Can AmeriCorps help millions of children learn to read better?

There are flashing red lights for an estimated 6 million children in the U.S., ages three through grade three. More than two-thirds of fourth grade students do not read proficiently. And those who do read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to graduate from high school than those who don’t. Being proficient in reading and graduating from high school are critical steps for success in our 21st century economy.

As a nation how do we help the millions of our struggling readers? Clearly, big solutions are needed.

One big solution is already in play ─ bring to the schools a well-organized, large volunteer force. Emma Brown, education reporter in a recent Washington Post article,[1] explores this solution by asking if volunteers can help kids read more proficiently. Her answer is yes.

We’re not talking here about the small-scale tutoring programs that in the past reached relatively small numbers of children at a school. Given the enormous dimensions of the nation’s child literacy problems, there’s growing recognition that we’re talking about large-scale solutions. One solution researchers are studying is an effort to bring a scaled-up volunteer force to the schools. The volunteer program they’re aiming their searchlight on is AmeriCorps.

AmeriCorps is one of the programs operated by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that engages more than 5 million Americans in service through four main programs ─ AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, Social Innovation Fund, and Volunteer Generation Fund. In a recent blog post, [2] the CEO of the CNSC (Wendy Spencer) makes the point that ‘national service is a powerful strategy for addressing critical problems facing our nation,’ calling out ‘new evidence of AmeriCorps’ effectiveness in improving childhood literacy.’

The evidence is that AmeriCorps volunteers are helping millions of children to improve their reading proficiency.[3] Examples come from two recent evaluation studies of programs in operation in Minnesota and California:

  • “An independent evaluation of the Minnesota Reading Corps, which relies on AmeriCorps service members to identify and tutor struggling students, showed that preschoolers in the program were far more likely to gain the literacy skills they need to be ready for kindergarten than other preschoolers.”[4]
  • “A separate study of a different tutoring program, Oakland, Calif.-based Reading Partners, found that it added about two months of additional growth in students’ reading proficiency. And it made that difference despite depending on AmeriCorps members and community volunteers, who had no special training in literacy education.”[5]

To gain these positive outcomes, the programs working in schools operating in several states ─ not only Minnesota and California ─ need the right training for the volunteers and the right curriculum for the students.

You might ask, why are schools looking to volunteers ─ what about the reading specialists and classroom teachers in the schools? Why aren’t they the front line ─ and perhaps the only line ─ in working with children with reading challenges?

There are indeed reading specialists in many of the elementary and secondary schools in our states[6] who typically serve as teachers, coaches, and/or leaders of their school reading programs. They’re authorized by their licenses to teach reading and provide technical assistance and professional development to classroom teachers. They also support, supplement and extend classroom teaching, and work collaboratively to implement their school’s reading program. But the fact is, there are not enough to go around. And while we all want the best trained teachers in reading ─ the reading specialists[7]─ to work with children struggling with reading, this is not possible. Too often, the reading specialists who have been tutoring children for years in our schools have shifted their roles ─ now directing much of their effort to helping classroom teachers improve effectiveness in teaching reading and overseeing school reading programs. And the classroom teachers don’t have the time to focus on the one-to-one reading challenges of so many of their students.

So, where does this leave children who need help to develop reading proficiency?

The handwriting is already on the wall ─ we cannot/will not be able to bring in enough trained reading specialists and classroom teachers to take on the mammoth challenges of child literacy in our schools. So, an approach of recruiting a substantial volunteer force to address this problem is being tested in many schools. This approach is not without controversy ─ the “prospect of tapping an army of untrained people to tackle students’ literacy problems doesn’t sit well with everyone.”[8]

Nevertheless, many schools are bringing in a volunteer force to scale up efforts to help children improve their reading proficiency. Two substantial trials have been the Minnesota Reading Corps and Reading Partners programs.[9] With support from the CNCS and matching funds from the private sector and other sources, the Reading Corps program has expanded beyond Minnesota to seven additional states (California, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota, and Virginia) and the District of Columbia.

These developments have grown fairly quickly. Just 12 years ago, the Minnesota Reading Corps[10] initiated its experimental program for 250 children with the goal to get every first-grader reading at their grade level by the year’s end. The early successes in the program led to rapid growth ─ nearly 1,500 AmeriCorps members are using the Reading Corps model to serve 36,000 students across the country this year at more than 900 sites. In the early years of the program, it was the teachers and classroom aides who tracked students’ reading skills and provided the one-on-one help at the first sign of reading troubles. The program model shifted when they tried an approach to try to bring down costs and make the reading program easier to replicate in other schools ─ they would try ‘handing over all that tracking and tutoring to members of AmeriCorps.’[11]

This approach worked. And this is the program model in play today─ AmeriCorps volunteers assess children from kindergarten through grade three at three points per year to determine who needs what type of reading assistance. ‘They pull struggling students out of their classes every day for 20-minute one-on-one sessions, using scripted lessons to work on literacy skills that range from identifying letter sounds to reading fluency.’[12] At the preschool level, AmeriCorps volunteers tutor children and work alongside teachers in the classrooms all year long. A few days of training is provided for volunteers before they begin their work in the schools; and once at the school, they receive ongoing guidance from a teacher at the school (internal coach) plus an employee of the Minnesota Reading Corps (external coach).

Bolstered by the impressive outcomes from this model, the Minnesota Reading Corps is now raising funds to expand into 10 additional states in the next five years.

Some promising evidence that this model works

  • A 2012 study found that Minnesota Reading Corps participants were three times less likely to be referred to special education, saving the state an estimated $9 million a year. Kindergartners and first-graders who received help from the Minnesota Reading Corps made significantly more progress than other children, even after just one semester, according to the study conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago. The program had less of an effect for children in grades two and three.
  • At the preschool level, by the end of the school year children in Reading Corps classrooms on average met or exceeded all five literacy targets for kindergarten readiness, which are based on predictors identified by a panel of national reading experts and include knowledge of letter names/sounds, rhyming, alliteration, and vocabulary. Children in comparison classrooms, on average, met only one target by the end of the school year.

The Reading Partners program which also uses a volunteer force ranging in age from teenagers to senior citizens is expanding in the schools as well. At each school, an AmeriCorps member serves as the site coordinator to train and manage the volunteers. And the children who work with a Reading Partners tutor are making ‘significantly more reading progress than their counterparts who don’t, according to an external evaluation of the program at 19 schools in three states.’[13] Even though the program is making a major and positive difference in the literacy development of children in the program, unfortunately ‘tutoring is not enough to solve all children’s reading struggles.’ The Reading Partners program is offering the equivalent of two extra months of instruction per year, but the fact is, some children are years behind.

The leadership at AmeriCorps has concluded that scaling their volunteer force to address child literacy issues is warranted based on this type of solid evidence coming from the evaluation studies of their programs:

  • Preschool children tutored by AmeriCorps volunteers were significantly more prepared for kindergarten than students without such tutors.
  • AmeriCorps members helped students meet or exceed targets for kindergarten readiness in all five critical literacy skills assessed, and the effect sizes were substantial.
  • The program was effective across a range of settings – and for all students regardless of gender, race/ethnicity, or dual language learner status.

Here are my three key takeaways in the face of the red lights flashing warnings at our nation’s child literacy problem:

  1. These programs have demonstrated they’re working for children based on the gains reported in the evaluation studies.
  2. These programs are providing a needed supplement to the good efforts of reading specialists and classroom teachers who cannot attend to the reading difficulties of the large number of children at their schools.
  3. Unless a new solution emerges for scaling up the type of one-to-one tutoring assistance needed by children with reading challenges, a well-organized volunteer force drawing from AmeriCorps should be expanded to increase the reading levels of millions of American children who need this critical help.


[1] March 28, 2015

[2] AmeriCorps Program Improves Childhood Literacy by Wendy Spencer, March 30, 2015:

[3] CNCS invests more than half of all AmeriCorps grant dollars in education, with AmeriCorps members providing teaching, tutoring, mentoring, afterschool support, and other services to students in more than 10,000 public schools, including one in three persistently low-achieving schools.

[4] Emma Brown, Washington Post article, March 28, 2015.

[5] Washington Post

[6] A Reading Specialist Certification (license) is required to serve as a reading specialist in elementary and high schools.

[7] Certification generally involves completing literacy-related coursework after one has obtained a bachelor’s degree. Each state has different criteria for obtaining reading specialist certification. Some states require general teacher certification, and some require at least one year of teaching experience in a general classroom before obtaining reading specialist certification. Some states require applicants to pass a reading specialist content area examination as well.

[8] Washington Post article.

[9] From Wikipedia ( Reading Partners is a children’s literacy nonprofit based in the San Francisco Bay Area with programs in over 40 school districts throughout California, New York, Washington DC, Maryland, Texas, Colorado, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Washington. In its core program, Reading Partners operates Reading Centers at elementary schools in under-served communities where children reading below grade level receive free one-on-one tutoring from volunteers using a structured, research-based curriculum. The program has a success rate of nearly 90% in measurably helping students improve their progress in reading, with over 75% narrowing the achievement gap by the end of the school year. Teachers refer students struggling with reading to the campus Reading Partners program, where they receive one-on-one attention of a trained volunteer tutor for 90 minutes each week. Tutoring sessions focus on building students’ reading skills in five critical areas of literacy: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.

[10]From The Minnesota Reading Corps is the nation’s largest AmeriCorps tutoring program. Since 2003, the program has helped more than 100,000 struggling readers age three to grade three progress towards proficiency, and the model has expanded to seven other states and Washington DC, now reaching more than 36,000 students annually. Tutors commit to a year of AmeriCorps service, receive training and ongoing support throughout the year from literacy coaches, and use assessments to ensure their efforts produce the desired results ─ helping children achieve grade-level reading proficiency. The effectiveness of Minnesota Reading Corps has been confirmed every year for the past 12 years. Internal evaluations are conducted annually and independent evaluations have been commissioned every three years.

[11] Washington Post article.

[12] Washington Post article.

[13] As reported in Washington Post, the study was conducted by the social science research firm MDRC and funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service