Mary Beth Adams, manager of the United Learning Center at the United Way of Santa Barbara County, works with after-school students on their reading skills. (United Learning Center photo)

Can reading be a game? The ​United Learning Center thinks so.

This summer, the United Learning Center, part of the United Way of Santa Barbara County, is helping kids tackle the fundamentals of reading with a combination of computer programs, one-on-one attention and small group activities.

The core of the program lies in the online literacy programs that the ULC uses: Lexia Reading and Reading Plus. These programs target the five basic areas of reading, teach students about vocabulary and sentence structure, and help them analyze words using Latin roots.

Former teacher and the current United Learning Center manager Mary Beth Adams says the Lexia Reading program, intended for pre-kindergarten to third-grade students, could be used up until fifth grade because it is so thorough.

“While it sounds scary and big, it is actually very fun,” she said of the game-based programs.

Because of the animation and graphics, the programs have kids focused on gaining levels and collecting badges instead of going through a bunch of tests. This not only makes it very motivational, but also very fun.

“Initially, any kid coming into tutoring, especially an older kid, will be a little skeptical,” Adams said. “My experience is that it takes about a week and then you can’t stop them. They’re so focused on moving ahead.”

Adams told Noozhawk that her students usually progress through a grade level of reading within a few months of using Lexia or Reading Plus. Part of this success is due to the individualization that is built-into the program.

“There is an artificial intelligence built into each program that will move along with the child and will identify skills that the child needs to work on,” said Melinda Hodge, the United Way’s community impact officer.

“So you can have two third-graders sitting on Lexia, for instance, but their screens will never be the same because it’s highly adaptive.

“It will work with the individual student as they progress through the program, focusing on skill sets they need to work on.”

The United Learning Center has partnered with more than 36 area schools, and implemented these computer programs into the curriculum through the United Literacy Initiative with major success.

“The kids love it,” Hodge said. “And I think teachers love it equally, if not more because it is so individualized.”

Not only are these programs used in schools, but they are also available online to children and parents 24/7. Because of this, kids can work on their reading skills at school, at home and now during the summer time in the ULC’s summer program.

“It’s nice for kids who don’t have the luxury of these programs in their school days to have this to supplement their current curriculum,” Hodge said of the United Learning Center’s programs.

“It’s also nice for the kids who do use the programs in school because they are familiar with it, so it’s a continuation of their everyday accomplishments.”

If parents are skeptical about their children spending more time on electronics, there is no need to worry. Kids will be spending a short amount of their day on the computer and the rest of the day is spent working on activities in small groups.

The United Learning Center is hoping to get 20 to 25 students for this first year of the program, allowing the program to grow from the pilot program’s 15 students, but still keeping a ratio of four students for every teacher.

“(The students) are getting that one on one small group attention constantly,” Hodge said, “and I think that’s key to working with kids who are struggling academically.”

With its combination of one-on-one attention, fun games and group activities, the ULC is sure to make your child’s summer productive and fun.

Click here for more information about the United Learning Center, or call 805-882-0513.