How does an educator create a culture of reading among students? For our inaugural monthly Educator Spotlight, we spoke with Principal Justin Fye of Philipsburg Elementary in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania.

Justin has an extensive résumé: this year marks two decades since he started in the education field. He began his career as an elementary school teacher and eventually became an assistant principal before joining the Philipsburg-Osceola Area School District—the district he grew up in. He’s also known around town as coach of the Mounties varsity wrestling team.

In spring of 2020, Justin adopted LevelUp as a teaching tool. Today, the average first and second grade student in Justin’s school outperforms their peers by as much as 91L, experiencing a total Lexile growth of 223L.

Read on to discover why Justin’s an A+ educator and get the inside scoop on his best teaching strategies.

Q: Do you have any special literacy initiatives or goals for this year?

One of our goals for our kids is always to either show a year’s growth or to be reading on grade level.

In November, we have Camp Read S’more. We turn our cafeteria into a campground. Families come in with tents and blankets and flashlights and we do a big reading event. They get a bag with the items for a s’more so they can have a snack.

We have monthly newsletters that share out our curricular initiatives, including LevelUp. We share out to the families that you can have kids get on at home. If they forgot their library book at school, that’s fine—if you have a computer at home, the kids know how to navigate our student system to get onto LevelUp and access the wide variety of books available in the program.

Around November we start doing buddy readers once or twice a month. For about 30 minutes on a Friday, we pair students—our primary students are matched up with our intermediate students. The students bring their own books, and they can sit anywhere in our building to read. Teachers walk in the halls during that time to monitor kids.

Q: How does LevelUp Reader fit into those goals?

[LevelUp Reader] gives a kid a chance to find a genre or a topic or anything that they would like to read about and can put it right in front of them quickly. Kids might not always have their parents around to read with them, so if they know how to use that system and access the reader, they can have somebody read it with them without their parents being there. It’s nice to have that as an easy resource for a kid.

Q: What impact has LevelUp Reader had on your school’s literacy program?

Having a program like LevelUp that’s available online anytime is great to have. The kids see that it’s going to give them more confidence in their reading abilities.

With LevelUp, those books are leveled to meet the students’ needs. When they’re clicking on the topic they want to read about, that book’s going to be on their level. [A kid] could be on the lowest level, [a kid] could be on the highest level—[students] could still be reading about the same topic, and that book is going to meet their needs to help the students be successful.

Q: What are the benefits of using an online reading platform to support your literacy goals?

LevelUp has that incentive of if you read so many books, or you get to a certain level, they are going to be able to play games, and kids love playing games on a computer. The gamification that is built into the program provides a great incentive for the students. A lot of times, they don’t even realize how much they’re reading, because they’re just trying to get to that goal to be able to go play a game, so it’s kind of the best of both worlds for us. [Students] are doing it based on earning that reward by reading and putting in the work.

A lot of our teachers utilize the program as part of their small group instruction. It provides for a great discussion tool and it allows the teachers to utilize leveled readers that meet the needs of each individual student.

In general, [a benefit is] having the availability of the program at any time. If students come in [early] in the morning and they have 15 or 20 minutes, that’s a time the students can get on [LevelUp Reader] and read.

Q: Describe what you have done to create a culture of reading in your school.

Students Get Excited About School

I really try to get kids excited about everything we’re doing. So just creating that culture of making learning fun! [And] showing them the joy of reading.

We have a student council group. There are 13 fifth grade students involved in the council—and we talk about how to improve our school. I teach them how to make commercials. We make commercials and we do little challenges. It just so happened [at] our first student council meeting, they wanted to do a reading challenge. So today, we started recording our video in order to begin the challenge next week!

During Read Across America, we bring a lot of former teachers in, we’ll set up Zoom, and they’ll read a book to the entire building to get the kids excited.

In our monthly newsletters, we spotlight a grade level. One of the things we ask the teachers is “What is your favorite book?” We want to show our students that our teachers love reading as well.

We want kids to understand: You don’t just have to read a book to be reading. You could read a magazine, you could read a newspaper, and there’s a wide variety of selections of what you can actually read out there to be able to improve your reading skills.

Q: What advice would you give to a new principal looking to improve their students’ literacy skills and motivate them to read?

Bring [teachers] in and say, “Hey, I’m looking at this program I want you to take a look at.” If you can get the teachers to buy in to what you’re doing and keep them involved in that process, they’re going to utilize it. For me, the easiest way to sell it is for the teachers to sell it to their kids and/or the kids to sell it to each other.

It’s not always about the pizzazz and the wow factor of everything. It’s “Is it going to be meaningful to us [educators], but do it in a way that’s going to be exciting for the kids?”

It’s hard to see fidelity in a year. You’re going to have to review data consistently over a couple of years to know if a program will fit the needs of your students. But if you can get people involved, make them understand how it can be meaningful, and show them the growth that we’re seeing in the students, then that’s where you’ll see success.

LevelUp Reader was created to engage and educate students and to give teachers and other educators the ability to effectively and efficiently challenge students, monitor student progress and help students to learn. If you are interested in creating a culture of reading in your school, consider setting up a free trial to experience what LevelUp Reader firsthand.