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Ethan Pierce: Helping Students Build Their Reading Skills

Ethan Pierce: Helping Students Build Their Reading Skills

Ladderworks is a publishing platform of diverse picture books and online curriculum with the mission to empower over a million kids to become social entrepreneurs. Our current series features interviews by our interplanetary journalist Spiffy with inspiring Social Entrepreneurs, Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Builders, and Changemakers who are advancing the UN SDGs. 

Spiffy here with the scoop on the entrepreneurial leaders of Planet Earth. As the only interplanetary journalist stationed on this blue planet, I’m thrilled to present this galactic exclusive with Ethan Pierce, the co-founder and CEO of Adaptive Reader. Let’s learn what’s happening at Adaptive Reader and how Ethan is making a positive impact in the world.

Spiffy: Thanks for joining me, Ethan! Tell me, what challenge are you addressing through Adaptive Reader?

Ethan: Thanks for having me, Spiffy! By the time they reach high school, students are expected to have switched from learning to read to reading to learn. Reading shifts from ‘free choice’ books to standardized curriculum organized around stories like Romeo and Juliet. For the millions of students who are behind in reading, grade-level texts are not only arduous, but inaccessible. Research shows that if a reader understands less than 98% of the vocabulary in the text, their reading comprehension plummets. Just like you can’t go from running a mile directly to running a marathon, students need to build up their reading skills with progressively harder texts in order to build vocabulary and confidence.

Spiffy: What motivates you to do it?

Ethan: Literacy is deeply personal for me. When I finished third grade, I still hadn’t learned to read. Eight years later, I received a full scholarship to Harvard College. It would be easy to say that ‘grit’ got me to where I am today and that it was my hard work that took me from a special education program to the hallowed halls of the Ivy League. But the truth is, I was lucky. When I look back, I understand that without the right support, my reading ability could have hindered me from engaging in every part of the school curriculum. I started Adaptive Reader because luck shouldn’t play a role in literacy. Our leveled novels give students reading far behind grade level a second chance to develop a life-long love of reading.

Spiffy: What is the impact of your work?

Ethan: We’ve known for decades that people learn best when their materials and environment are responsive to what they actually need. My grandmother learned to read using Dick, Jane and Sally, a series of books that got progressively more difficult as her skills improved. More recently, companies like NewsELA have proven just how effective leveled texts can be in the modern classroom. Adaptive Reader uses new advances in technology to scale this research-backed approach. Leveraging a combination of AI and human editors, such as teachers, we translate classroom classics like The Great Gatsby to multiple reading levels. Core themes and plot remain the same but are presented with vocab and grammar that are accessible to each student.

Spiffy: Tell me about a recent organization milestone or initiative. What impact does it make on your audience/community?

Ethan: When we launched Adaptive Reader in July, we made all of our leveled novels available as paperback books. This month, we released our new web app to a limited number of beta classrooms. The app allows students to toggle between multiple reading levels—giving them an opportunity to use easier versions of the passage to understand the original text, and to make the text progressively more difficult as they build their confidence. 

Spiffy: Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?

Ethan: We’ve started with the classics; these novels are timeless for a reason. They explore complex themes that challenge us to think in new ways, wrapped up with epic storytelling. From Westworld to Cinderella, the themes and narratives explored in Frankenstein and Grimm’s Fairy Tales continue to captivate us. Reading these books gives us historical perspective of the challenges faced by generations before us, and insights into some of the most meaningful and enduring questions we still grapple with today. Here’s my ask: take a moment to share Adaptive Reader today with the parent of a struggling reader, a teacher or your school district. Help us build a world where every child can graduate into the world as a confident reader. 

Spiffy: Thanks for speaking with me today, Ethan—it’s been an honor!

Since graduating from Harvard College with a degree in art and design, Ethan Pierce has worked as a product leader in both small startups (Fincura, Readlee) and corporate innovation labs (Vistaprint, Fidelity). As a third time founder (Palette, Grocery Outpost), Pierce brings deep experience in early-stage venture creation together with a passion for product and design.(First published on the Ladderworks website on December 1, 2023.)

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Ladderworks LLC.

© 2023 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Daniela Vega. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Launchpad: Creative Entrepreneurship Workshops for K-3 Kids and their caregivers here.