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New Research Points to Success of Reading Partners Program

By guest blogger Amanda Ulrich

The perennial struggle of how to best assist elementary school students with low literacy skills may have a promising tool in the form of a personalized tutoring program called Reading Partners. According to a recent study conducted through the nonprofit research organization MDRC, and primarily funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF) and the Social Innovation Fund (SIF), Reading Partners has a positive impact on reading proficiency. The magnitude of this impact is rather consequential; many students who started the Reading Partners program six months to two and a half years below grade level can now read at the same level as their peers, and some even surpassed their grade level's reading expectations. 

Reading Partners, which aims to help children become lifelong readers by empowering communities to provide individualized instruction with measurable results, is a program within AmeriCorps, and serves more than 7,000 students in eight different states. AmeriCorps plays a major role in Reading Partners and the schools in which it operates. For instance, a full-time staff member, typically an AmeriCorps member, works at every Reading Partners site to recruit volunteers on a regular basis. These local volunteers assist elementary school students, who are typically from low-income and under-resourced schools, with a structured curriculum designed to improve students' reading skills. At every school where Reading Partners operates, a reading center is set up where students in the program come to be tutored about twice a week. 

Robin Tepper Jacob, the principal investigator of this study, and her colleagues sought to evaluate the procedures and results of Reading Partners. After assessing the program with 1,265 students at 19  schools, the researchers came to an encouraging conclusion. When compared to a control group of students, who continued to study their normal reading curriculum without the added benefit of Reading Partners, those in the comparative Reading Partners group scored 2 percentage points to 3 percentage points higher on a reading comprehension assessment at the end of the academic year.

As the study states, "Reading Partners had a positive and statistically significant impact on all three measures of student reading—comprehension, fluency, and sight-word efficiency."

Jacob accredited the program's ability to increase reading proficiency to two main factors: the support of community volunteers and the participation of students from several grade levels.

"We receive many different types of volunteers from the community, from college students to working professionals to retirees," Jacob commented. "This large-scale program of volunteers is able to reach a wide range of students, including kindergartners all the way to 5th graders."

Because 65 percent of students in the study's control group received some other type of supplemental reading instruction, the children who participated in Reading Partners were only receiving an average of one extra hour of tutoring a week than their peers. Despite having the benefit of only this additional weekly hour, students in Reading Partners were able to outscore their classmates. Jacob attributed this success to the "well-structured and thorough program model" of Reading Partners, which allows tutors to provide a more personalized form of reading instruction to students. 

This study also demonstrates Reading Partners' effectiveness in the face of some potentially problematic obstacles. For one, a majority of the unpaid tutors that Reading Partners recruits lack prior experience. As indicated by this study, there tends to be a relatively high turnover rate among volunteers as well. Due to both tutor and student absences, a student could see at least three different tutors over the course of two weeks. 

Dean Elson, the chief knowledge officer at Reading Partners, remarked that these challenges are offset by the easy-to-follow, individualized curriculum provided for tutors. 

"The curriculum is structured so that a volunteer tutor can come in and know exactly what to do, in what sequence," Elson noted. "Tutors have an important role to play; they bring an amazing, caring guidance to the program and are able to give students the one-on-one attention they really need."

In early 2015, there will be further analyses of MDRC'S findings. The additional reports from MDRC will address implementation of Reading Partners in elementary schools and will include a look at the cost-effectiveness of the program as a whole. As for now, Reading Partners is working on expanding to other schools around the country.

"Reading Partners is doing great things and we want to continue to grow our model," Elson concluded, "but the only way to have the kind of impact we want is to continue to work on partnerships and policy, and to share our information and knowledge with other organizations."

For a more in-depth look, you can read the full MDRC study here

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