What Happens When They Teach the ABCs?

Reading Volunteers

To hear Roderick Kirby, you wouldn't guess that six months ago, he didn't know the alphabet. "Look at that fly. It sat on my hat." He chuckles, steals a glance at his tutor, then reads on: "My cap has a flap. Rap. Rap. Rap."

This first-grader has his "ap" and "at" sounds down cold. He can read them, write them, build words with them, and trounce his tutor at phonics bingo. "Hey, I lose. You beat me, man. Good job!" says Dedric Barber, a volunteer tutor with Book Buddies - one of the top reading programs in the country and one of the few that have learned to use volunteers effectively.

Volunteers are the latest strategy to resolve the nation's reading crisis. President Clinton has called for 1 million of them to help ensure that every child can read well by the end of third grade. Tens of thousands have already signed on to new tutoring programs associated with the president's America Reads Challenge. But, in fact, not much is known about how effective volunteer programs are in

helping kids learn to read. Few programs evaluate their own work. And reading experts worry that a surge of inadequately trained or supervised volunteers into America's classrooms could do as much harm as good.

"Some incredibly good teachers are having trouble teaching kids to learn to read by the third grade, so it's not surprising that there are a lot of volunteers out there who are floundering," says Barbara Wasik, co-director of the Early Learning Project at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "The worst-case scenario is that kids who work with these tutors will become unmotivated and find that they can't learn to read," says Ms. Wasik, who just completed a study of volunteer reading programs.

What makes Book Buddies so effective is that it gives volunteers close support and feedback, she says. The program was developed by the University of Virginia's McGuffey Reading Center in Charlottesville. It started small, and evolved slowly. In the past six years, its volunteers have tutored more than 700 students in Charlottesville schools.

A report released this month by the National Research Council says that Book Buddies achieved "considerably higher" results than those of other tutorial programs, often at a significantly lower cost; and that its tutors are comparable to professionally trained teachers.

Book Buddies tutors are not reading experts, but they teach as if they were. Mr. Barber is an employee at State Farm Insurance in Charlottesville. When he walks into one of his semiweekly tutoring sessions with Roderick, he picks up an individualized lesson plan and all the materials needed to teach it.

Barber signed on three years ago because he hoped that training in the Book Buddies program would help him tutor his own first-grader. He stayed because he loves helping kids make progress. For example, when Roderick moves from familiar "at" and "ap" sounds into the new worlds of "ad," he runs into trouble. He stumbles over "dad," takes a deep breath and makes a stab: "bad."

"Now take a good look," says Barber, gently. "What's that letter?...and that one.... Now say it.You got it. I saw you say it....There you go! Good job!"

Reading specialist Mary Boylin is on site and observes part of the session. She will also see in Barber's report that "ad" was tough going, so "ad" words will feature prominently in the next lesson plan she develops.

It takes at least 15 hours to prepare for the 30 hours of tutoring she supervises each week at the Burnley-Moran Elementary School. She develops lesson plans and then assembles appropriate books, games, and phonics cards based on her ongoing diagnosis of what a child needs to learn.

Tutoring sessions are tightly focused: 10 to 15 minutes for rereading familiar stories, 10 to 12 minutes for word study, 5 to 10 minutes for related writing, and 10 to 15 minutes to introduce a new book.

"Several programs have tried to copy the Book Buddies model, but omit the reading specialist because it won't fit the budget. That decision undermines the whole program," says Marcia Invernizzi, who teaches at the the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education and helped develop Book Buddies. "Most people have no clue how they learned to read. They just took it for granted. For kids that have problems learning to read, for whatever reason, it's hard work. And the tutor has to know exactly what to do," she says.

What people don't like to hear is that good tutoring is extremely labor intensive, she adds. She worries that volunteer programs like America Reads try to do too much, too fast, with less than adequate training.

Educators from Washington say that they are using the Book Buddies model for DC Reads, a volunteer tutoring project launched last fall in 16 city schools. Six local colleges and universities mobilized 579 federal work-study student tutors last fall and 758 this spring, funded by more than $1 million in federal work-study grants. In addition, colleges have kicked in $500,000 in grants and services. They plan to "massively expand" that effort next year.

But what fell out of the model early on was an on-site reading specialist. "A reading specialist was just too expensive," says Karen Hallerman of the Corporation for National Service, which helped organize DC Reads.

Instead, DC Reads uses AmeriCorps VISTA members to supervise college students and other community tutors at the schools. But the lack of a reading specialist to solve problems shows up in the quality of some tutoring sessions.

For example, during one session, a community volunteer at the Miner Elementary School asked a first-grader to complete the spelling of the word "panda." The student's guesses at the final vowel included: o, r, d, e, o, u, d, and o. The tutor followed up each wrong guess with "No," or "How did I tell you to spell this?" or "Now, what would that make it? - pan-dOOO." There was no lack of effort on the part of the student or affection from the tutor. But neither had a clue about how to get over that phonetic hurdle.

"We just weren't prepared for the fact that so many students didn't know the alphabet," comments Martha Kreiner, who organizes tutors at George Washington University. Ms. Kreiner help develop new materials for the school's tutors, including phonics flash cards. "Our library of reading aids has really grown, and we're seeing kids grow in literacy," says Sanjiv Gajiwala, a freshman tutor.

DC Reads is beginning a comprehensive evaluation of the program next month, and the need for better training and supervision is at the top of the list of concerns.

"There is an opportunity here to make a difference," Ms. Invernizzi says, "if people would wake up and listen to the research: There are no quick fixes and no substitute for knowledge about reading."

* Send comments to: chaddockg@csps.com

Getting Started

* Start small and develop slowly. The need is so great in some school districts that there may be pressure to get a big program off the ground immediately. Take care to set up a system that allows tutors to get good training and assistance.

* Don't skimp on a reading specialist, on site and available to volunteers. The specialist is usually the first to drop out of the plan, once budget constraints kick in, but experts say there is no element of a volunteer literacy plan that is more important.

* Just because you had no trouble learning to read does not mean you can teach someone to read. Volunteers need to understand the principles of language instruction, especially phonics. "It's difficult to take people cold off the street and have them do phonetic decoding without some instruction," says Barbara Wasik, co-director of the Early Learning Project in Baltimore.

* Structure tutoring sessions, including: rereading familiar books as a warm-up, word study, writing, and introducing new books. Seek out books that teach new sounds sequentially. It's better if a child is tutored by the same person every week to establish consistency.

* Provide on-site instruction and feedback. Don't just use reading experts as a resource of last resort for tutors. Often, the tutors most in need of help don't realize it. Collect data to measure the effectiveness of your program.

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