'Toddlers Can Read': Former Houston teacher's business helps close literacy gap

Four-year-old Nixon is about to enter Kindergarten.

His mom Brittney Hughley, a former high school teacher herself, is confident he's ready for success.

"I just wanted to give him a head start," says Hughley.

That head start centered around literacy, and while scrolling social media, Brittney stumbled upon Spencer Russell's page and business, "Toddler Can Read." Russell has a sizeable following online and he's getting national attention for his ability to help parents, teach their kids how to read.

"We know two-thirds of kids are behind in reading by 4th grade and that gap gets bigger by 8th grade," says Russell.

EDUCATION: Texas law requiring book vendors to rate their books sold to schools is being challenged

Russell previously worked at a Houston charter school for about six years, teaching kindergarten and first grade.

He says, "School plays a big role in a kid's ability to read, but not every kid has access to the same schools, to the same teachers, to the same tutors."

Studies have shown that the literacy gap is increasing between various groups of students.

Pair that with a structured curriculum that doesn't necessarily allow teachers much flexibility, the individual needs of each student could fall through the cracks. "It is the norm for kids to struggle, it is not the norm for kids to excel," says Russell.

His perspective on teaching changed drastically when he started doing home visits with his students and inviting them to his house for back-to-school events.

This created a seamless blend of continuous learning in school and at home.

RELATED: Houston ISD board approves major changes to policy, budget spending authority

"During that whole time, my test scores are going through the roof. We start to get recognized by the school, the district, the state, nationally," Russell said. "Our testing was incredible, but it was because we had parents doing the same thing at home."

That was the difference maker, and Russell came to a new understanding. "If we want to have some change, we teach in school. If we want meaningful, lifelong lasting change, it's got to be home too." He adds, "Parents are 100% the answer."

That was the foundation for "Toddlers Can Read."

When Hughley started Russell's at-home program, her son Nixon was already in Pre-K. She says he knew his ABCs and how to pronounce sight words, but reading wasn't happening. "They were doing sight words but to me, that didn't make sense," says Hughley.

Russell addresses that in his program.

He demonstrates the difference using the word C-A-T. "If I were to take one letter and change it, to pat the kid would have no idea what that word is because they memorized it, not the individual sounds. We're teaching them the letter sounds, step one, how to combine them together, step two, and if you can nail those two steps your kid can read thousands of words."

And it's fun.

FOX 26 Houston is now on the FOX LOCAL app available through Apple TV, Amazon FireTV, Roku and Google Android TV!

Parents can take any toy or game the child already likes and turn it into a sound game. "I want you looking at the sound, saying the sound, and I would do anything I need to get you to do it," says Russell.

For Hughley, this way of teaching was perfect for her hyperactive son. "He would say ‘Mommy can we do our words, can we practice, can we read something’, and so that to me was amazing."

Russell says anyone can learn the step of teaching; the rest is up to you.

"You can play a tremendous role in your kids' education. You don't have to have formal teaching experience, you don't need to feel like you're an incredible teacher, you don't even need to have had a good experience in school yourself," Russell said. "If you know the steps and you genuinely believe in your kid, I don't care about your kid's age, I don't care their stage, your kid can do it and you can do it too."

Hughley agrees, "It just works if you do the course."

Get access to your free training and live Q&A from Toddlers Can Read Founder Spencer Russell:

  • STEP 1: Head to Toddlersread.com
  • STEP 2: Hit the "Free Training" button in the top right of the screen.
  • STEP 3: Click "Register"