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Reshaping Reading

With their new app — launched in the pandemic — two alums give teachers a tool to identify struggling readers and provide personalized support
Drew Madson and Steve Askar
Drew Madson (left) and Steve Askar meet — six feet apart — as they work to launch Readlee
Photo: Courtesy of Drew Madson and Steve Askar

As a high school history teacher, Drew Madson, Ed.M.’20, could never be sure at what level his students were completing and absorbing the readings as he had never heard most of them read aloud. Students would claim to read at a certain level, only to have them come up short on assignments and class discussions. 

During Madson’s classroom teaching experience, one ESL student, who was several years behind in reading, approached him and said he was good at reading. Despite the student’s claims, Madson says. “I realized that I had never heard him read. So, I said, 'Why don’t you go to the hallway, take out your phone, and record a voice memo.'”  

After that suggestion, Madson noticed that the student seemed more confident and prepared for class, and now he could clearly see where the student was struggling. This was a lightbulb moment that led to the creation of Readlee, a learning app that gauges student reading levels by having them read aloud into their personal devices. As students complete their assignments, teachers receive automated and actionable literacy data that then informs their teaching.

Madson brought his idea to HGSE where he met Steve Askar, Ed.M.’20, who would later become the company’s co-founder. Their teaching backgrounds and common interest in creating solutions for low-income students drew Madson and Askar to one another, and they often found themselves partnered for group projects, many that were centered on entrepreneurship and educational leadership. The day Askar officially joined Readlee’s team as a co-founder, Harvard, unfortunately, shut down. 

Despite the challenges of launching a venture in a pandemic, Readlee continued growing through the spring of 2020, receiving funding through the HGSE Education Entrepreneurship Summer Fellowship and the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching, launching a pilot program, and securing a fellowship to help scale the project. Readlee recently won the grand prize at Milken-Penn GSE Business Plan Competition in which more than 200 companies worldwide participated this year. 

Madson and Askar spoke about how Readlee came to life, received recognition, and impacted thousands of learners across the United States during the pandemic.

When did you first realize there was a need for an app like Readlee? 
Madson: After seeing the confidence in my students who started reading aloud, I realized the need for a learning app that allows students to read aloud, share voice notes with their teachers, and receive feedback. I came to HGSE to develop this. 

Askar: From an early age when my family moved from Iran, a central part of my story is how I relate to my siblings and the privilege I had with my name. A big part of my why was no matter what your accent sounds like, what your reading background or skin color is, you should be able to access opportunities. Readlee is allowing that — allowing anyone anywhere to log in, read aloud, and get feedback. 

What were some challenges and learnings for Readlee during the pandemic? 
Madson: We conducted a case study with a classroom in Denver to really answer whether Readlee would improve outcomes. We found that despite the pandemic, students who used Readlee outperformed their peers on standardized exams. We were concerned this would be called a “pandemic product” by some investors and asked ourselves, “Will schools use this when students go back to school?” I think they absolutely will because it goes back to our core value — meaningful reading practice. 

Askar: The pandemic heightened the urgency and awareness of the problem we were solving. Two-thirds of Americans are behind grade-level proficiency in reading. We had a gut-feeling that this would be exacerbated during the pandemic. The pandemic made us reflect on who we are trying to serve. We want to celebrate the voices of all students, especially those who have been marginalized. 

What are some challenges you face right now? 
Madson: Equity and outcomes are at the heart of our values, so a big challenge is staying true to those when we are working with multiple players like school leaders, investors, and teachers. Another challenge, and learning along the way, is trusting yourself. As a teacher, I have come to realize that you eventually discover your craft and the core part of who you are and how you teach. Similarly, trusting our identity at Readlee has allowed us to express ourselves to expand our business. 

Askar: It comes back to understanding students and teachers better. Even though we are both teachers, we still spend a lot of time learning about the challenges and motivations for teachers. Since August, we have expanded our business to 1,200 schools and 12,000 users. Both Drew and I are constantly pivoting between roles and relying on experts to help us make decisions. 

Do you see Readlee as an international product? 
Madson: Our goal is to be the most useful literacy tool in your pocket. Whether you are a refugee in Lebanon or a Ph.D. student in Texas, we want to make sure that any person who reads anything gets personalized feedback. Our primary focus is the K–12 population in the United States, but we have expanded into the Taiwanese, Saudi Arabian, and Spanish markets. 

How does Readlee’s design support students with learning disabilities? 
Askar: We currently have scaffolds where students listen to pronunciation and improve their reading practice. The app currently affords agency so that the student selects a time and space that works for them. They can practice on their own and self-identify errors. It is a very low-risk, high-reward platform that allows for deliberate practice. It makes it easier for teachers to understand where the students are with their reading and modify the lessons accordingly. 

What advice do you have for current Harvard student-entrepreneurs working in education? 
Madson: Tell every single person your idea to build your brand. Apply to every single competition you can in the Harvard and MIT ecosystems. Think about accelerators and pitch competitions during and after Harvard.


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