Preventing Reading Difficulties
Most children who rely on schooling to learn to read and who receive good reading instruction do, in fact, become successful, lifelong readers. However, there are some children for whom good instruction is necessary—but not enough.
There are three stumbling blocks that are most likely to throw children off course on the journey to skilled reading:
Failure to understand or use the alphabetic principle, that is, the idea that written spellings systematically represent the sounds of spoken words in reading and writing.
Failure to acquire and use comprehension skills and strategies to get meaning from text.
Lack of fluency.
These three can combine to decrease children’s motivation for learning how to read.
All over the United States, countless interventions strive to help children who are doing poorly in reading. In tutoring sessions, special education classes, free book programs, family literacy projects, and remedial instruction, there are educators, paraprofessionals, and volunteers who are trying to help struggling children to catch up.
Provided that they are designed to help children learn what they need to learn, programs with vastly different approaches show positive results. For this reason, a wide array of interventions are featured in this chapter, including
tutoring, “pull-out” remediation programs, and dramatic school restructuring. Reading is an accomplishment that depends not just on discrete skills, but on a wide range of developmental supports and cognitive achievements. Mending an early language link is not by itself likely to have any effect on word reading if other connections in the net are frayed. Because reading is such a complex activity, children need an environment offering rich support and varied learning opportunities for every successive stage of their literacy development.
“Every week I send home a letter telling parents what we’ve done in the class. At the end of the letter, I give them a list of questions to ask the kids to check their comprehension. A lot of my parents would never ask these questions otherwise. When weeks go by and I don’t get any letters back from a family, experience leads me to suspect that maybe the parents can’t read themselves. Then I know that this child is going to need more of my time. I know that this child is out there alone.”
Dr. Ronald E. McNair Elementary School
New Orleans, Louisiana
Some children are far more likely than others to have difficulties in learning to read. This may seem a simple and obvious fact. Yet it is a fact that is overlooked far too often.
If our goal is to ensure that all children in America can read, then we must target prevention efforts to the children who we know will need them the most. We must do this as early as possible—before children fail in school, before they are labeled, and before costly remediation is necessary.
What Makes a Good Reading Program?
In the early grades, the best reading programs offer a balance of elements, including reading for meaning and experiences with high-quality literature; intense, intentional, and systematic instruction in phonics; and ample opportunities to read and write. However, many commercial programs neglect certain aspects of instruction. Although most programs support activities that build comprehension, they may not include sufficient instruction in fluency, writing, and the alphabetic principle.
What does a well-balanced program look like? One example is a commercial program that offers a well-integrated approach using three distinct phases of instruction over the course of first grade.
During phase one, students develop phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle, and a general understanding of how print works. A variety of games and activities give students practice in letter recognition, oral blending, and segmentation. For example, the teacher may ask “What rhymes with ‘hat’ and starts with ‘c’?” Or,“Which of the following words begin with the letter ‘n’?” To help children become knowledgeable about print, teachers read to them using big books and also encourage them to write every day. With language games and activities, the class also works on basic sight recognition of easy high-frequency words such as “the,”“of,”“you,”“is,” and “are.”
During the second phase of the program, teachers explicitly teach letter-sound correspondences and spelling conventions. For the first time, children read independently with a graduated series of books that reinforce vocabulary and phonics lessons to date. As a part of their new reading efforts, they learn the strategy: if you don’t recognize a word, sound it out.
Meanwhile, teachers connect phonics and spelling skills with dictation writing activities. Read-aloud sessions with big books include a variety of fiction and nonfiction centered on building knowledge on a topic children can enjoy. The program offers activities and books that engage children in exploration and the delights of literature.
By midyear, children move into the third phase of the program. They receive anthologies, with each unit focused on an explorable concept, such as animals and gardening. Teachers encourage children to compare selections in the units, in search of connections and overlapping themes. During guided reading sessions, they help children work on strategies, such as predicting, summing up, using context clues to understand words, making inferences, and articulating their personal responses. Individual and small groups of children work on projects, such as composing plays, puppet shows, and research reports. Phonics work now moves to more complex patterns, such as diphthongs, inflections, and polysyllabic words. Daily writing and reading sessions continue, as children move from decodable books to easy-to-read books and other stories that each can choose individually.
Who Are the Children Who Have Reading Difficulties?
Children Who Attend a Chronically Low-Achieving School
In a school that produces large numbers of children who cannot read at grade level, year after year, it is not necessary to assess children individually. We already know that children who attend this school are being placed at risk for reading difficulties. In these cases, teachers and principals should probably consider addressing the problem with system-wide restructuring and change, rather than invest in a costly child-by-child remediation process. Good teaching and a good classroom reading program can bring most students up to or near grade level during the primary grades. But sustaining this accomplishment is difficult when a large percentage of a school’s students are failing.
Central to this restructuring is the need for effective reading instruction. A large number of students, who should be capable of reading ably given adequate instruction, are not doing so, suggesting that the instruction available is not appropriate. If the instruction provided by the school is ineffective or insufficient, many children will have difficulty learning to read (unless additional instruction is provided in the home or elsewhere). Children whose reading difficulties arise when the design of regular classroom curriculum, or its delivery, is flawed are sometimes termed curriculum casualties.
Children with Low English Proficiency
Hispanic students in the United States are at especially high risk. Despite progress over the past 15 to 20 years, they are about twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to read well below average for their age. Many of these children also have parents who are poorly educated, come from low-income families, live in low-income communities, and attend low-achieving schools. With multiple risk factors in place, we can predict that, without excellent instruction, large numbers of these children will be at risk for reading difficulties.
Despite various controversies, considerable evidence suggests that limited or non-English-speaking language learners are generally more likely to become betters readers of English when they receive initial instruction in their native language.
Spoken language must come before written language; it is extremely hard to read a language that still is incomprehensible to the ear. Some language-minority children arrive at school with no proficiency in English, but speaking a different language for which there are instructional guides, learning materials, and locally available proficient teachers. These children should be taught the basics of reading in their native language while acquiring oral proficiency in English, and they
Reforming the System: Low-Achieving Schools
“We all realized that trying to fix a broken system was not the answer,” says Jerry Allen, principal of Lackland City Elementary School in San Antonio, Texas. “We worked year after year using our regular reading curriculum, but we were never satisfied with the results. We would tweak it here and change it there. But it was the same basal adoption curriculum. I saw teacher after teacher hit the wall,” recounts Allen, who describes his students as predominantly Hispanic and low-income. “After several years, you get to the point that you say ‘I know I’m a bright person. I’m working very very hard, but my students are not progressing as they should.’ And it is there that you slide down into a sea of mediocrity.”
Allen’s school put together a committee of 10 people whose sole responsibility for that year was to investigate reading programs that were successfully serving economically disadvantaged children. After combing through research, the committee got interested in a reading program that called for dramatic restructuring. Eventually they convinced the entire faculty to give it a try.
With a green light from the school’s superintendent and a unanimous vote by teachers, the new program came to Lackland City Elementary School. Reading teachers put aside their old methods and wiped the slate clean.
Since launching the program three years ago, the school’s average reading scores have risen across the board by about 15 percent each year. Currently the average reading scores are in the 72nd percentile, up from the mid-40th percentile.
“We kind of adopted the philosophy that, no matter what we do, our children must read. They can’t be successful at mathematics and social studies if they can’t read. Reading became our primary goal,” says Allen. “I told my teachers that those 90 minutes of reading class was sacred time.”
Allen claims that teacher training produces the greatest impact. “Rather than having a couple of reading specialists work with the bottom quartile of students, all the teachers on campus are now master reading teachers working with 100 percent of the students.”
The cost? It’s expensive.
“You get what you pay for,” according to Allen. “This model has so many safety nets and support systems, the teacher just has to take the first step as soon as a child first stumbles. But he or she can’t wait. I take it a bit further and tell the teachers. ‘You may not under any circumstances allow a child to fail in your room.’”
The program used in Jerry Allen’s school is a school-wide reading reform model that was established in Baltimore in 1987. Now in 450 districts nationwide, the program serves children in districts ranging from some of the largest cities in the country to small rural villages. Just about all of these schools serve high-poverty students.
Like any school-wide reform model, this one requires broad support. Teachers are asked to put aside familiar methods and accept a new system. They receive three days of in-service training at the beginning of the school year, plus continuing in-service meetings.
The emphasis is on early intervention and prevention. A rigorous reading period lasts for one and one-half to two hours. Teachers at every grade level begin each session by reading a story aloud to children. The class then discusses the meaning, vocabulary, and structure of the story. In kindergarten and first grade, teachers focus on oral language and prereading skills. They ask students to retell and dramatize literature, as well as compose their own oral stories. The program also emphasizes phonemic awareness. In kindergarten or grade one, children begin with mini books, which they can read even if they know just a few letter sounds.
Children are grouped according to ability and disperse to their various levels during reading periods. Every eight weeks, they are reevaluated and, if it is warranted, moved along.
One major goal of the program is to keep children in the regular classroom and out of special education. Individual tutoring is key. Children who are falling behind the class receive 20-minute sessions with a teacher or tutor each day during times other than reading or math periods. The focus is the same material covered during the regular reading class. Other features include a bilingual curriculum, parent outreach, and a program facilitator at each school whose full-time job is to help the teachers to implement the model.
should be subsequently taught to extend their first language literary skills to reading in English.
Other language-minority children will arrive at school with no proficiency in English and speak a language for which the above conditions cannot be met—and for which there are insufficient numbers of children to justify the development of the local capacity to meet such conditions. In this case, the initial instructional priority should be developing the children’s oral proficiency in English. Print materials may be used to support the development of English language skills. But formal reading instructions in English should be postponed until an adequate level of oral proficiency in English has been achieved. Ensuring this proficiency will require extremely rich and well-adapted oral language environments. In general, non-English speakers in the United States are highly motivated to learn English, but they still require an adequate amount of time and exposure to well-structured input from native speakers to do so.
“Parents need to understand that we are living in a society in which learning English and fostering the native language both are very important. We have parents in our system who may be only concerned with having their children learn English. But they do not understand that a lot of times it is done at the expense of their native language. Often the result is mediocre levels of achievement; many children will not learn how to read or write well solely in English because the language they think in, the language they function in, the language they speak at home is different.
Native language instruction has to be a part of the learning process. It’s simply because, through native language instruction, children are able to communicate their needs, to acquire concepts, to express themselves, to ask questions, and to acquire English. English is the dominant language in America, but we live in a multicultural, multilingual world. There is tremendous benefit in being not only bilingual but also biliterate. In terms of children’s futures—in high school, college, and the job market—having a second language is a great asset.”
Early Childhood Programs
Chicago Public Schools
Children Unfamiliar with Standard English Dialect
Differences between the dialect children speak at home and the dialect taught at school may contribute to difficulties in learning to read. In the United States, some teachers, administrators, and policy makers view dialect differences not as regional variations, but as incorrect English. Some teachers develop low expectations for these students. Under these conditions, children are being placed at risk because of their unfamiliarity with standard English dialect.
As discussed in the previous two chapters, developing children’s awareness of the sounds of words—their phonemic awareness—is a critical step toward helping them learn to read. However, what they need more specifically is an appreciation of the phonemes or sounds of words that are presumed in how the words are spelled. This is especially hard for dialect-speaking children. A teacher pointing out the “d” sound in the words “sold” or “find” can befuddle the African American child who pronounces these words “sol” and “fine.” A child who pronounces the words “deaf” and “death” in the same way is likely to be confused if the teacher uses these words in a lesson on contrasting final consonants. However, these kinds of confusions in phonemic awareness and reading instruction can largely be avoided by making teachers more aware of dialect differences. A teacher who is sufficiently knowledgeable and sensitive about dialect will prepare materials and lessons that are consistent with the phonology, syntax, and vocabulary of the children’s dialect.
Children Living in Communities in Poverty
Poverty undeniably poses numerous threats to children’s educational prospects. Children in low-income families tend to have uneducated parents, lack adequate nutrition, live in poor communities, and attend substandard schools. All of these factors can be detrimental to reading.
However, all else being equal, coming from a low-income family, in and of itself, does not greatly increase a child’s risk for learning to read, provided they are given the instruction and support they need. Therefore, poverty in individual families should not be used exclusively as an identifier for children at risk. It is more effective to identify children who come from families with low income status and attend a school with large numbers of poor students.
Schools with kindergartners who are poorly prepared in language and literacy skills must have programs that are better than or at least equivalent to the programs found in schools with well-prepared kindergartners. In order to provide such reading programs, schools with underprepared students need extra funding. To be effective, the extra funding should be used for methods with previously established success, and should be coupled with smaller student-
teacher ratios, capable, experienced teachers and specialists, and a sufficient quantity of high-quality books and other materials.
What Can We Do Before Children Reach School?
“My biggest obstacle in teaching reading is the lack of experiences that some children are bringing to school—lack of language experiences involving reading, print, and concepts. Experiences like having your mother explain the types of fruit at the grocery store or playing with funnels in the bathtub. Experiences that come with having been talked to and read to.”
First grade teacher
Bailey’s Elementary School
Fairfax County, Virginia
Health Care Professionals and Reading
Because of their regular contact with children during early childhood, pediatricians, and other health care and human service professionals have a responsibility to screen children for risk factors that could lead to reading difficulties. As early in the child’s life as possible, health care professionals should identify problems, such as mental retardation, hearing impairment, early language impairment, and delays in expressive and receptive language milestones, as well as family histories of reading problems that could be passed on to children. In cases of hearing impairment, early identification and intervention is especially important and can make all the difference in whether or not a child becomes a successful reader.
Beyond routine screening, health care professionals have a wonderful opportunity to promote reading. At routine visits, they can help guide parents and encourage children’s literacy development. In one program, volunteers in doctors’ waiting rooms demonstrate for parents book-sharing and book-reading techniques, doctors prescribe parents to read books to their children, and books are given to parents with low incomes. Parents also receive information on the importance of reading and having books in the home.
How Pediatricians and Health Care Professionals Can Help
At Regular and Other Checkups
“During the course of a day in a busy pediatrician’s office, I don’t think any of us does as well as we should. But promoting literacy should be a very big priority…. Every checkup should include some sort of developmental screening—even if informal, from observing how the child interacts with the parent in the room. If we can’t get what we need that way, we should ask questions directly. After every visit, the pediatrician should assure himself or herself that the child is up to snuff developmentally. That’s basic…. We have reading materials in every exam room—a bucket full of books to let families know that we believe reading is important. During checkups, I discuss literature with kids. I’ll ask what they’ve been reading and tell them some of my favorite books from childhood. Sometimes I prescribe books for kids to read.”
—Daniel Shapiro, M.D.
Silver Spring, Maryland
Screening by Early Childhood Professionals
Because they are one of the few professionals in contact with very young children, pediatricians, nurses, and other health care practitioners are in the best position to detect problems at routine checkups from infancy through preschool years. Day care and preschool settings also offer an important opportunity for early identification of the following kinds of risk:
Severe cognitive deficits
Within the normal range, IQ is moderately associated with future reading ability. But severe cognitive deficits are usually associated with very low, if any, reading achievement.
It has been well documented that children with hearing impairments are at risk of future reading difficulties. Although hard-of-hearing children tend to do better than deaf children, they are still at risk, even if they have good speaking abilities.
Early language impairment
Children acquire language at tremendously variable rates during the first four years of life. Yet some children are clearly behind by age two or three. This is an important signal. Delayed language development can be the first warning of a pervasive developmental disability, hearing impairment, or neurological problem. Any of these conditions puts a child at risk of future reading difficulties.
Often an evaluation by a speech-language professional reveals that these children have early language impairment. About 40 to 75 percent of preschoolers with such an impairment develop reading difficulties later—often along with other academic problems.
Expressive and receptive language delays
Children’s development of language during preschool years is strongly related to how well they will later learn to read. An infant’s achievement of “expressive” language milestones appears to have a particularly strong link to later reading achievement. Assessment of these milestones is part of regular well-baby visits and can be used to identify children at risk.
Children Whose Parents Have a History of Reading Difficulty
A child whose parents had trouble learning to read is not destined to failure. But such children face a substantially greater risk of reading problems. Once a child is having reading difficulties in school, pediatricians or educators often discover that someone else in the family has reading difficulties. It is wise for pediatricians to ask the parents of young children whether they had difficulty learning to read and, if so, to encourage them to lend extra enthusiasm to books and reading from the start—and to pay extra attention to signs of difficulty.
Developmental Interventions for the Youngest Children
“Many kids in our program have language delays. We really believe that, for them, exposure to language is key. Whether the problem is biological or environmental, you can go a long way toward increasing a child’s learning ability and cognitive capacity. Giving an enriched environment and heavy exposure to language and language materials—this is effective early intervention and prevention.”
Director, therapeutic day care
Children’s Institute International
Los Angeles, California
Most studies that examine the quality of preschools use broad-gauged tools that include language and literacy as only one small portion of the assessment. Such studies have found that it is precisely on measures of the language environment that preschool programs serving poor children scored in the inadequate range.
Strong language and literacy environments are especially effective for very young children who need an extra boost to promote their later success in reading. It is especially important for children who live in low-income communities and are slated to attend elementary schools with a poor track record in reading. Well-designed programs are also needed for individuals with specific difficulties, whether they are general cognitive ones, hearing impairments, or early language impairments. Children whose parents have a history of reading problems will also profit from well-designed language and literacy environments.
Catch Them from the Cradle: Earliest Interventions
Based on the tremendous influence of early childhood on later reading and academic success, it makes good sense to give children preventive early intervention if they appear headed for later reading problems or school failure. That is why federal and state governments give major funding to preschool programs nationwide. Unfortunately, researchers have often found disappointing results: education gains made in many preschool programs tend to dissipate as the children move through their elementary school years.
Many preschool programs are not as intensive as they could be. Children typically don’t begin until age four, and then with only a half-day program. Other early childhood interventions have proven more successful by enrolling children earlier and providing more comprehensive services and curricula.
In one impressive program studied by researchers, children began attending in infancy (typically about four months old) and received a wide array of well-coordinated education, medical, and family outreach services. The caregiver-to-child ratio was one-to-three, and so babies received a lot of direct individual attention from well-trained day care workers at the center. The center operated full days, year round. Daily activities for babies focused on cognitive and fine motor skills, social and self-help skills, language skills, and gross motor skills.
By the time children reached preschool level, the child-adult ratio gradually increased to one adult for every six children. Like any high-quality preschool, classrooms were equipped with centers for art, housekeeping, blocks, fine motor manipulatives, language, and literacy. In addition, caregivers and teachers were trained in language and literacy development. At age four, some children received training in phonological awareness in a 10-minute session, twice a week.
To help children make a successful transition into kindergarten, the program included a six-week summer transitional classroom experience in a large, socioeconomically mixed group similar to what they would encounter in public school.
The program also arranged for medical care on site at the child care center. Families received home visits for the purpose of parent education on child health and development, as well as parenting issues. Parents served on the center’s advisory board and were invited to a series of educational workshops. Social events also brought families to the center.
Not surprisingly, the children’s development was enhanced. From ages 18 to 54 months, they scored significantly higher on measures of intellectual development than the control group. At age five, they had higher IQs and better language skills. But what is most notable is that the positive impact was lasting. During a series of follow-up studies when children reached ages 8, 12, and 15, they were still outperforming the control groups on achievement tests. Significantly, fewer children had been held back a grade or placed in special education.
Time and again, research has confirmed that
with early intervention, children with disabilities achieve developmental milestones more easily;
with the right stimulation in early childhood, families and practitioners can help mitigate the lifelong effects of a child’s disabling condition;
among children from poor communities, early intervention can improve school achievement.
Reaching Out to Children’s Homes
Because of the enormous influence of family on a child’s school success, many family literacy interventions have arisen in recent years. These programs range vastly in intensity and type. But what most of them have in common is an effort to reach out to parents and caregivers with home visits from a parent educator, information on child development, and guidance on how to get children ready for kindergarten. In many family literacy programs, screening is available to determine if children have developmental delays.
Some family literacy programs reach out to parents even before their children are born, during the pregnancy. Other programs merely provide books to preschoolers, along with parent guidance on how to read effectively to children. Still other programs try to give parents themselves literacy training, as well as their children. Research on family literacy programs suggests that they have small but positive effects on school readiness, including small positive improvements in the reading materials available in children’s homes, as well as improved parent expectations for their children’s academic success.
It is important to note that, for children at risk of reading difficulties, high-quality experiences during preschool years cannot be seen as a way to prevent all reading difficulties. If a child has an enriched early childhood environment but attends a low-achieving elementary school with ineffective teaching, the child remains at risk. Indeed, the positive experiences of the early years will be muted if not followed by good instruction. Quality preschool followed up with high-quality primary education will reduce the number of cases of reading failure. There is, however, a small percentage of children who will have reading failure and for whom known interventions have not been successful.
Help in the Early Grades
To the extent that a child falls behind his or her peers in reading, that child is at risk of never reaching adequate literacy levels. Any child who is falling behind should be able to get immediate and appropriate assistance. No assumptions about or labeling of the cause of the problem should be necessary. Unfortunately, under current funding systems, millions of children can get help only if they are classified as learning disabled or impaired in various ways.
If children are having difficulty in first grade reading achievement, their classrooms should be examined to see if they need improvement. If their classroom instruction is appropriate but they are having difficulty in reading achievement, they should immediately receive supplementary reading assistance with one-on-one tutoring by a well-qualified reading instructor. In order to be effective, tutoring sessions should be integrated with what the child is learning and doing in class.
The Need for Reading Specialists
Schools that lack or have abandoned reading specialist positions must reexamine their needs for specialists and provide the functional equivalent of such well-trained staff members. Reading specialists and other specialist roles need to be defined so that there is two-way communication between specialists and classroom teachers about the needs of all children at risk of and experiencing reading difficulties. Coordination is needed at the instructional level, so that children are taught with methodologies that are not fragmented. Schools that have reading specialists as well as special educators need to coordinate these roles. Schools need to ensure that all the specialists engaged in child study or individualized educational program (IEP) meetings for special education placement, early childhood intervention, out-of-classroom interventions, and classroom support are well informed about research in reading development and the prevention of reading difficulties.
The Community Is Needed
Much of this book has been devoted to parents, teachers, day care workers, tutors, and other professionals who work with children every day. Yet enormous power is also in the hands of school superintendents, managers, elected officials, and other policy makers—from the grassroots level to the national stage—who decide how our children are educated, where resources go, and
which programs receive funding. If we are to succeed in ensuring that all children can read, then all parts of society must support and create the necessary conditions.
“Every adult professional in contact with parents and children—from pediatricians to retailers and even the business community—has the obligation to make children readers …. Children need to understand that reading can be anywhere. When you have five minutes of time, you can pick up a book, magazine, or whatever and read.”
National Head Start fellow and
Head Start administrator
Early Intervention in Reading
“We watch how they go about reading and writing, and where they need help,” says Joetta Beaver, a reading teacher/leader in Arlington County Schools, Ohio. “You start with their strengths and then you move on to what they need to learn next.”
One early intervention is for young readers who are having problems during their first year of reading instruction. The cornerstone of the program is extensive training for teachers, who then provide diagnostic, individualized one-on-one tutoring sessions each day.
Children from the lowest-performing fifth of the class are selected for the program. For 12 to 20 weeks, a specially trained teacher gives them a 30-minute lesson each day. These lessons consist of a variety of reading and writing activities, including reading familiar stories, reading a story that was read the day before, working with letters and/or words using magnetic letters, writing a story, assembling a cut-up story, and reading a new book that the child will read independently the next day.
This program has earned national recognition and praise for causing schools to recognize the value of providing extra help to children early in their school careers. Yet, the program has come under recent criticism for its relative neglect of phonics and high costs. Teacher training includes a year-long curriculum at a university training center and is followed by ongoing development in a professional network. The program is also costly because teachers spend about half of each day working one-to-one with only a few children. Although many tutoring programs use inexperienced volunteers, this program strives to give expert attention to the children who are struggling the most and often have complex needs.
“Most teachers get only one or two reading courses when they’re in school,” says Beaver. “Through the training, teachers get a better understanding of the reading process and how young children learn. Having a trained teacher makes all the difference in the world.”
“Three years ago, I went to the housing authority of our town and asked if I could organize people from my church to tutor children in a housing project. They said okay, so I started a program. Then I recruited eight other churches to get involved and start their own programs. All together we now serve about 350 kids a week in cooperation with their schools and teachers. We’re not funded by any government program, but every student who comes has a single tutor. We pick the kids up in buses and bring them to our church at around 6 o’clock on Monday nights. About 80 adults show up to help. The kids have to sit down and work hard for at least 45 minutes with their tutors on their homework or reading. Then we feed them and play games in the gym. By 8 o’clock, they’re back home.”
“The most important thing about this is that the kids know that there are adults out there who care about them. Many of these kids don’t get individualized attention except on tutoring night. These kids are all smart. It’s just a matter of getting their own desire started. We’ve got so many kids who were getting D’s and F’s, but they were smart kids. After six months of tutoring program, they now get A’s and B’s.”
Pharmacist and founder, church tutoring program
How effective is volunteer tutoring?
How can it be used most effectively?
Good volunteer programs must include comprehensive screening procedures for selecting volunteers, professional training of tutors, and excellent supervision of their ongoing work with children. Volunteers are particularly helpful when they spend their time reading to children, giving children supported practice in oral reading, and allowing opportunities for enriching conversation. However, volunteers should not be used to provide primary or remedial instruction to children. Nor should they be expected to deal effectively with children who have serious reading problems. Volunteer tutors can provide very valuable practice and motivational support for children learning to read.
Reaching Out to Parents in High-Risk Neighborhoods
Children must have access to books if they are to read. But books in themselves are simply not enough. Children also need to have a caring adult to read to them and talk to them, preferably every day. In many high-risk families, parents may have poor reading skills themselves and not much experience with books. They may not know how to choose good literature or engage their children in reading. And they may not know how important daily reading is from infancy through early school years.
One unique effort located in Pennsylvania tries to get children and parents passionate about reading together. In addition to distributing free high-quality books to thousands of low-income families, the program also sponsors Read-Aloud Parent Clubs. These groups meet weekly at libraries, schools, and public housing projects to help give parents helpful techniques and confidence for reading with their children. Over the course of 6 to 14 sessions, parents receive:
The parent book clubs were originally developed for Head Start parents, but since have expanded into public housing communities and for parents of Title I kindergartners. The program also includes a bookmobile—a library on wheels, which visits low-income communities and day care centers, encouraging children and adults to borrow books on a regular basis.
Tutoring Individual Children at Risk
In school lunchrooms, public housing projects, church basements, and libraries all across the nation, tutors spend time with children helping them learn to read. But what is the best way to go about this task? How can tutors be put to best use?
Two programs described below have had some significant successes in improving children’s reading success. Both share a commitment to quality, with well-trained tutors, regular monitoring, and coordination with the child’s school.
One program, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, provides one-to-one tutoring by community volunteers in a program that is designed to supplement instruction the child receives in class. First and second grade children are recommended by their classroom teachers. Tutors are trained in research-based methods three times a year during two-hour sessions. At each school, a reading coordinator supervises 15 volunteer tutors and their tutees, and also provides ongoing training and support for the tutors. Two times a year, the coordinator assesses children individually to design an appropriate program, monitor progress, and coordinate with classroom teachers and parents.
The tutoring program consists of 45-minute sessions twice a week. During these sessions, students reread familiar storybooks, read new books, and practice writing. Word study is a unique aspect of the program and gives children practice with letter formation, sound segments within words, letter-sound correspondences, spelling patterns, and meanings. A quasi-experimental research design found significant improvements in alphabet recognition, speech to print abilities, phonemic awareness, word recognition, and reading accuracy of a first grade text.
A Texas-based program uses trained and paid paraprofessional tutors (college students, community residents, teacher aides) to deliver three to five weekly one-on-one tutoring sessions to low-performing readers throughout the school years. Children in grades one to six are recommended by their teachers for the program.
Each child is assessed and placed into an ability level, ranging from those who are still learning their letters to those who are able to read at least the easiest books on their own. The curriculum combines explicit instruction on decoding skills with the use of small books that are ranked by difficulty level—including fiction and nonfiction—from emergent literacy level through fluency level. Sessions last for 45 minutes and always include reading and writing. Children are assessed every fifth session. One evaluation of this program shows that a set of sessions (taking about four to six months) typically raises a child’s grade equivalent score by about a half year.
Children who do well in reading from the beginning rarely stumble later on. Those who have difficulty in the primary grades tend to remain behind their classmates as the years go by—even though they receive remediation. This fact, reconfirmed again and again, is a painful testimony to the importance of addressing reading difficulties as early as possible in a child’s life. As important as it is to hold out hope for every struggling reader in our middle and high schools, there is no substitute for an all-out effort to ensure that all of our children start out right, so that they never have to experience the consequences of failure and frustration that are so prevalent in our schools.
“The way children initially are taught how to read is critical to their success. We’ve waited until children are struggling and then put so much money into remediation. But I’m just not sure how well that has worked. The way a child learns how to do something the first time makes all the difference.”
El Vista Elementary School