elementary school for a little while. Much too short of a time, a little bit of time in upper elementary, four fifths combo, and then finished at third grade, which I love. I love third graders.

They’re a perfect, you love it. If you know, you know and just serendipitously found my way into print publishing many years ago. And then one door opens and leads to another, and I’ve been in publishing and educational technology for 25 plus years at this point having worked on early literacy materials during the No Child Left Behind era having worked on some math intervention stuff over the years.

I’ve seen the whole evolution into print from print into digital and where we are now. It’s been a ride.

Kara: Yeah, for sure. Ever evolving and ever changing. Yeah, which brings me to, [00:02:00] can you explain a little bit about the science of reading and the big hype about it? Because I feel like this is one of those things where it was a trend.

It fell out of trend and now it’s back in trend, but it wasn’t always called the science of reading.

Joel Kupperstein: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, there’s a semantic overlay and then there’s the reality of what it is people are talking about. And the underlying point is that there is some really robust, important and useful research that teaches us how kids are best taught to read.

So the science of reading is really the science of teaching reading. What are the most efficacious ways to teach kids? Literacy skills. And as far as it being a trend or not a trend. I mean, I mentioned that when I kind of came into this work, it was right around the time. No child left behind in the early 2000s.

And that it was the same premise. There’s all this [00:03:00] research out there. We should follow it. We shouldn’t be guessing. We can actually know what’s most effective when it comes to pedagogical approaches for kids. And it took hold pretty firmly then. And then, like a lot of things, gets subjectively interpreted and implemented.

And so it diffused a little bit and it didn’t really have as, as much of an uptake as we might have hoped. And there was still a little bit of disparity or interpretation methodologies. And here we are 20 years later where the, the point is still the same. Don’t forget there is research out there that helps us inform how we teach kids most effectively when it comes to literacy.

And it’s a response to, I mean, a whole bunch of things. It’s one of those. Is that there are some methodologies that have been pretty prominent that didn’t follow that, those the, the findings from research and we want teachers to make sure they’re doing that. In addition the pandemic shed this gigantic light on all aspects of, [00:04:00] of education in the United States and around the world and really made us even more hyper aware of what’s working and what’s not working.

Then, then we had been, I think And, you know, refocusing us on the research and making sure that we’re following these best practices. It’s important to note, though, that science of research is not a program and it’s not a single pedagogy. It’s an idea that there is scientific research that informs the best way to teach reading, and we should follow it.

And it changes all the time, and it will continue to change and it’s going to vary with kids needs. To some degree, and that’s where it becomes nuanced and, and tricky and very skill dependent on the teacher’s part. But there, it’s, it’s just that, make sure that what you’re doing is grounded in research.

Kara: So where does EdTech do you think fit into this picture of literacy and reading? [00:05:00]

Joel Kupperstein: Ed Tech’s responsibility is the enablement and empowerment of teachers to bring those techniques forward into their classroom with as much efficiency and precision as possible. And those are two carefully chosen words, efficiency and precision.

Precision is the idea that Technology enables teachers to have pretty exact information about what kids know, don’t know, and are ready to learn at any given moment, or can anyway. And it can also help teachers know what to do with that information through the data it collects and visualizes and reports out.

Efficiency has to do with time, you know, because kids are changing constantly. So, you know, there’s no more dynamic environment in a classroom as you guys know, and I’m sure all the listeners now. And so being able to respond to those needs with precision and efficiency speed matters a lot.

So rather than having to wait. Some number of hours or days or even [00:06:00] longer to respond to what a student is indicating she needs to know or is ready to learn. We can know much faster than that by being tech enabled. So, in a nutshell, educational technology’s job is to make teachers incredible. It’s, it’s not to replace them and it’s not to provide a proxy or anything like that.

It, teachers need to know and most already know what it takes to be amazing, to have the outcomes that they desire to have. A tech is tools. You know, it’s the resources that we can offer in content, functionality and features to, to, to empower them to be better, faster. And it’s in many ways, not that different from everybody who tries to participate in this market.

We have, we have a particular skill set competency that makes us uniquely qualified to be an essential part of every classroom in that. We have created really [00:07:00] fantastic, high quality literacy experiences, reading experiences for kids that enable them to always have something that they’re interested in, that they are familiar with or want to chase, as well as supporting teachers best practices.

So while there are some companies who focus their educational technology on unmediated experiences between the student and the screen learning A Z is about the teacher and giving the teacher resources that she can employ, deploy as she needs to meet the specific needs of each one of her students.

Whether that’s working with them as an entire class with small groups of kids or giving them independent work she has those choices as opposed to A piece of software that sits in the back of the classroom and you tell the kids go spend 20 minutes on that And it’ll do whatever it does and you might look at the reports later that’s more of a unmediated experience for kids and we’re [00:08:00] all about empowering the teacher.

The teacher really is in the center of, of our way of thinking about driving outcomes in classrooms.

Kara: So is the focus differentiation so that they are able to select kind of what each learner is experiencing?

Joel Kupperstein: Yeah. So, I mean, that’s the ultimate goal of every classroom is to give every child. What they need at the right time, the right resource at the right time for the right kid.

And that’s the ultimate challenge of teaching educational technology resources. Must empower that. And you know, maybe you’d say that the ideal scenario in the classroom is that every child has the attention of the teacher every minute of every day. We know that’s not feasible, but technology can enable the teacher to have a lot more knowledge in more moments of the day of what each child knows, doesn’t know, and is ready to learn.

And that’s what, that’s what we aim to do. And yes, ultimately, [00:09:00] that’s differentiation. We know that whole group instruction is useful for introducing ideas and providing modeling, but it’s not the best way to get each individual student to the learning outcomes you’re, you’re pursuing. You really do, at some point, have to get in there and differentiate.

What it is you’re, you’re instructing them with, what they’re practicing on, what you’re assessing them on. So Learning A to Z is the company. Our flagship product is Reading A to Z which is a suite of products, which include RAS Plus and Read A to Z and It’s it’s a suite. It’s a library of resources that that that is in about 30 percent of elementary classrooms in the country.

One other thing I’ll say about that is at the center of all this. We didn’t say this earlier, but the science of reading. And teaching reading is about making meaning of text. I think a little bit that we’ve been drawn by the shiny thing of foundational skills of phonics and [00:10:00] phonological awareness and decoding, which are essential parts of getting to being proficient with literacy.

But the goal, the, the thing we’re all chasing is students ability to make meaning of what they read. Comprehension otherwise. And that’s been the sweet spot for Learning A to Z and the Reading A to Z products since we were born. It’s all about enabling teachers to drive meaning making of text for their students.

Efficiently with engagement and empowerment, confidence and inspiration, all these things like we try to drive the light bulb moments for kids, you know, those moments when they come running up to you and tug on your sleeve and say, guess what I just learned? Or did you know? Did you know? Did you know?

Like, that’s the thing we want to scale. That’s the thing that we think is, is the ultimate power of the classroom. And it’s the thing just about every teacher I’ve ever met says is the reason they went into this in the first place.

Kara: Yeah, for sure. Because is. To those moments are oftentimes what the kids remember [00:11:00] throughout their learning time as well.

The things they discover on their own.

Joel Kupperstein: Yeah, for sure. Whether it’s on their own or prompted or whether they can’t tell the difference, but it doesn’t really matter. Once that lightbulb goes on, it’s a virtuous cycle. And kids who See themselves as capable readers tend to read more and kids that read more tend to become more capable readers.

And that’s that cycle that we want to engender. And it comes through building knowledge background knowledge for kids so that they can comprehend what they’re reading. It comes through discussion and close reading and tapping into interests whether it’s narrative text or expository text, all those things will appeal to kids at different times in their, in their days and in their lives.

But that’s what we’re after. It’s that meaning making of text and the science of reading is squarely about that. And there is research about driving meaning making and there is research about. The most important ingredients in that recipe [00:12:00] and it’s not just limited to foundational skills.


Kara: Are there any sort of interest type surveys connected to any of the products?

Joel Kupperstein: So the, the product is organized. To make content discoverable by topic and by theme and so that, you know, whether the teacher is teaching a unit on some topic or reading as a whole group a story on some topic she can find related related [00:13:00] topics at grade level for their students that they can, she can choose to assign or the kids can choose to find to keep that thread pulled through really tightly.

Because there are just so many resources, I mean, we’ve spent the last 20 years building up this library of content. So there’s some amazing amazing resources and they’re both in quantity and quality.

Kara: I love that. Fiction and nonfiction and I’m sure. And

Joel Kupperstein: all

Kara: the spaces in between. In between.

Joel Kupperstein: Yes.

Yeah. When you, when you go down the levels and you go down to easier levels of reading. There’s a lot of genre bending, you know, there’s things that sound like expository texts, but are narrative and vice versa. We certainly want kids to be well versed in the elements of those genres so that they can kind of understand the distinctions between them and set purposes for reading and so forth.

And you’ll find the entire gamut in our collection for

Kara: sure. Well, and ultimately too, you want them to discover kind of what they enjoy. What [00:14:00] types of books or texts they enjoy

Joel Kupperstein: reading at any given moment you know, when you’re around young kids, you know, that those things, they change and they spike and they have, and they flow and, you know, you’re always more successful at reading about something you’re interested in at any given moment.

We always want to have those points of entry for kids, positive learning out from outcomes for kids in classrooms can’t be optimized, can’t be maximized without outstanding teachers. And so we have a responsibility at Learning A to Z as a company, as a society, as policy makers to, to support teachers excellence, to give them what they need in terms of the resources and the training and, and the, the backing, you know, the support and encouragement to be all of that.

So that’s one thing. And the other thing is eyes on the prize for what literacy really is. You know, as somebody who cares deeply about this and has for a long time and it was [00:15:00] a little bit similar to when, when we saw the no child left behind initiative and everything related to it come out 20 plus years ago, where a focus on systematic explicit phonics instruction was.

new ish to some people, not to everybody, and therefore became an area of focus. And well, it has to be, there’s no doubt about that. I want to be really clear about it. It’s possible to over rotate. It’s possible to lose sight of what the real goal is. And decoding is a critical skill for. Just about every single reader, especially reader of English.

But it is not the ultimate goal. If all we do is create fantastic decoders, we have not done our job. And I, I want to make sure I’m doing everything I can, that my company is doing everything it can, that our field is doing everything it can. To keep eyes on the prize, and that’s the, the goal of having kids become excellent and making meaning of the text that they read [00:16:00] everywhere.

So this isn’t just about storybooks. This is not even just about books. This is about all the texts that they encounter in the world. And technology being what it is, media being what it is, most of the reading that we do isn’t in storybooks. I, you know, it’s probably pretty obvious to people how important it is to be able to comprehend the stuff that isn’t, you know, the information you encounter online, the information you encounter in other areas of media it’s a, it’s a big job, it’s an important job, it’s kind of a mission critical job and we, we can’t, we can’t lose sight of that as the As the, the ultimate goal for literacy.

Those are the two big things. Teachers in the middle and it’s about comprehension. Yeah.

Kara: Which are definitely. All important because I think too, with a lot of the talk with AI, you know, teachers get nervous.

Caryn: People are scared they’re going to lose their jobs, right?[00:17:00] We’re going to become obsolete.

Joel Kupperstein: Yeah. We’re thinking a lot about AI lately and what it can do and not do. I’ve had a couple opportunities to talk to folks about it, and AI is fundamentally an automation tool. It enables processes like content development to be automated, just like lots of other things in our own histories have become automated.

One extreme example I like to use is, I don’t need to know how to turn butter anymore. Got done in such a way that I can get that done for me pretty quickly, and I don’t need to know how to do it. Did we lose something as a society as a result of that? Arguably. I don’t mean to diminish what AI can automate, but in principle, it’s, it’s kind of similar.

It still requires brilliant, critical thinking to decide what it is you want to ask the AI to do to prompt it to do those things, and then to make sure it did the right thing. So there’s the before and after. What a generative anyway can do for us that we’re not anywhere [00:18:00] close to replacing with technology.

And so we have to look at we have to look at just like any other technology as an empowerment tool and harness it rather than than as a threat. I mean, in my opinion. You’re sort of tilting at windmills if you try to buy it and it can be a really powerful thing. I get asked every once in a while, do you think it’s going to allow kids to cheat on their assignments?

And my answer is, if you give them an assignment on which they can use AI to do the work, then yes. But don’t do that. Make sure you draft your assignment carefully so that AI is either intentionally incorporated or can’t be. It’s sort of like If you’re doing fact fact families or, or time tests in math and you tell kids they can use their calculators.

Well, that, that doesn’t help you to accomplish your purpose at all. And obviously nobody would do that. The same things hold with any technology, including generative AI. Don’t, don’t ask your kids to write an essay about the life cycle of a frog for homework. Unless you tell [00:19:00] them explicitly, I want you to use AI to do it, do it three times and then decide which one you like best and why that’s, that’s, you know, kind of a way you can incorporate the technology and still see a valuable learning objective attached to it.


Kara: exactly. It’s about building those like higher order skills, like the critical thinking and the evaluating.

Joel Kupperstein: Automate content creation in some cases for kids in schools, and we’ll have to get to a place where we realize when, how, why we want to allow that to be the case and when not, and will we lose some skills along the way?

Possibly, and we have to decide as a society what we want to do about that. It’s like reading an analog clock or Roman numerals. You know, these things are also writing in cursive in some cases. They’re going away, and are they things we can’t afford to lose or not? Those are the discussions we’re having.

Kara: All great concepts and takeaways. [00:20:00]