How should reading literacy be measured? PISA thinks globally …

especially Most of us think that reading is looking at written words and de-coding them ─ and understanding what the words are saying. And, to test students’ skills at reading, that’s what you focus on ─ how well did students de-code and how well did they comprehend what they read.

But there’s so much more to reading, especially after students master the basics. What comes next then?

Think globally and check out PISA’s definition of reading literacy: ‘the capacity to understand, use, reflect on and engage with written texts, in order to achieve goals and develop knowledge and potential ─ and participate in society.’[1]

The PISA view is ─ you can’t really participate in society without reading literacy ….

Who is PISA and why should we care about this definition of reading literacy?

PISA stands for The Programme for International Student Assessment.[2] PISA is an international test conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) of 15-year-old school students’ performance on math, science, and reading. The purpose of these assessments is to try to improve education by delivering information to policymakers and educators about how students are doing.

Every three years since the year 2000, 15-year-old students from randomly selected schools throughout the world take PISA assessments in the core subjects of reading, math, and science ─ and beginning in 2012, some nations also elected to participate in an optional assessment for problem solving and financial literacy. In each year of the assessment, PISA especially focuses on one of the core subjects.

What are the PISA assessments like?

The two-hour long PISA assessments are a mixture of open-ended and multiple-choice questions that present reading passages in real-life situations. A total of about 390 minutes of test items are covered. The students and their school principals also answer questionnaires to provide information about the students’ backgrounds, their schools and learning experiences ─ and about the broader school system. This background information is important for understanding how to interpret information collected from schools in many different systems and nations.

Why should we care how 15-year-olds in the U.S. stack up to 15-year olds in other nations?

Consider how reading literacy is assessed and then you decide …

In PISA, reading literacy is assessed in three ways: (1) the format of the text, (2) the processes of reading, and (3) situations for reading.

The format of the text: In typical tests of reading in the U.S, students are asked to read text presented in a series of sentences and paragraphs; and they’re tested on ability to read and comprehend from that format. But PISA tests additional types of reading formats such as information contained in lists, graphs, and diagrams; and reading that occurs in varied formats ─ story-telling, application forms, and advertisements. The thinking behind this is that individuals will encounter all types of written materials in their life and we should know how prepared they are to read these varied materials. In my early career, I worked as a K-12 resource teacher in a big public school district and recall so clearly the Superintendent of Schools remarking that a good teacher could teach reading from “the Yellow Pages.” Back then, that was the book that contained alphabetical lists of businesses and non-profits in the city; and it did contain the names of businesses and their addresses, phone numbers, ads, pictures, and charts about who they served. His words ring ever more true about our need to be sure our students can indeed interpret the world around them – through reading all kinds of materials, though the Yellow Pages have by and large given way to the world of websites now for this information.

The processes of reading: The PISA test does not assess 15-year olds on basic reading skills because it assumes that most students by this age will have these skills. What PSA does focus on is how well students can access and retrieve information; and whether they can form a general understanding of the text─ and interpret it and reflect on its contents and its form and features.

Situations: The PISA test wants to know how well a student reads for four different “situational” uses ─ reading for private use (personal); reading for public use; reading for work (occupational); and reading for education. For example, reading a novel, personal letter or biography is for private use; reading official documents or announcements are for public use; reading a manual or report is for occupational use; and reading a textbook or worksheet is for educational use. Some groups may perform better in one reading situation than another, so the assessment includes a range of reading situations among the test items.

Who among us could argue persuasively that our students need only to read well in one or two of these four situations?

In the most recent PISA assessments, some 70 nations participated. The PISA results are tabulated by country ─ and recent testing cycles have separate provincial or regional results for some countries. The public attention, as you would expect, focuses on rankings: the average scores of countries and how they stack up next to one another. PISA never combines math, science and reading scores into an overall score to create a “best of show.” However, some folks have combined test results from all three areas (math, science, reading) to create such a ranking system. OECD does not endorse this type of summarizing of the outcomes of these assessments, however.

How does the U.S. stack up in the most recent reading assessment for our 15 year-olds?

PISA 2012 testing results were announced on December 3, 2013, based on tests of some half a million (510,000) participating students in all 34 OECD member countries plus 31 partner countries. Here are the rankings by country for reading. You have to scan pretty far down the list to find the U.S. at 24th on the list among 65 nations!

Reading scores PISA 2012 (reported 2013)

Rank            Country                         Score

1 Shanghai, China 570
2  Hong Kong, China 545
3  Singapore 542
4  Japan 538
5  South Korea 536
6  Finland 524
7=  Taiwan 523
7=  Canada 523
7=  Ireland 523
10  Poland 518
11=  Liechtenstein 516
11=  Estonia 516
13=  Australia 512
13=  New Zealand 512
15  Netherlands 511
16=  Macau, China 509
16=   Switzerland 509
16=  Belgium 509
19=  Germany 508
19=  Vietnam 508
21  France 505
22  Norway 504
23  United Kingdom 499
24  United States 498
25  Denmark 496
26  Czech Republic 493
27=  Austria 490
27=  Italy 490
29  Latvia 489
30=  Luxembourg 488
30=  Portugal 488
30=  Spain 488
30=  Hungary 488
34  Israel 486
35  Croatia 485
36=  Iceland 483
36=  Sweden 483
38  Slovenia 481
39=  Lithuania 477
39=  Greece 477
41=  Russia 475
41=  Turkey 475
43  Slovakia 463
44  Cyprus 449
45  Serbia 446
46  United Arab Emirates 442
47=  Thailand 441
47=  Chile 441
47=  Costa Rica 441
50  Romania 438
51  Bulgaria 436
52  Mexico 424
53  Montenegro 422
54  Uruguay 411
55  Brazil 410
56  Tunisia 404
57  Colombia 403
58  Jordan 399
59  Malaysia 398
60=  Argentina 396
60=  Indonesia 396
62  Albania 394
63  Kazakhstan 393
64  Qatar 388
65  Peru 327


The press reports on PISA going back to its origins in 2000, and more recently, have stirred up considerable debate about how our school systems should be changed in light of what many folks think has been a lukewarm performance by U.S. 15-year olds.

Regardless of what our ranking is among nations, we should be asking ourselves: do we want our children to achieve a use-able level of reading literacy in the four situations we know reading is vital for ─ to read for private use; to read documents for public uses; to read for work/occupational uses; and to read for education uses?

I’m a fan of thinking globally when it comes to assessing the real-life reading literacy skills of our students. I can hear my former Superintendent of Schools calling for us to teach reading from the Yellow Pages ─ he understood decades ago that reading was indeed a skill our students would need to apply in multiple situations.


[1] OECD, 2009:

[2] The U.S. rendition of their name is, The Program for International Student Assessment.

How can a map of tech-assisted interventions in early literacy be helpful?

Technology tools sit at our kitchen table, ride with us in our car, and take a place on our bedside table. Smartphones, tablets, TVs with video games, and computers are turned on ─and we’re tuned in, adults and children alike.

These developments are not lost on educators. Shayna Cook who studies an array of policy issues concerning birth through third grade for New America’s Early Education Initiative recently noted that: “Many early education programs around the country are beginning to determine how they might harness these [technology] tools to engage with parents, improve home-to-school connections, and otherwise augment efforts to help children develop early language and literacy skills.”[1]

Cook describes an interesting new effort led by New America and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop ─ the launch of an interactive U.S. map of early literacy programs categorized into five buckets:

  1. Professional learning programs
  2. Center and school initiatives
  3. Home visiting and parent engagement programs
  4. Library and museum programs
  5. Public media partnerships.

The just-released “beta” version of the interactive map lets you click on “pin-drops” categorized by these five types of programs. What you get when you click on the map is information about the literacy program; for example, where the program is located, what tech tools are used, and what evidence of impact there is on children’s reading skills through the program’s intervention. Each program provides information within the following 14 categories:

  • Program description
  • Summary
  • Story of program beginning
  • Program goal
  • Technological tool(s)
  • Purpose of technology
  • Technology concerns
  • Biggest challenges
  • Program documentation
  • Evidence of impact
  • Evidence of impact rating
  • Larger initiative
  • List of program partners
  • All locations

For example, when you click on the pin-drop positioned in central Ohio, up comes “Kids Read Now” which targets children ages 6-8 and is categorized as a center/school initiative. The description tells us that this program “seeks to eliminate the summer reading slide[2] by partnering directly with schools to enroll students in grades K-3. Students choose nine books, attend a Family Reading Night event where they receive the first three of those books, and then receive weekly phone calls/text messages/emails throughout the summer to remind them to read their books. These calls, placed using One Call Now technology, allow students to record books they have finished. When a book is reported as finished, the child is sent another book from his/her list through the mail. Children keep all books.”

While this program is available nationally, the statistics seem to come from Ohio and Indiana: “During summer 2014, we enrolled 4,000 students from 22 school buildings in Ohio and Indiana in this program. We estimate our program will serve approximately 5,000 students from 24 buildings during summer 2015. We have hopes of growing to serve a national audience and are limited only by the amount of funding we have in place.”

When you click on the pin-drop in New Mexico, up comes the “Great Reading Adventure” which is in the library/museum category. This is “an online platform to help families engage in the statewide summer reading program and track minutes read over the summer. [The] online platform allows participants to earn badges and complete early literacy activities as they participate in the summer between May and August.” Serving more than 10,000 students, the technology tools the program uses are touchscreen tablets, mobile apps, and computers online. The program is finding “a way to make it easier for families to engage and participate in the summer reading program by using technology to help overcome common issues or challenges such as transportation or lack of access.”

The challenges identified by the 28 programs on the U.S. map are interesting. For example, New Mexico’s program cites the lack of or unreliable internet access, lack of professional development (presumably for librarians and other staff), and concern about using technology with families with young children (see other Z House blogs on research calling for limits on “screen time” for very young children). The Ohio program cites lack of access or transportation as a challenge.

The name of the mapping project is “InTEL: Integrating Technology in Early Literacy.” Early feedback on InTel is promising ─ the map-makers report “positive feedback from state and program leaders who have been testing new approaches and need to be able to see the landscape and find examples with a solid research base.”

This map is really for an “inside baseball” audience ─ state and program leaders and researchers in early child literacy. This is not a map that seems to be designed for parents, teachers, librarians and others on the frontline working with children to improve their reading skills. But the map could in my view morph into a source of useful information for a frontline audience as the map is improved in the coming months and years. It may be useful, for example, to know what programs are operating in your schools, libraries and museums; and what programs are out there in other communities that would be helpful to adopt/adapt for your community to fill gaps in literacy programs for children.

Efforts are underway to improve the map. The current pin-drops were fed by data collected from a national survey conducted in February 2015. The survey has been re-opened to collect more information. So the good news is the InTEL map-makers will continue to update and expand the pin-drop sites. More good news would be expanding the use of the map ─from the “inside baseball” audience to the “frontline” audience who could help call for the adoption and adaptation of well-tested early literacy programs.

Would that the “pin-drops” become so numerous on the U.S. map that the map-makers biggest challenge is how to portray them!

reading map


[1] “A Map in Progress: Integrating Technology in Early Literacy” (June 15, 2015):

[2] “Slide” refers to students who lose their reading skills during the summer.

Can your dog or cat help a child learn to read better?

Early this morning ─ really early ─ BJ the cat[1] sprawls across my collarbone peering into my face, “vocalizing.” Her meows grow louder which can only mean one thing: “get up, I’m hungry, can’t you hear me?” BJ is mostly deaf from advancing age. I’m convinced she has no idea how loud she is. As she tunes up the MEOW volume, I shuffle downstairs to get the food bowl ready ─run water in the faucet until it’s hot enough to mix with her canned food to make warm gravy. She watches quietly next to her tan placemat on the kitchen floor. As I put the food bowl on her placemat, she vocalizes soft mewings that I interpret as, “I’m happy to just about be getting my food.” Then there’s quiet while she laps the gravy. Next, a visit to the water bowl followed by stretching. Finally, a trip to the window seat where she waits for the sun to stream in for a morning sunbath.

BJ is 20 years + some months old. In her senior years, she seems to have more to comment on than ever before ─she did not vocalize much when she was younger. She never has been the kind of cat who might sit and listen contentedly, for example, to a child reading out loud. Why you ask would I even expect her to do this?

Well, I learned recently that some cats do –that animal therapy teams throughout the country are joining forces to listen to children read. So I’m looking at BJ through new eyes. Could we be a therapy team – go to schools and libraries and help children learn to read better? Nope, not BJ the cat and me. And truth be told, it’s primarily dogs who participate in these programs. I learned this from looking at the pictures of therapy teams posted on the Internet – from animal assistance reading programs in Georgia, Florida, Connecticut, Delaware, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Puget Sound.

So now I’m wondering how to get my therapy team together ─ join forces with a dog (or mellow cat) to participate in one of these programs because the data shows they are really helping children learn to read better. And children, schools, and animal therapy teams alike are saying it’s fun!

What do these programs look like? In an article for The Bark, [2] Anita Stone explains: “For each session, the dog and the child-tutor settle down onto a blanket-covered pad on the floor in a corner of the school media center or in the library. Either the dog picks out a book or the child selects a picture book, brings it to the dog, holds it flat and begins to read. Though the children believe they are teaching dogs to read, in fact, with the dog as a comfortable, attentive audience (and an occasional gentle assist from the dog’s adult volunteer partner), they are actually teaching themselves. As far as the child is concerned, however, reading is about the dog, not about the child. No pressure. No embarrassment. No humiliation.”

Stone provides some good history about these programs. “Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) was among the first to use “reading dogs” in the classroom. Launched in 1999 by Utah-based Intermountain Therapy Animals, the program was introduced in a Salt Lake City library … and a year later, successfully moved into the school system. READ dogs are trained, registered and certified therapy animals who serve as classroom reading tutors, assisting children with their quiet presence and helping them develop a love of reading.”

Many other programs around the country have followed suit. For example, a psychologist volunteering with Helping Paws International, collaborated with Intermountain to create a therapy assistance program called BARKS (“Bonding, Animals, Reading, Kids and Safety”) in Durham County, North Carolina. By 2002, the program had accepted and trained several breeds of dogs, and the demand from schools waiting to participate has grown significantly. BARKS dogs act as partners in 30-minute weekly reading sessions with elementary school children. “Helping Paws International” has also been successful in working with autistic children in North Carolina, and many teams are now operating in states such as Florida, Ohio, and Texas.

“Sit Stay Read!” was established in the Chicago area more than a decade ago by an owner of a dog training school. The Chicago program worked with teachers, reading specialists and literacy experts to establish a program focusing on reading fluency with second- and third-graders of low-income communities. One volunteer team (human + dog) works with groups of four children. The program started with four schools but quickly found some 40 schools were on the waiting list. The results have been really positive. Fluency test results show reading acceleration to 24 words per minute, versus 9 words per minute for children not involved with the program. And both the attendance of children and their attitude in the classroom have improved.

The Reading With Rover![3] literacy program places volunteers in the schools, bookstores and libraries of the Puget Sound area of Washington State to help with literacy programs. I especially enjoyed the testimonials (“woof” reviews) at their website. Here are a few:

  • It’s always been a struggle to get my child to read each day. I’ve never seemed to be able to find the right topics to draw him in. Reading with Rover has been a HUGE help! My son will read almost any kind of book during Reading with Rover, and he wants to read for the entire hour! This is so different from how he is at home. I highly recommend this program for any child who is not a fan of reading! ─ Jessica
  • My granddaughter is in love with your program! And when I was first introduced to it at Third Place Books last month, I totally understood her delight and enthusiasm. In the 40 years that I’ve been involved with education, I don’t think I’ve experienced a more exciting and rewarding program. I had tears in my eyes as I walked around and watched the various children read to these wonderful dogs! I have told anyone who will listen about it! I applaud all of your special efforts to make this so magical! ─ Jennifer C
  • Wow, was it a hit!!! Nate had a blast. Read to 5 dogs and finished 2 whole books. He was so proud of himself. He talked about the dogs all the way home. He is also trying to figure out how our unruly dog, Norton, could be a Reading with Rover dog. When we explained that Norton didn’t behave well enough to be around all those other dogs, he kept thinking. He’s now convinced we can start our own Reading with Rover at home with the neighborhood kids! I had to laugh. That should be funny. Thank you  ─ Shay H

All of these programs (there are many described on the Internet) report success in helping children learning to read. The biggest problem they seem to share is how to find more animal assistance teams.

So, what does it take for a dog (or cat even) to make a good therapy animal? These programs generally require registered therapy animals that have been trained and tested for health, safety, appropriate skills and temperament. And training for the human that accompanies the dog for the reading sessions is needed as well; for example, what to say to the child when Rover falls asleep while the child is reading to him.

A report on these types of reading assistance programs by ABC news a few years ago[4] highlighted researchers at the University of California, Davis, who confirmed that children who read to a dog really do perform better. They found that young students who read out loud to dogs improved their reading skills by 12 percent over the course of a 10-week program, while children in the same program who didn’t read to dogs showed no improvement. For young kids, one of the big challenges in learning to read is the embarrassment of making mistakes. Reading to dogs provides a simple solution — a non-judgmental, comforting furry friend who “listens” and takes the pressure off a child as he stumbles.

So, with the research suggesting that animals can help children learn to read better, I’m hoping that other lovers of animals will look into these programs to help meet the growing demand for animal therapy teams.

I wish that BJ the cat could listen to children read but she’s doing too much of her own talking to be a good listener these days. My plan, therefore, is to look for a dog with the right temperament to be my partner in one of these programs in the future.


[1] Subject of one of the Z House stories: “How BJ Diana Came to Live at the Z House.”

[2]“Reading” Dogs Help Children Learn By lending an ear at story time:


[4] Report: Therapy Dogs Provide Comfort to Students. Study: Reading to Dogs Helps Children Learn to Read.


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




Visit Seussville & read Oh, The Places You’ll Go─it’s Dr. Seuss’ birthday!

March 2dr seuss 1 is an important day for reading ─ it’s Dr. Seuss’s birthday! Seuss would be 111 had he lived. The good news is, he does live – in his books, art work and at Seussville, official home of Dr. Seuss on the Web.[1] Seuss’s birthday has been adopted as the annual date for National Read Across America Day, an initiative on reading created by the National Education Association. School, library, and book store events are planned throughout the country to read one of Seuss’ books ─ in 2015 the book is Oh, The Places You’ll Go. Read Across America hopes that 45 million people of all ages will take time to read a book today to celebrate Dr. Seuss’ birthday. What a tremendous legacy.

Most parents, educators and children know the biggest Seuss bestsellers ─ The Cat In The Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, Horton Hatches the Egg, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. But do they know that writer and cartoonist, Dr. Seuss wrote and illustrated 46 books for children. And that he’s not done yet because a new book is coming out this July (What Pet Should I Get?), thanks to manuscripts and illustrations Dr. Seuss’ wife found while cleaning his office after his death.

You have to wonder if the phenomenon of Dr. Seuss as we know it ─ the fast-paced, rhyming stories leaping to life through whimsical characters─ would have happened without a “challenge” that was not really his own making. He had already published his first book for children (And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street) at the age of 33. Then he moved on to publishing books for older children. When Seuss was 51, a publisher asked him to write a book to help children learn how to read. But there was a catch ─ they would give him a list of just 300 words that most first-graders know, and he would have to write the book using only those words.[2] Seuss wasn’t sure he could do it, but two words jumped out at him as he looked over the list ─ “cat” and “hat.” So, Seuss took up the challenge and spent nine months writing The Cat in the Hat, published in 1957 when he was 53. While the book is 1,702 words long, it only uses 220 different words. Immediately, parents and teachers began using it to teach children to read, and within the first year of publication, The Cat in the Hat was selling an impressive 12,000 copies a month![3]

These “word” challenges continued for Dr. Seuss. Just a few years later, Seuss’s publisher bet him $50.00 that he could not write a book using only 50 different words. Seuss won the bet ─ Green Eggs and Ham published in 1960 uses exactly 50 different words ─ and only one of those words has more than one syllable (the word “anywhere”).[4]

dr seuss 2Clearly, Dr. Seuss enjoyed the challenges. And now we can enjoy the fantastic books, characters, illustrations, and more recently, Seuss “electronic” world at the Seussville website! If you haven’t visited the latter, check out this animated world complete with sound effects, maps, interactive games and activities kids and adults alike will really enjoy. I especially like scrolling through the pictures of different Dr. Seuss characters and having access to printable resources like a birthday certificate you can fill in with your child’s name and interactive activities (e.g., how many fish you can count in a row, characters you can color in).

So, on this 111th birthday celebration, big thanks to you, Dr. Seuss, for the many gifts you have bequeathed to younger and older children ─and adults alike. I count among these gifts many quotes that ring so true ─ here are my favorites:

  • You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.
  • Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!
  • Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!
  • You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own, and you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go.[5]

dr seuss 3


[1] Through the wonders of technology, Seussville is brought to life by Random House Children’s Books and Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P.:

[2] By comparison, picture books for children up to age 8 average 1,000 words (though many books are shorter); easy readers for ages 5-9 are 50-2,500 words, depending on the publisher and level of reader; chapter books (short novels for ages 7-10 typically are 10,000-12,000 words. Info taken from: <>

[3] Info from The Writer’s Almanac (produced by Prairie Home Productions and presented by American Public Media), March 2, 2015.

[4] Info from The Writer’s Almanac (produced by Prairie Home Productions and presented by American Public Media), March 2, 2015.