What should after school programs be doing to help struggling readers?

By Stell Simonton, Youth Today

One-on-one tutoring programs like Experience Corps have the most evidence for helping struggling young readers in an after-school setting. Sounding out letter combinations is a crucial step in assisting struggling readers, but this effective teaching method has often been sidelined, according to experts.

Nineteen years ago, a panel of experts spent two years assessing the major research on teaching kids to read. Once and for all, they wanted to lay to rest a simmering controversy about reading instruction.

But nearly two decades later, American schools are not using what the panel learned.

And currently only two-thirds of American fourth graders meet reading proficiency standards. Even worse,  only one-fifth of low-income kids perform proficiently.

If teachers aren’t using effective practices, what about countless out-of-school efforts to assist kids in reading?

What should after-school programs be doing — especially when working with struggling readers?

Louisa Moats calls the lack of effective reading instruction a national scandal “for decades.” Moats is a retired researcher,  psychologist and writer who was the site director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Interventions Project in Washington, D.C.

“We know what to do — let’s do it,” she said.

A systemic solution is needed, said Ron Fairchild, founding CEO of the National Summer Learning Association, and director of the Grade Level Support Center with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading.

The fact that so many low-income kids are not reading proficiently is “a full-blown crisis,” he said. “It should bring us to the table to say what do we need to do.”


The National Reading Panel in 2000 identified five components in teaching reading:

  1. phonemic awareness
  2. phonics
  3. fluency
  4. vocabulary
  5. comprehension

It found that these needed to be taught in a balanced way. Youngsters first need to understand how to break words down into separate sounds, a skill known as phonemic awareness. Then they need to match the sounds with groups of letters, a practice known as phonics.

“Kids need to be aware of the speech sounds the letters represent,” Moats said

“People are realizing that phonics is essential, that research supports it and that other aspects of language instruction have to be taken directly and systematically to kids,” she said.

“Kids at risk of being way behind grade level absolutely depend on somebody teaching them explicitly how to decode the print,” she said.

They need to gain fluency in reading, build their vocabulary and learn strategies that increase their understanding as they read.

“The good news is that when teachers do get good information about how to teach kids who are otherwise at risk … they tell us over and over they wish someone had equipped them with this information way earlier.”


When after-school programs seek to help children in reading, they, too, should call upon what has been shown to work.

“I would advocate for more after-school programs to try to adopt one of the proven voluntary tutorial programs,” Moats said.

A 2017 report from Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization, looked at existing research on out-of-school time literacy efforts. The report, “Supporting Literacy in Out-of-School Time,” was funded by the William Penn Foundation.

“We identified four types of programs that had some evidence base,” said Tracey A. Hartmann, director of qualitative research at Research for Action and a co-author of the report.

The types of programs are:

  • one-on-one tutoring, often involving volunteers or paraprofessionals
  • after-school enrichment programs
  • summer learning programs
  • computer-based instruction

One-on-one tutoring had the most evidence showing effectiveness, the researchers found.

Successful programs included Reading Partners, which focuses on vocabulary and comprehension, Experience Corps, an AARP volunteer program focusing on phonics and vocabulary, and Sound Partners, which teaches phonics.

“The effective programs all had some literacy content expertise,” Hartmann said. All were guided by a trained supervisor or school employee.

Highly structured programs were the most effective, the report found. These programs trained their tutors, who might be volunteers or paraprofessionals.

Each of the effective programs focused on at least one of the five components listed by the National Reading Panel and usually two or three, the report said.

“OST programs can identify the focus that works best for them,” said Rachel Comly, senior research analyst at Research for Action and a co-author of the report.

Addressing all five components may not work for a program. It depends on the context, she said.


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