An Unusual UW Merchandising Deal Is Encouraging Thousands of Kids to Read

by Ben Adlin

Parents looking for ways to help their kids build healthy reading habits will have another resource this summer: Real Dawgs Read, a program created by the University of Washington to help structure and reward independent reading.

The program asks K–8 students to read 30 minutes per day for 30 days over the summer. Pretty much anything goes — books, magazines, comics, and newspapers all count toward the goal. Students submit written logs of their reading and, in exchange, receive a personalized certificate and a UW-branded goodie, such as a hat, hoodie, or socks.

Parents and organizers of the program, which saw record-breaking enrollment during a special session this spring, said it helps encourage kids to make time in their day for reading and build healthy habits. Even the small nudge that comes from keeping a log and earning a reward, they said, keeps kids coming back for more.

“My children love to read,” said Harold Baker, a parent of two elementary-school children in South Seattle public schools. “This was something that made them eager to read.”

Both of Baker’s daughters participated in the special Real Dawgs Read program this spring, which ran March through June and was created in response to the need for at-home learning resources during the coronavirus pandemic. Baker’s older daughter also participated in last summer’s session, which he described as “a bridge to try and combat summer learning loss.”

The older daughter is now flying through an entire series of books, such as the Polly Diamond and Mia Mayhem books, all on her own, Baker said. “And then the younger one, we read along. Every day after lunch and after dinner we’ll pick up a chapter book and read the chapter.”

The launch of this summer’s Real Dawgs Read program is currently behind schedule after the special spring session’s record enrollment of 3,240 students, said Karin Mellskog, a UW employee who manages the program. Typical summer programs have closer to 1,000 or 1,500 enrolled students, she said.

The program sent emails this past Friday to principals of qualifying Washington State schools, Mellskog said, and they have until July 6 to respond and enroll their schools in the program. “Parents are free to reach out to the principal” to encourage them to sign up, Mellskog said. It’s not yet clear when the session will officially start.

The program is available to all Title I schools in the state that serve K–8 students. Many Seattle schools fall under the designation, which is based on the number of children whose families have low incomes. This spring’s special session was an exception, opening the program to students at all K–8 schools.

Obstacles like social distancing have meant some changes to the program. The typical paper journals used by students, for example, have been replaced by online reading logs. Mellskog regrets that change — paper journals allow the program to “reach the kids in the far corners of the state who maybe don’t have access to a computer or the internet and all that,” she said. But due to COVID-19, “they just can’t do paper right now.”

As this summer’s program gears up, there’s another obstacle: Getting word out to parents. Baker, the South Seattle parent, said he and his wife heard about the program from a poster at their kids’ school. With most campuses closed, parents won’t be seeing those posters this year.

But if this spring’s turnout was any indication, an eager community will help spread the word. 

“Because this spring program was electronic,” Mellskog said, “I do know it was shared far and wide. We had people responding from New York state, Florida, Texas, Indiana, Virginia … I mean, I could go on and on.”

Unfortunately for those families, the program is only open to Washington State students. Not only are resources limited, Mellskog explained, but making the program too big “would also lose its sense of purpose: The purpose was to serve kids in Washington State.”

In a sense, Real Dawgs Read is one of a kind. Similar independent reading programs are often run by schools or public libraries, but Real Dawgs Read appears to be the only such program organized by a university’s licensing department, an achievement that earned the UW an award from the International Collegiate Licensing Association. “It’s very unique in the higher-ed arena,” said Mellskog, a licensing manager at UW’s Trademarks and Licensing department. 

Real Dawgs Read exists because of partnerships between the University of Washington and apparel manufacturers, Mellskog said. In addition to rights to use the UW’s trademarked logos and designs on merchandise, the school may ask manufacturers to donate goods that can be used for charitable projects. Some of those goods — typically hats made by Zephyr Headwear — are used as incentives for the Real Dawgs Read program. The deal “gave the program legs,” Mellskog said. It also means participating schools don’t have to pay a thing.

“I think it’s a great use of their relationships with their partners to encourage the youth in the community to read,” said Baker. “That’s a unique use of their resources that helps encourage good behavior.”

Baker is a former employee of UW but worked in a department unrelated to Real Dawgs Read.

In terms of using UW-branded merchandise as a reward, he said he thinks it “opens the door for kids to ask questions about college.”

“With it being the University of Washington, right, it inspires them to think about, ‘What is a university? What does that mean?’” he said. “It piques their curiosity so they start seeing the world a bit bigger.”

Baker’s not alone in his appreciation for the program. Most reading journals that students send in, Mellskog said, are accompanied by a note from parents. Many say the program has helped their reluctant readers read more often, while others are grateful for the chance to simply take a break.

“Thanks for this great program,” says one note included in a UW article about the program. “Gunnar did all of his own reading, and it gave me a 30 minute daily break from the coronavirus/remote-learning/mom-needs-a-break-blues.”

Baker said he and his wife could relate to that feeling, but he added that the program has also helped bring the family closer.

“It’s just bonding time, right?” he said. “It’s just something nice to relax and do together.”

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based journalist. 

Featured image by Joe Mabel.

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