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What After-school Field Needs to Know About Best Ways of Teaching Kids to Read

literacy: Woman faces child at small table; child’s backpack hung over back of chair

Experience Corps

One-on-one tutoring programs like Experience Corps have the most evidence for helping struggling young readers in an after-school setting. Sounding out letter combinations is a crucial step in assisting struggling readers, but this effective teaching method has often been sidelined, according to experts.

Nineteen years ago, a panel of experts spent two years assessing the major research on teaching kids to read. Once and for all, they wanted to lay to rest a simmering controversy about reading instruction.

But nearly two decades later, American schools are not using what the panel learned.

And currently only two-thirds of American fourth graders meet reading proficiency standards. Even worse,  only one-fifth of low-income kids perform proficiently.

If teachers aren’t using effective practices, what about countless out-of-school efforts to assist kids in reading?

What should after-school programs be doing — especially when working with struggling readers?

Louisa Moats calls the lack of effective reading instruction a national scandal “for decades.” Moats is a retired researcher,  psychologist and writer who was the site director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Interventions Project in Washington, D.C.

“We know what to do — let’s do it,” she said.

A systemic solution is needed, said Ron Fairchild, founding CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, and director of the Grade Level Support Center with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

The fact that so many low-income kids are not reading proficiently is “a full-blown crisis,” he said. “It should bring us to the table to say what do we need to do.” 

Important elements

The National Reading Panel in 2000 identified five components in teaching reading:

  1. phonemic awareness
  2. phonics
  3. fluency
  4. vocabulary
  5. comprehension.

It found that these needed to be taught in a balanced way. Youngsters first need to understand how to break words down into separate sounds, a skill known as phonemic awareness. Then they need to match the sounds with groups of letters, a practice known as phonics.

“Kids need to be aware of the speech sounds the letters represent,” Moats said.

“People are realizing that phonics is essential, that research supports it and that other aspects of language instruction have to be taken directly and systematically to kids,” she said.

“Kids at risk of being way behind grade level absolutely depend on somebody teaching them explicitly how to decode the print,” she said.

They need to gain fluency in reading, build their vocabulary and learn strategies that increase their understanding as they read.

“The good news is that when teachers do get good information about how to teach kids who are otherwise at risk … they tell us over and over they wish someone had equipped them with this information way earlier.“

OST reading programs that work

When after-school programs seek to help children in reading, they, too, should call upon what has been shown to work.

“I would advocate for more after-school programs to try to adopt one of the proven voluntary tutorial programs,” Moats said.

A 2017 report from Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization, looked at existing research on out-of-school time literacy efforts. The report, “Supporting Literacy in Out-of-School Time,” was funded by the William Penn Foundation

“We identified four types of programs that had some evidence base,” said Tracey A. Hartmann, director of qualitative research at Research for Action and a co-author of the report.

The types of programs are:

  • one-on-one tutoring, often involving volunteers or paraprofessionals
  • after-school enrichment programs
  • summer learning programs
  • computer-based instruction

[Related: How well does your out-of-school time program support reading? Tool lets you assess it]

One-on-one tutoring had the most evidence showing effectiveness, the researchers found.

Successful programs included Reading Partners, which focuses on vocabulary and comprehension, Experience Corps, an AARP volunteer program focusing on phonics and vocabulary, and Sound Partners, which teaches phonics.

“The effective programs all had some literacy content expertise,” Hartmann said. All were guided by a trained supervisor or school employee. 

Highly structured programs were the most effective, the report found. These programs trained their tutors, who might be volunteers or paraprofessionals. 

Each of the effective programs focused on at least one of the five components listed by the National Reading Panel and usually two or three, the report said.

“OST programs can identify the focus that works best for them,” said Rachel Comly, senior research analyst at Research for Action and a co-author of the report.

Addressing all five components may not work for a program. It depends on the context, she said.

Reading support can be part of enrichment

A broad after-school enrichment program can also have an effective literacy component that is not one-on-one, the researchers found. They identified five  such programs, including one by the nonprofit Save the Children and the KidzLit curriculum used by Mercy Housing and CORAL. KidzLit was created for paraprofessionals to use in out-of-school time.

All the programs had a clear structure and a well-defined curriculum, the researchers said. Each focused on at least one component listed by the National Reading Panel.

The impact of these programs may be as great as tutoring, but the strength of the evidence was not as good, the report said. The programs did not necessarily target struggling students, but they did serve them effectively, the report concluded.

Kids do have to have regular participation to see a benefit, Comly said. Therefore, after-school providers must determine whether they can devote adequate time to the literacy effort, she said.

The content of the program needs to be aligned with student needs, the report said. Having data on student reading ability allows providers to select the right material for them.

How well do summer learning programs work?

Five summer reading programs were found to be effective.

“Summer programming had a lot of evidence to support it,” Hartmann said.

Among them were BellXcel Summer, which has programs in 34 states, RIF Summer Success Model, which was tested with 33,000 students in 16 states, and Teach Baltimore, a program in that city.

Four of the five used certified teachers; another used AmeriCorps volunteers. Four had a packaged curriculum, while another developed its own.

Evidence for the effectiveness of computer-based programs is mixed, although some teaching phonics were shown to be effective, the report said.

After examining the impact of out-of-school time reading programs, “we tried to highlight some key important practices,” Hartmann said.

Before introducing a literacy program, make sure you’ve created a supportive climate for students, Comly said. It’s also important to align your program with the schools and to involve parents, she said.

A case for systemic change

Many individual programs are having positive outcomes, said Fairchild, with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

“The question is why individual efforts are not adding up to large-scale change,” he said.

Kids who are far behind are often those who are chronically absent from school and don’t have enough summer and after-school enrichment and support, he said.

“After-school and summer learning programs acknowledge that schools alone aren’t enough to solve this problem,” Fairchild said.

It’s necessary to think systematically about a host of different opportunities and interventions, he said. Students need explicit instruction in the right sequence, with the right dosage, duration and intensity, he said.

“We need policy-level solutions that incentivize that,” he said.

[Related: Moonshot Moment]

A countywide effort in Indian River County, Fla., for example, involves schools, after-school and summer learning programs as well as parents, community leaders, businesses and nonprofits. It emphasizes kindergarten readiness and the training of teachers, coaches and volunteers.

“Until we mobilize the community to solve this problem broadly, our best efforts are not going to get us far,” Fairchild said.

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