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Volunteer Tutors Found to Help Poor Readers

By Catherine Gewertz — April 07, 2009 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 3 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of the story gave an incorrect title for Nancy Morrow-Howell, she is a professor of social work at Washington University. Also, the story did not reflect that Experience Corps recently spun off from Civic Ventures.

A program that uses older volunteers as tutors has significantly improved the reading skills of students in the early grades, according to a study released today.

Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis studied more than 800 students in three cities in an effort to gauge the effectiveness of Experience Corps, a 14-year-old nationwide tutoring program that trains adults 55 and older to help elementary school children with their reading.

The report found that the program had “statistically significant and substantively important” effects on the youngsters’ reading skills, as measured by standardized tests and teacher evaluations.

In a conference call with reporters, the lead researcher on the project, Nancy Morrow-Howell, said the study shows that struggling readers made 40 percent to 60 percent more progress in essential reading skills during the school year than did similar students who did not take part in the tutoring program.

“The Experience Corps program does lead to greater improvement in reading abilities for low-reading students,” said Ms. Morrow-Howell, a professor of social work at Washington University.

The researchers took as their study group 883 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders who had been referred for reading help in schools in New York City, Boston, and Port Arthur, Texas, that participate in the Experience Corps program. About half were tutored by Experience Corps volunteers, who use a prescribed curriculum and typically work one-on-one with children. Youngsters in the control group received no tutoring, or used services other than those provided by Experience Corps, Ms. Morrow-Howell said.

Faster Gains Made

Pretests showed that students in both groups had equivalent skills; half performed as low or lower than 84 percent of students their age nationally, the study says.

Researchers from Mathematica Policy Research Inc., which collected data for the study, used several tests to measure three aspects of the children’s reading skills after participating in the program for one academic year. Teachers assessed a fourth area: grade-specific skills.

Children in the Experience Corps group made 60 percent more progress during the year than those in the control group in two areas—comprehension and “word attack,” or phonetics—and 40 percent more progress than the control group in grade-specific reading skills, Ms. Morrow-Howell said during the conference call. The study found little difference between the Experience Corps children and the control group in the fourth area: their grasp of vocabulary.

The researchers found similar effects of the program regardless of students’ gender, race, ethnicity, or command of English. Ms. Morrow-Howell noted that one-quarter of the students studied had limited English proficiency. The research team did find, however, that students in special education benefited less than other subgroups from the program.

The study also found that teachers “overwhelmingly rated the [Experience Corps] program as beneficial to students,” and said they did not find it burdensome.

Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the director of its Center for Literacy, said the Experience Corps program boasts key assets, including a reliable group of tutors who receive systematic training and use the same curriculum.

“Tutoring works, and these folks have found some good ways to do it,” he wrote in an e-mail to Education Week, after reviewing the study.

The study was “rigorously done,” said Mr. Shanahan, who served on the National Reading Panel. But he noted that while the effect of the tutoring was positive, it was also “modest”—equivalent to one more month of progress than in the control group.

Experience Corps, whose 2,000 tutors currently serve 20,000 students in 23 cities nationwide, was developed by the San Francisco-based Civic Ventures, a nonprofit organization that seeks to engage the skills of baby boomers in solving social problems. It is now an independent organization. Other Civic Ventures programs include the Purpose Prize, which honors social innovators older than 60, and The Next Chapter, which supports community groups that are trying to help midlifers connect with meaningful service work.

A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2009 edition of Education Week as Volunteer Tutors Found to Help Poor Readers

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