Learning with Minnesota Reading Corps
Nikki Anglin holds a soft spot in her heart for Minnesota Reading Corps—a state-level branch of the national AmeriCorps program which tutors students in reading. As her son entered elementary school, he struggled with reading at grade level.
“My daughters didn’t have trouble with reading, but for some reason, it was much more difficult for him. We weren’t sure what to do to help,” remembers Nikki.
When her son was in first grade, he found support from Minnesota Reading Corps tutors. It made all the difference.
“I remember we were driving in the car one day,” says Nikki, “and my son was sitting in the backseat reading out loud—and suddenly, it clicked. We saw the light bulb go off. It was so cool,” says Nikki.
In Minnesota, nearly one in five students does not read at basic literacy levels by the third grade.
“At Minnesota Reading Corps institute training in August 2012, I learned that low literacy levels correlate with poverty, crime and unemployment,” says Rochester Women magazine Publisher Jorrie Johnson, who decided to join MRC part-time, as a tutor, to “help youth learn to read and succeed in life.”
Minnesota Reading Corps (MRC) tutors work one-on-one with students to help increase literacy in schools and strive to eliminate the gap by bringing all students to an appropriate reading level.
“Before third grade, students are learning to read,” explains Sheila Piippo, executive director of MRC in Minneapolis. “After that, they’re reading to learn.”
Consequently, the key is to catch students that are struggling as they learn to read. After that—once the light bulb has clicked—they are able to approach their subsequent education with confidence.
“When I saw that—what a change they had made, what a boost of confidence it was for my son—I thought, ‘I want to do that,’” recalls Nikki who started tutoring with Minnesota Reading Corps shortly after her son’s success about three years ago and hasn’t stopped since.
Nikki has a special education background, which helps with her tutoring (but isn’t necessary), and she admires the research-based, effective methods of MRC.
“It is really all about fluency,” she says. “The trick is to speed up the process, with intensive, daily practice, until it clicks.”
The program focuses on reading as a skill and helps students develop those skills by utilizing 11 different “interventions.” Each intervention is specifically designed to improve a particular reading skill.
“For example,” explains Anna Peters, recruitment and outreach manager for Minnesota Reading Corps, “if a student is struggling with reading too quickly and skipping syllables or words, we have a specific pencil tap intervention to keep the tempo of their reading in check.”
Other interventions include Word Blending, which is used to teach students how to sound out words, and Phoneme Blending and Segementing, which teaches children to listen to the sounds they hear in words and how to put them together and take them apart.
A school-level reading coach and the MRC tutor, in collaboration, choose the interventions needed to help each individual student improve his/her skills.
“It is important to note that MRC participation is in addition to, not in replacement of, a comprehensive core reading instructional program,” according to the MRC 2011-2012 State-Wide Evaluation, recently released by MRC, detailing its work and mission. “MRC provides important additional guided practice time in reading for students who need this support.”
Student success after Minnesota Reading Corps (MRC)
Roughly seven out of 10 Minnesota third graders who received assistance from MRC demonstrated at least grade level performance on state-wide reading assessments after exiting the MRC program.
One of the key features of the Minnesota Reading Corps program is that it focuses on the middle bracket
of children: those whose skill levels fall slightly below average. Since these students are not supported by gifted and talented or special education, they can be overlooked in terms of one-on-one support.
MRC tutors, the school’s reading coach and the students’ teachers choose which students will be selected for extra practice. These students then work with the MRC tutors in daily, twenty-minute sessions. The lessons follow a very specific, research-based curriculum that is designed and set in place by MRC,
with target levels correlated according to third grade Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) tests.
“Every tutor builds relations with students,” says Anna. “The one-on-one attention and dedication of the
teachers is what encourages the students to be excited about learning.”
For students in kindergarten and first grade, the focus is on recognizing letter sounds and blending syllables. By second and third grade, students are expected to be fluent with text and must reach a
standardized rate of words per minute.
“These are the students that are close to target, yet not quite there. They’re not special education, but they can’t keep up,” explains Sheila.
Minnesota Reading Corps’ job is to scoop up these students that may otherwise fall through the cracks and give them the little boost they need to reach expected literacy levels. When a student has reached the expected literacy level for their grade, they exit the program.
“I haven’t met a kid under third grade who doesn’t like to read,” says Nikki. “We are setting a foundation
for them, laying a groundwork that will support them throughout the rest of their education.”
Closing the achievement gap
Now, in its tenth year, Minnesota Reading Corps has seen enormous success and growth since its founding in 2003. What started as a small branch of AmeriCorps is now the largest state program in the country, with 1,000 tutors teaching in over 650 schools all across Minnesota and over 30,000 students tutored per year.
Minnesota was the first state to take the model to scale and implement a thoroughly research-based system. The program’s effectiveness has received national attention and has even been replicated in several other states, including Colorado, Michigan and Washington.
“It is the preventive nature of the program that makes it so successful,” explains Sheila. “We look for gaps early on and fix the problem before the student exits third grade.”
“Our tutors should be proud,” adds Anna. “The work they have done has allowed us to reach out to other kids across the nation.”
As much as MRC does to help advance literacy, MRC notes it is not their work alone that has produced results: “It is important to acknowledge that MRC participating students are also supported by a variety of resources, most notably the instruction and guidance provided by their schools and families,” according to the MRC 2011-2012 State-Wide Evaluation.
Minnesota Reading Corps’ goal is to provide tutors to every student in need. That way, the stumbling block and early frustration with reading can be replaced with confidence and enthusiasm.
Tutors reaching out
It is the willingness of the kids that is truly inspiring to tutors like Jorrie and Nikki.
“I love serving with Minnesota Reading Corps,” says Jorrie. “Right away, I saw how my tutoring was helping children improve their reading through weekly probes (one minute tests). I enjoy seeing results as well as the smiles and high fives from children who are so very present and excited to learn to read.”
“When they say, ‘I love reading!’… you know you’re helping them build confidence and a love for learning,” adds Nikki.
Tutors serving in the Minnesota Reading Corps, as part of the AmeriCorp organization, give a year of service to the organization and can choose between full or part-time. They receive a small bi-monthly living allowance for the year and upon completion of the requisite hours, are given an education stipend to put towards past loans or future schooling.
“It is a financial commitment for the tutors, but their time in Minnesota Reading Corps is rich with stories and experiences,” explains Anna. “It is an opportunity to continue to give back on a one-on-one basis. The students build strong relationships with tutors, and it is enormously fulfilling for them.”
Consequently, volunteers come from all walks of life: recent college graduates looking for a fulfilling job, retired teachers looking to ease slowly into retirement and professionals taking a break from their career.
“Last summer, I was seeking more personal fulfillment and had more flexibility in my schedule as my youngest child was entering full day school as a first grader,” explains Jorrie about what prompted her to join MRC. “I had also known an adult whose literacy skills prevented their career advancement, which motivated me to seek literacy service with Minnesota Reading Corps. It was definitely the right step to take.”
In fact, the experience is often so rewarding that approximately one-third of tutors choose to sign-on for another year after their first year is concluded. A recent additional benefit is that volunteers ages 55 or older are able to transfer the educational stipend to their children or grandchildren, lending enticement to those volunteers not looking to go back to school.
The Rochester branch of Minnesota Reading Corps currently works in 16 elementary schools in the city, with 26 tutors, and is always looking for volunteers.
“It changes people to give a year of meaningful service,” says Anna. “They leave with new goals and perspectives, knowing that they made a difference.”
For more information, to find more stories from tutors or to apply to serve with Minnesota Reading Corps, visit MinnesotaReadingCorps.com