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Afterschool and Community Programs

Effective Out-of-School Time Reading Programs

Reading instruction does not need to stop when the bell rings. Using out-of-school time (OST) can be an effective way to boost academic skills while engaging students outside of the classroom. Education research lab McREL reviews effective afterschool and summer programs that focus on reading, and identifies the components that make them successful.

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Proficient readers often take the act of reading for granted. Whether we’re glancing at street signs, reading the morning paper, or reviewing e-mail, reading is just one more thing we do as we go about our daily routines. For many children, however, learning to read is far from simple. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicate that a large percentage of students are not meeting reading standards.

In 2003, just 31 percent of fourth-graders, and 32 percent of eighth-graders, performed at or above the proficient level in reading (National Center for Education Statistics, 2004). Among children who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a key indicator of poverty, just 15 percent of fourth graders and 16 percent of eighth graders performed at the proficient level.

Within the current framework of standards-based reform and accountability, all schools and districts are required to ensure that every child can read and understand both literary and informational texts by the end of third grade. For any child, this is no small task. To achieve reading proficiency, students must master certain knowledge and skills at or before critical grade levels. During the primary years (K-2), children need to master the reading fundamentals, such as associating sounds with written words.

During the intermediate grades (3-5), children need to develop and use all word identification concepts and skills, as well as comprehension strategies such as recognizing confusion, adjusting one’s strategies, and identifying and summarizing main ideas and important details (McREL, n.d.). As children prepare for and progress through middle school and high school, they are expected to develop and use advanced reasoning for reading so that they can understand and interpret texts well enough to take and pass a college-preparation sequence of courses (Committee for Economic Development, 2000).

When children don’t master these increasingly complex reading skills on schedule, the negative effects spill over to other content areas. Struggling readers tend to fall farther and farther behind other students, not only in language arts, but in other subjects as well. Research shows, however, that this trend can be turned around. According to Slavin, Karweit, and Madden (1989), “the negative spiral that begins with poor achievement in the early grades can be reversed” (p. 4).

To help students attain proficiency in reading, many educators are considering out-of-school time (OST) strategies and programs. These educators are looking for effective programs to mitigate summer learning loss, remediate skill deficiencies, accelerate learning, and prepare students for the intellectual challenges of later schooling and work. In addition to addressing these academic focuses, OST strategies and programs enable educators to address the safety, behavioral, cultural, vocational, emotional, and social needs of students.

The timeframes for delivering OST strategies include afterschool, Saturday school, and summer school. The variation among the purposes and formats of these strategies reflects how interventions address the different academic and social learning needs of students. The National Institute on Out-of-School Time “believes that high quality afterschool programs focus on the development of the whole child, integrating academic supports such as literacy skills into programming that also promotes children’s social, emotional, and physical development” (Hynes, O’Connor & Chung, 1999).

Others have emphasized the informality of afterschool programs as being well suited to developing the social and cultural dimensions of literacy, such as helping children see how reading and writing can be intrinsically rewarding and relevant to their lives (Spielberger & Halpern, 2002).

Program developers seeking to design or strengthen OST interventions for their struggling students can find some useful guidance from research on the effectiveness of OST programs and strategies. Findings from McREL’s analysis of research, for example, point to potentially effective ways of providing students with instruction and related experiences that can help them advance their reading achievement.

Out-of-School Time Research

McREL, in its review of the research on OST strategies in reading, evaluated five program characteristics to determine their influence on the overall effectiveness of OST programs:

  1. timeframe (summer school, afterschool, Saturday school),
  2. grade level,
  3. activity focus,
  4. program duration, and
  5. student grouping.

On average, OST strategies improved the reading achievement of participating low-achieving or at-risk students by five percentile points. Although the available research is not definitive, McREL’s analysis, as well as guidance from other studies, offers a number of points that OST program developers may want to consider.

Targeting Interventions

Research has long suggested that programs and strategies focused on the prevention of reading difficulties in elementary students are most effective when they are delivered to children early in their schooling, before reading problems become entrenched and self-esteem issues stall the learning process (Mathes, 2003). The same appears to hold true of OST strategies for reading.

Programs that target students in grades K-2 show average gains of 9 percentile points (Lauer et al., 2004). Conversely, the gains in achievement for middle school students were minimal, and students in third through fifth grades actually showed declines in achievement. The research also indicates, however, that OST strategies also can have a significant positive impact for students in upper grade levels. High school students seem to reap strong benefits from OST programs; Lauer et al. (2004), for example, found that these students posted average gains of more than eight percentile points. These findings corroborate earlier studies suggesting that younger and older students benefit most from OST programs in reading.

Luftig’s (2003) report on a 2-week summer reading program illustrates some of the benefits of early intervention. As part of the program, at-risk students entering first through fourth grades engaged in a short-term reading intervention for part of each day. Students participated in small-group tutoring, phonics instruction, and computer-assisted instruction. Participating students were assigned either to the local school district or to a private for-profit organization specializing in academic interventions for students.

Though all of the students participating in the program showed gains when compared to nonparticipating students, those gains were strongest for first graders, who gained the equivalent of 6.5 months in reading proficiency. These gains may be a reflection of a good match between the content and the critical elementary school period — an important point for program developers to consider.

Though these findings reiterate the importance of early intervention for struggling readers, students in the upper elementary and middle school grades who have difficulty reading should not be ignored. Most research suggests that gains are greatest for younger and older students, but a few programs have shown gains for upper elementary and middle school students. OST developers might turn to these particular programs for guidance in working with students in the middle grades.

An afterschool homework assistance program studied by Leslie (1998), for example, which was designed to provide support and assistance to sixth, seventh, and eighth-grade rural students from poor families in Georgia, showed positive results. This afterschool program incorporated a variety of staff and instructional approaches. The activities were led by a group of volunteer tutors, including classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, and middle and high school students.

The adult tutors communicated with the students’ classroom teachers on a regular basis to ensure the most appropriate use of homework-help time. Tutors had access to computers and software that aided them in meeting the needs of the study participants. The variety of tutors and the variety of methods they used encouraged a level of individualization that the participants would probably not have experienced in their regular classrooms.

Students attended these tutoring sessions for 90 minutes, twice each week. They spent the first half-hour on homework assigned by their regular classroom teachers, and relied on tutors for assistance. The final hour of class was spent reinforcing the reading and mathematics objectives that had been taught to students during the regular school day. Tutors provided assistance to students as they worked on skill development sheets and computerbased activities designed to strengthen their mathematics and grammar skills. Some of the curriculum covered within the program was provided by classroom teachers in the form of lessons and activity sheets.

Following their year-long participation in the program, students showed significant gains on standardized test scores in reading: 31 percentile points for both sixth and eighth graders, and 49 percentile points for seventh graders. This middle school program did not fit into the grade span during which OST appears to be most effective, but it did have other characteristics that research has shown to positively influence student learning — for instance, tutoring and computer-assisted instruction.

When developing OST programs, program staff also should keep in mind the importance of implementing a well-defined reading curriculum, in particular one that addresses state standards. One OST study that offers guidance is Hausner’s (2000) study of the Project Accelerated Literacy (PAL) program. PAL includes eight major components of literacy instruction, which are modeled on scaffolded learning and a constructivist approach to reading and writing: read aloud to children, shared reading, guided reading, independent reading, modeled writing, shared writing, guided writing, and independent writing. Features of the PAL program include:

  1. small class size,
  2. a variety of learning centers integrating literacy tools and tasks (e.g., play office, art center, cooking, and book corner);
  3. a two-hour block of time for literacy instruction using large-group, small-group, and individual instruction;
  4. teaching practices based on each student’s performance on standards;
  5. scaffolded teaching that follows a sequence of modeling, guiding, observing, and practicing skills for students; and
  6. a thematic curriculum (e.g., foods, sea life, and community helpers) reflected in each activity center.

As a result of this 30-week, half-day program, at-risk kindergarten participants demonstrated a gain of more than 16 percentile points in literacy.

On the upper end of the grade spectrum, Rembert, Calvert, and Watson (1986) evaluated the Summer Camp for Academic Development (SCAD), an academic summer camp for 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students with “evidence of college level academic potential, but low motivation or intention toward postsecondary education”. For three to four weeks for each of two to three summers, students lived in dormitories on a college campus, attended classes, used college library facilities, and experienced a college atmosphere.

The college preparation classes focused on skill mastery in basic academics and simulated college instruction. Assistance with career planning and study skills instruction also was provided. Compared to nonparticipants, students in this academic summer camp demonstrated higher reading achievement (more than 19 percentile points) and were more likely to enter college.

It appears that when college is only an abstract concept, at-risk youth may not be as motivated to achieve academically in order to attend college. But making the notion of postsecondary education real to these students — and giving them the sense that they can be successful — may have increased their motivation to attend college.

The freedom and flexibility to address issues such as motivation, and to tailor instruction to specific student needs, may in fact be part of the increasing interest in OST programs. Interestingly, some research recommends similarly flexible approaches to in-school time instruction.

For example, in a review of the research on reading programs in general, Allington (2001) recommends that conversations about books take on the characteristics of out-of-school conversations. In out-of-school conversations about reading, participants tend to make connections between books, articles, and other materials and their own experiences. The value of designing programs and strategies that engage students in learning is that increased time on task can positively affect student achievement.

A Question of Duration

Although it is natural to assume that longer programs produce a larger effect on student achievement, this is not always the case. In fact, programs shorter than 44 hours and longer than 210 hours have been found to result in very small negative effects.

The ideal program length for improving reading achievement appears to be between 44 and 84 hours; McREL’s analysis found that children participating in OST programs for 44 to 84 hours achieved the greatest gains, a full 10 percentile points. In programs ranging from 85 to 210 hours, the performance increase observed was 7.5 percentile points (Lauer et al., 2004), less than medium-length programs but nonetheless a noteworthy performance improvement.

There are a number of possible reasons for the differences in gains. A program that lasts fewer than 44 hours might not be long enough to fully engage students and influence achievement in reading. It may also be difficult to sustain the conditions that promote student learning over a longer period of time, as indicated by the level of achievement gains found for programs longer than 210 hours. However, although programs more than 210 hours long may in fact be less effective — either because of a loss of focus, attrition of students, or for some other reason — studies indicate that how often students participate in afterschool programs can impact student achievement. As OST program developers established the preferred length of their programs, it is important to take these research findings into account.

Baker and Witt’s (1996) evaluation of two afterschool programs in Austin, Texas for elementary-school children yielded findings that point to the value of high levels of participation in OST programs. These afterschool programs were aimed at increasing student interest and engagement in learning by presenting academically oriented activities in the context of a goal-oriented, fun, recreational experience.

Each of the afterschool programs offered a different balance of activities — ranging from primarily academic activities to primarily recreational activities — in a series of multi-week sessions. Students could sign up for one or several activities each session or for several activities. Baker and Witt found that students who participated in three or more activities had higher reading grades than students who did not participate at all; students who participated in five or more activities had higher grades than students who participated in fewer than five activities.

In addition to increased participation, other factors, such as the quality of student-staff interaction, may have contributed to the success of these programs. Baker and Witt offer the observation that program leaders “tried to use the afterschool activities to provide quality contact time and highlight the linkage between fun and learning.” The success of this multi-session program suggests that variety should be a consideration in OST program design.

Choosing OST Strategies

In a review of extended-day and afterschool programs, Fashola (1998) recommends that OST program developers “adopt or create well-structured programs that provide extensive training” (p. 53). As part of this process, program developers must consider which research-based strategies are best suited to their students’ needs. One-on-one tutoring is one such strategy to consider.

Research shows that working with students one-on-one results in the largest achievement gains, 19 percentile points (Lauer et al., 2004). Schacter’s (2001) evaluation of the impact of an eight-week, summer day camp that implemented a systematic reading curriculum illustrates the potential for gains from one-on-one tutoring. The purpose of the camp was to increase reading achievement for disadvantaged first graders. Children received two hours of reading instruction each day; the remainder of each day was spent in recreational activities such as swimming, arts and crafts, music and dance. Participants showed significant gains in reading improvement — a more than 26 percentile-point increase.

In Morris, Shaw, and Perney’s (1990) study of an afterschool tutoring program, 60 low-achieving second and third graders were randomly assigned to either afterschool tutoring or a control condition of no tutoring. The afterschool tutoring was provided for one year by community volunteers who were supervised by reading specialists. The supervisors designed each tutoring lesson, and the tutors implemented the lessons and recorded their observations for the supervisor who, in turn, designed subsequent lessons. Tutorial strategies included shared reading, word study, reading books, and writing stories. Attaining the overall positive effect of afterschool tutoring on reading achievement (a 19 percentile point gain) required 50 hours of “well-planned, closely supervised one-to-one tutoring.”

Notably, each of these strategies has at its core a focus on differentiating instruction. One benefit of OST programs may be that they provide the time and flexibility needed to accomodate students’ different learning styles and academic and developmental needs.

Sustaining Gains Over Time

Some studies aimed at identifying strategies for closing the achievement gap indicate that OST strategies can be effective at preventing learning loss among low-achieving students, especially during the summer months. In fact, Borman, Rachuba, Fairchild, and Kaplan (2002) reported a cumulative impact on the learning of kindergarten and first-grade students in summer school over a period of two and three years.

In contrast, other studies have found that students did not sustain learning gains over time. For example, Hausner’s (2000) evaluation of the PAL afterschool kindergarten literacy program reported that low-performing students’ literacy scores increased significantly (by more than 16 percentile points) but that these students did not show sustained improvement in the second grade. The author suggested that at-risk students may need more than one literacy intervention to retain the gains made as a result of the early intervention program.

Implications for Program Developers

McREL’s analysis of the available high-quality research reveals an overall tendency for improved reading achievement among low-achieving or at-risk students who participate in OST programs. This suggests that policymakers and practitioners should consider OST programs as a promising option for boosting the reading achievement of these student groups. Based on the body of research on OST strategies in reading, some conclusions can be made related to program design and effective practice.

Most notably, the following OST strategies and characteristics appear to be effective in improving the reading achievement of low-achieving students:

  • Tutoring and mixed student groupings
  • Programs between 44 and 84 hours in length
  • Programs that focus on early elementary and high school students

As program developers consider how best to meet the needs of their at-risk students, these findings should be kept in mind.

Sample Programs

Miller, K., Snow, D., and Lauer, P. (2004). Noteworthy Perspectives: Out-of-School Time Programs for At-Risk Students. McREL: Aurora, Colorado.
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