Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children
Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

“Can volunteers help kids read more proficiently? New research says yes.”

That’s the headline on a recent Washington Post story about “new research that suggests that volunteers could be instrumental in helping millions of American children to read proficiently.”

The article adds that while studies have been done on small volunteer tutoring programs, “until now, there has not been evidence that such programs can make a difference on a much larger scale, across many schools and for thousands of students.”

The article covers two studies focusing on two different program models.

The Minnesota Model

One study conducted by independent researchers for the Corporation for National & Community Service looks at the Minnesota Reading Corps, which places more than 1,000 volunteer tutors in schools each year.

“AmeriCorps members in the Minnesota Reading Corps program serve in school-based settings to implement Minnesota Reading Corps literacy enrichment strategies and conduct interventions with PreK-3 students using a Response to Intervention (RtI) framework,” the study says. 

Volunteer tutors receive extensive support from coaches. As the study explains:

“Minnesota Reading Corps AmeriCorps members are supported by a multi-layered supervisory structure. One or more on-site Internal Coaches mentor members during their year of service, continually monitoring fidelity of program implementation, and ensuring effective tutoring. Internal Coaches are typically specialists, teachers, or curriculum directors employed by the site or school. Expert-level Master Coaches are assigned to each Internal Coach to provide consultation on literacy interventions and assessment, as well as ensure fidelity to the Minnesota Reading Corps model.” the coaches also receive training in a summer institute.

The key features of the RtI framework are:

• clear literacy targets at each age level from pre-K through grade 3

• benchmark assessments three times a year to identify students who are eligible for one-on-one or small group interventions

• scientifically based interventions

• frequent progress monitoring during intervention delivery, and,

• high-quality training and coaching in program components, and literacy assessment and instruction

A notable finding in this study: “The 4- and 5-year old students at Minnesota Reading Corps Pre-K sites outperformed students at matched-comparison sites on all five emergent literacy outcomes assessed: letter sound and letter name fluency (alphabet knowledge), rhyming and alliteration fluency (phonological awareness), and picture name fluency (vocabulary).”

The study adds: “The effect sizes associated with these differences were not only significant, but substantial in magnitude. Further, 4- and 5-year old Minnesota Reading Corps Pre-K students met or exceeded end of school year targets for all five emergent literacy outcomes, suggesting that they were Kindergarten-ready on these critical skills.”

A research brief on K-3 outcomes says: “The average kindergarten student with an AmeriCorps tutor performed twice as well as students without one.”

In addition: “Although the impact was smaller for third grade students, and no significant difference was found for second grade students, additional exploratory analyses showed that improvement for these students continued after the first semester. These findings support a conclusion that the program may be effective for some older students, and that more time in intervention may produce larger impacts.”

Links to all the research findings are posted here.

As we blogged last year, Minnesota’s efforts have served as a model for efforts here in Massachusetts.

States that want to replicate this model should be aware that buy-in is crucial. “Because the Minnesota Reading Corps pre-K program is comprehensive, its success requires a strong commitment from site administrators and lead teachers,” the study says. “Furthermore, the program is most effective when all adults in a classroom coordinate their practice; therefore, it is critical that the lead teacher understand and fully commit to the Minnesota Reading Corps pre-K model.”

The Benefits of “Reading Partners”

“A separate study of a different tutoring program, Oakland, Calif.-based Reading Partners, found that it added about two months of additional growth in students’ reading proficiency. And it made that difference despite depending on AmeriCorps members and community volunteers, who had no special training in literacy education,” the Post article says.

Reading Partners is a national nonprofit. Its mission is to “help children become lifelong readers by empowering communities to provide individualized instruction with measurable results.”

The organization works with “under-resourced schools” and engages “volunteer reading partners (community tutors) to help students who struggle with reading unlock and develop the foundational skills they need to succeed in school and in life.”

The Reading Partners program has six core competencies:

• regular, one-on-one tutoring

• dedicated school space and use of materials

• structured and individualized curriculum

• data driven instruction

• rigorous and on-going training, and,

• instructional supervision and support

The MDRC study on Reading Partners says in part:

“Reading Partners had a positive and statistically significant impact on three different measures of student reading proficiency. These impacts are equivalent to approximately one and a half to two months of additional growth in reading proficiency among the program group relative to the control group and are robust across a range of student characteristic subgroups as well as across groups of students who had different levels of reading comprehension skills at the start of the study.”

The study adds: “the Reading Partners model appears to work because there are structures in place to help ensure that the primary goal of the program — to provide consistent, individualized tutoring to students — is not compromised by tutor characteristics or inconsistency and because the structured curriculum allows tutors to begin without much preparation.”

In addition: “Site coordinators provide ongoing support and guidance to tutors in lieu of formal training. Communication structures are in place to help ensure that student learning is not interrupted simply because a different individual is conducting the tutoring, and backup systems are in place so that if a tutor is absent the session can often still be held, or if a student is absent the session can be rescheduled.”

One caveat: bigger investments in the program could help. “While Reading Partners increases students’ reading skills by about a month and a half to two months using its current structure, it is possible that incorporating some of the characteristics of other tutoring programs that research has shown to be effective could result in larger impacts. For example, increasing the amount of formal training provided to volunteer tutors or increasing the amount of communication and coordination between Reading Partners and school staff might translate into a stronger tutoring program for students.”

Potential for Growth

“Both programs already have expanded into multiple states and have visions of growing further, bolstered by the burgeoning evidence that, armed with the right training and curriculum, volunteers can play an important role in closing the nation’s persistent achievement gap in reading,” the Post says.

But there’s room for further growth.

“Paid reading specialists have been tutoring children in school for decades, but experts say that their roles have shifted over time, and specialists are now as likely to spend time coaching classroom teachers as working one-on-one with children,” the Post says. “At the same time, schools are struggling to address the sharp rise in the number of students with intensive literacy needs, including children who are poor and English-language learners.”

The Post adds: “Michael Lombardo, chief executive of Reading Partners, said that about 18 million people volunteer in U.S. schools. He hopes his organization can help persuade more people to volunteer by giving them a chance to effect change.”

“Easily it could be 50 million; it could be more,” Lombardo told the Post. “Our tutoring force is virtually unlimited.”

The challenge is to mobilize more of these volunteers and train them to use the evidence-based strategies that have yielded positive literacy outcomes for children.