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Literacy First Program Helps Elementary Students Access Path for Success

Almost 60 percent of the kindergartners in Central Texas are already falling behind in learning to read when they begin school.

Literacy First, a program of the Charles A. Dana Center, provides daily one-to-one bilingual literacy tutoring to students in Central Texas elementary schools. Literacy First’s research-grounded, field-tested early intervention model addresses the “early reading gap,” a persistent and growing problem in U.S. education systems.

“These are smart, capable students, but early experience gaps mean they are playing ‘catch-up’ from day one,” said Mary Ellen Isaacs, executive director of Literacy First. “First-grade reading achievement predicts future achievement with alarming accuracy. If students do not read well by third grade, they are four times more likely to not graduate high school.”

Noting the crucial role that reading plays in other learning, Isaacs explained, “It is essential that students catch up their reading skills in the early grades so they can take full advantage of instruction in all their other classes.”

A young male student interacts excitedly with a male Literacy First tutor.

Adrian, a Literacy First tutor, works with a student at Harris Elementary School in Austin, Texas, November 2019. Photo by Phil Swann.

The Dana Center recognized and acted on this insight back in 1994, when executive director Uri Treisman worked with Gay Su Pinnell and colleagues at The University of Texas at Austin to launch AmeriCorps for Math and Literacy, which became today’s Literacy First.

For nearly 30 years, Literacy First has been driven by this goal of ensuring all children read well by third grade. Each year, more than 80 percent of participating students demonstrate accelerated and measurable progress to grade level in critical reading skills. The program staffs its tutoring cadre with recruits through the federal AmeriCorps program.

Two rigorous external evaluations, conducted by the American Institutes for Research and Agile Analytics, have shown that students served by Literacy First outperformed a comparison group. And two years later, these student gains were still evident, including higher passing rates on the third-grade state reading assessment (the STAAR, State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness).

“Not surprisingly,” Isaacs added, “those students also did better on the mathematics STAAR test—think word problems!”

Literacy First Goes Virtual

The pandemic–forced school shutdown in March 2020 both highlighted and exacerbated the disparities that fuel the early reading gap. “The students we serve were disproportionately impacted,” said Isaacs, “and they likely experienced more learning loss—creating a greater need for the additional support that Literacy First provides. “

Drawing on decades of experience in successfully implementing community-school partnerships, Literacy First has scaled and adapted to keep students on track and to mitigate any backward slide in learning.

After testing the feasibility of virtual tutoring with a limited number of students in Spring 2020, Literacy First learned that its lesson protocols could reliably be delivered via Zoom. That is, the program could still effectively monitor and graph students’ progress to grade-level reading goals.

With uncertainty still lingering about the rest of the 2020–2021 school year, Literacy First collaborated with campuses to plan for various scenarios, while also working alongside districts to find solutions for those far-too-many students who lack access to reliable internet or to computers.

While Literacy First typically works with students in grades K–2, tutors began the new school year instead working over Zoom with students in grades 2 and 3 in the Austin Independent School District.

“We haven’t worked with third graders in the past, but this additional support addresses the students who were in second grade when schools closed in the spring,” said Isaacs. “We want to give those students a chance to complete their reading journeys with us, while providing younger students more time to acclimate to new technology before participating in the program.”

Scaling the Model to Serve More Students

The need to scale up efforts to serve more children in Central Texas has been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, but expanding the number of students served has long been a Literacy First goal.

A young female student holds a certificate reading ""You're looking at the newest graduate of Literacy First - I can read!" while standing next to a female tutor.

Alyssa, a Literacy First tutor, celebrates a student’s completion of the program at Harris Elementary School in Austin, Texas, November 2019. Photo by Phil Swann.

For example, during the 2018–2019 school year, Literacy First piloted a program delivery model in which Literacy First–trained paraprofessional tutors in turn trained Del Valle Independent School District tutors and instructional coaches to effectively deliver the Literacy First program to students in Del Valle ISD. After this new district-based staffing model yielded the same strong results as seen in schools with the program’s traditional AmeriCorps tutor model, it was expanded to all 9 elementary schools in Del Valle ISD.

During the 2020–2021 school year, Literacy First is piloting an additional model in Del Valle that will train teachers to implement research-grounded literacy interventions in small-group daily lessons. “These new models not only enable us to reach more students,” said Isaacs, “but also empower districts to build their own internal capacity to improve their early reading programs.”

Through its expansion of services and purposeful adaptations to the virtual space, Literacy First continues to strengthen the effectiveness and sustainability of its model for this unique year and beyond.

As Isaacs put it, “We have a steadfast commitment to the goal of teaching students to read so they are empowered to learn.” It’s a commitment that ensures Literacy First will continue as a leader in closing the early reading gap in Central Texas.

Sarah Lowery
I’m a nonprofit development professional with a focus on marketing and communications. I love sharing the impact of Literacy First, an early literacy tutoring program teaching Central Texas students to learn to read so they may read to learn!

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