01 November 2011

Sparking the Fire

Jean Nelson was driving home after her first Reading Power tutoring session about four years ago wondering, “What is this feeling I have? And I realized—it was just pure joy.” A retired elementary schoolteacher, Jean has been a tutor ever since.

Reading Power (RP) was formed in 2003 by Mary Jane N. Hender, Ed. D., a literacy specialist, and Reverend Gordon Butcher, D. Min., a Presbyterian minister and literacy activist, to serve the 4,800 District 187 school children of North Chicago and the Great Lakes Naval Training Center.

15 minutes of reading a day can expose a child to more than a million words per year.

Reading Power’s cornerstone is early intervention in kindergarten and first grade to help accelerate children’s literacy learning before they have a chance to fail, and to instill in them a love of reading and writing. Since its inception, more than 300 dedicated tutors have helped more than 1,000 children who have made twice the reading fluency gains when compared to their non-tutored peers.

The not-for-profit organization partners with schools to deliver an independent tutoring program that began as a hopeful effort in one school and is now firmly ensconced in four of the five elementary schools in North Chicago. Each school designates a classroom for Reading Power’s exclusive use, which is currently able to provide tutoring to low-achieving first graders who do not qualify for other district-sponsored services, five times per week; kindergartners, two or three times per week; and some second and third graders.

Modeled after reading readiness theory, RP differentiates itself from other tutoring programs in that it is a professionally developed, cutting-edge, research-based curriculum led by reading professionals.

Tag-Team Tutoring

“The thoroughness of our program allows for tag-team tutoring,” says Rebecca Mullen, Executive Director since 2010. Rebecca is a certified reading specialist with a master’s in the science of education in reading degree from Illinois State University. She has broad classroom teaching experience and previously served as coordinator of the Mary and Jean Borg Center for Reading and Literacy.

One challenge of a volunteer-based tutoring program is to provide individual tutoring on a daily basis to children who are each at a different point on the reading continuum, and often by five different tutors each week. To facilitate this, RP staff developed a structured program that arms its tutors with the training and tools they need to step in and make an impact right away. Their system guides tutors on a daily basis, enabling them to walk in, open up a child’s folder, and pick right up where the last tutor left off.

Each student is assigned a folder with his or her name and picture on it. In the folder is a lesson plan for the day that the previous tutor completed during their session with the student. It is a simple yet comprehensive checklist of what that student is working on in categories such as: Fast Word, Short Vowel, Picture Sort, Penny Game, and Sentence. It tells the tutor whether the student should be reading their assigned book for the first, second, or fourth time and provides metrics for charting their reading fluency that day.

Other tools in the folder include a First 100+ Words list and a Reading Record of every book they read during the year (last year, a boy named Angel read 60 books)—all to ensure that each and every tutor conducts a consistent and productive 35-minute session with the student.

“I feel like a reading celebrity.”

It’s hard to convey the “feel-good” vibes that emanate from the cheerful and welcoming Reading Power classroom, staff, and tutors. Semi-private tutoring stations surround the perimeter, each equipped with supplies such as white boards, alphabet letters, sentence puzzles, and other teaching tools. In the center of the room is a larger table that is used when the tutors and staff meet for weekly training, or when the students gather for “read-alouds.” Staff and tutors welcome the children by name, and the students are all clearly eager to come in and begin.

RP started with 56 volunteers in its first year and has grown to 150 for this school year. While they have an exceptionally high rate of returning volunteers, their needs are always growing.

Most tutors volunteer one or two days per week, for a three-hour commitment each time, and work with the same three children during each weekly session to facilitate consistency and relationship building between them and their students. All tutors receive thorough training and observe real tutoring in action before they are asked to step in. And, while many of RP’s tutors have taught professionally, tutors range from business executives and massage therapists, to attorneys, musicians, social workers, architects, and bankers. “All you need is the ability to read and write, a love of children, and the ability to honor your time commitment to the children you will tutor,” says Rebecca.


RP tracks its impact both qualitatively and quantitatively using curriculum-based measurement (CBM) to assess the students three times per school year. “We assess the whole first grade in September, January, and May, triangulate the data, and compare our tutored students against their peers,” says Rebecca. They start out behind but make two to three times the gains as others.

For example, last year 80 tutored first grade students made huge gains in “words read correctly per minute” by 921 percent (from 4.2 words per minute to 42.5 words per minute) from September to May, compared to non-tutored students who improved by 218 percent.

Rebecca says, “Enrich your life and give the gift of literacy, a gift that gives over a lifetime.”

For more information about Reading Power, or to volunteer or donate, visit readingpowerinc.org.

—Elaine Doremus