Photo of preschooler from Shutterstock.

Most low-income children start school with literacy skills that lag way behind their higher-income peers. A tutoring program that is coming to two DCPS preschools this fall is trying to change that.

Reading Corps, a tutoring program that started in Minnesota a decade ago, now operates in 8 states and DC. The program has two components that are organized differently: one for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade, and another for preschoolers.

In the DC area, Reading Corps operates under the aegis of a nonprofit, The Literacy Lab. During the last school year The Literacy Lab partnered with DCPS to bring the program to 10 DCPS elementary schools. Next year, the K-3 program will continue at those schools, and two of them—Aiton and Amidon-Bowen—will also be sites for Reading Corps’ preschool program.

While the preschool program wasn’t in place within DCPS last year, it did operate at one DC charter school and at 6 Head Start sites in Alexandria, with promising results.

All Reading Corps tutors receive training and work full-time under the regular supervision of instructional coaches. In the K-3 program, tutors pull students who are reading below grade level out of class for 20-minute sessions. But in the preschool program, tutors are embedded in high-need preschool classrooms throughout the school day.

A recent independent study of the K-3 program in Minnesota found that kindergarteners in the program performed twice as well as other students after only one semester of tutoring. More generally, students who were at-risk because they came from poor or non-English-speaking families showed significant gains.

Results of a similar study of the Reading Corps pre-K program won’t be available until this fall, but the program seems to work best with younger children: the K-3 study found that it had the biggest impact on kindergarteners. And a 2011 study in Minnesota found that the presence of a Reading Corps tutor boosted student achievement, including the development of social and emotional skills, far more than factors like the number of hours of school or average monthly attendance.

Early literacy gap

Reaching children as early as possible is crucial in closing the achievement gap between low-income students and their wealthier peers. A frequently cited study has shown that children living in poverty hear, on average, 30 million fewer words than higher-income children during their first four years of life. And the words they do hear are more likely to contain negative, discouraging messages.

A follow-up study showed that those differences put low-income children at a huge disadvantage on measures of language development and reading comprehension by 3rd grade. And 3rd-grade literacy skills are highly predictive of future academic success or failure.

Some have concluded that the best way to overcome the early-childhood literacy gap is to work with low-income parents to get them to speak more, and differently, to their very young children. In fact, the developer of Reading Corps’ pre-K program, Kate Horst, originally came up with the basics of its approach when she was working on a literacy program for parents.

But Horst points out that it’s easier to implement a program that relies on teachers and schools rather than parents. To be truly effective, she says, you need to use both approaches.

Horst, who is now the lead trainer and master coach for the Minnesota Reading Corps program, came up with a model that focuses on building vocabulary and recognizing letters and their sounds, among other literacy skills. At the same time, it emphasizes interacting with children in a positive, encouraging way that will lead to a healthy self-image.

The program in action

I was able to see the program in action towards the end of the last school year at one of the Alexandria sites, the Head Start program at Jefferson-Houston Elementary School.

In one of the two Reading Corps classrooms at Jefferson-Houston, a young tutor started a session on letter recognition with a little boy. “Letters, letters, letters have … NAMES,” she sang in an encouraging voice, following a required set of steps.

"This is the letter Q,” she told the boy, and then repeated “Q” several times. “What’s this letter? Can you trace it with your finger?”

The boy eventually said “Q,” but he was distracted by the activity in the rest of the classroom, which on this particular day included the presence of several adult visitors who were hard to ignore.

In the other classroom, the tutor had set up a kind of cardboard fort around the table where she was working with a little girl, in an effort to minimize distractions.

In the Reading Corps K-3 program, tutors remove students from the classroom for tutoring. While tutoring within a preschool classroom can pose challenges—in one room at Jefferson-Houston, two boys were loudly parading around the room with musical instruments—Horst feels that it’s important for a pre-K tutor to be seen as another adult in the classroom.

"I didn’t want to do isolated interventions,” she said, “because the way younger children learn is different.”

In addition to working one-on-one or in small groups with children who have been identified as at-risk, the tutors participate in group activities like the morning sign-in, when children learn to write their names. And tutors can use mealtimes as learning opportunities, finding ways to introduce new vocabulary words or speak encouragingly.

The tutors, whose modest living allowances are paid partly through the federal Americorps program, are generally fresh out of college and usually stay for only one year. But there’s fierce competition for the job: this year, The Literacy Lab got 500 applications for about 55 positions.

Promising results

Preliminary results from this year’s DC-area pre-K program are encouraging. Reading Corps tracks student progress through a red-yellow-green system, with red indicating a student who is below the target level on various indicators and green indicating one who is at or above the target. The bar graphs of test results for the various schools showed far less red as the year progressed, and far more green.

The expansion to two DCPS preschool programs this fall will cost about $100,000. That will cover 4 pre-K tutors, two in each school. A DC nonprofit, Fight for Children, is funding the program in full for the 2014-15 school year, according to Tom Dillon, co-executive director of The Literacy Lab. The hope is that DCPS will bear the cost of the program in future years.

It’s a small start, given the magnitude of DC’s achievement gap. But Dillon says the program can be ramped up to a larger scale: in Minnesota, there are now 1,200 Reading Corps tutors in 750 elementary and preschool classrooms across the state, serving over 30,000 children annually. And per-pupil costs decline as the program serves more students.

Perhaps in 10 years, or even less, DC will be able to provide a literacy tutor for every child who needs one. While that won’t be enough to ensure the success of low-income students, it seems like an excellent way to give them at least a fighting chance.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.