Kindergarten teacher Vicki Kirchen said that by Christmas, her 5- and 6-year-old students can already read.

Before the holiday break, the 12 young pupils in her class boasted a 100-word vocabulary, including words such as salad, stilt, clog, cliff and cost. 

“These are things that are not typical for kindergarten,” said Kirchen, who has been teaching for 20 years.

So what’s her secret? Kirchen credits Superkids – a reading program that introduces literature and reading concepts to students as young as 4 at St. Bernardine Catholic School, 815 Elgin Ave.

In the junior kindergarten class, the program is called “Happily Ever After,” which is a precursor to writing and comprehension. The kids listen to stories, talk about the plot and the characters and begin to learn that spoken words can be written down.

By the time the students reach kindergarten, though, they get to meet Superkids – 14 characters featured in an adventure book series, closely integrated with a reading and writing curriculum in the classroom. The phonics-based program was designed by Pleasant Rowland, the creator of the American Girl doll franchise.

The Superkids characters are introduced one at a time in kindergarten, each focusing on a particular letter sound. There’s “Cass,” for example, who likes to cook and has a cat. Through songs and books, Superkids stories follow the students at St. Bernardine all the way through second grade.

Superkids are like “real children with real stories,” said Gloria Hansberry, who teaches first grade. “Things that happen to regular children happen to the Superkids. The kids feel like the characters are one of them, that these are their friends and they will travel with them to second grade.”

So far, the students can’t seem to get enough of the Superkids, Kirchen said. They ask about them all the time and play with Superkids dolls during free time.

“They are engaging characters, and the kids just absolutely love them,” she said.

The teachers said the program is not only fun but it works. And better than anything they have used in the past.  

St. Bernardine was one of 14 schools in the Chicago Archdiocese to pilot the program last year, though the program itself has been around for a number of years. This year, however, is the first time teachers at St. Bernardine can really begin to gauge the results.

For Deirdre Cannon, second grade teacher, this was the first year every one of her 11 kids was reading by the time they her class began, some at a fourth- or fifth-grade reading level.

“That’s the first time that I’ve ever seen it happen,” said Cannon, who has been teaching seven years. “Usually you still have a few kids getting the basic reading skills down, but these kids were already reading.”

Hansberry, who has been teaching 31 years, was initially skeptical about switching reading programs. She liked the one they had been using.

But after training for Superkids, she said she was “blown away,” and she has continued to notice strong results in her students.

“All of the things I feel that were introduced much later in first grade are already there when they start the year,” she said.

As for hard data, the kindergarteners took standardized tests at two separate times last year, but the school is still waiting on the results. The program itself has assessment tools built into the curriculum, which the teachers use on a regular basis.

Aside from academic success, one observation that all the teachers noted was that the kids seem to have a blast as they learn to read.

“The children just seem to pick it up really well,” Hansberry said. “I have noticed that the children really love to read. That’s the beginning of everything, to be excited about it.”