A reading program designed to help elementary students is showing promising results at 10 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools that used it last year. According to findings released this week, third graders tutored through Helping Early Literacy with Practice Strategies or HELPS increased their reading fluency by an average of 51%.
Only about 39% of CMS third graders are reading at grade level, according to Read Charlotte, which coordinated the HELPS program. Munro Richardson, Read Charlotte’s executive director, says HELPS focuses on students’ fluency—meaning reading speed, accuracy and proper expression.
“A student will read the same passage three times and then based on how they do you will use specific drills, they will model you and follow you reading and so you’re following a specific script that are all research-based strategies to help kids with their fluency,” said Richardson. “This is not something teachers have time to do for every student and that’s where it is an incredible marriage between community volunteers and classroom teachers.”
Richardson says being able to read whole sentences and paragraphs smoothly is important because Read Charlotte found a strong correlation between fluency and students’ performance on state proficiency exams. By the time many struggling students pronounce a word correctly, they’ve forgotten what the sentence was about.
This past year, 155 CMS third-grade students participated in the HELPS program, receiving tutoring several times a week, for 20-minute sessions. He says all of them were reading at second-grade level, an average of 52 correct words a minute.
“For the kids who got the most sessions, who got 50 or more sessions, they went from reading about 52 words correct per minute to reading about 88 words correct per minute at the end of third grade. That’s equivalent to just over one-and-a-half years of growth in reading fluency in one academic year,” Richardson said.
The goal is for the students to correctly read 100 words per minute, just short of the state standard. Those who had 40 tutoring sessions increased their per-minute count to 82 words and those with 30 sessions reached 79 words. Munro says he tutored two Spanish-speaking third graders at Montclair Elementary, whose fluency was more than 100 correct words a minute by the end of the school year.
“The results really exceeded my expectations,” Richardson said.
At Reedy Creek Elementary, 26 students participated in HELPS. Principal Orlando Robinson says it made a significant difference on his third graders’ state reading proficiency test scores at the end of the year.
“We’re sending more scholars to fourth on grade level than ever before,” Robinson said. “The year before, our proficiency was around 50%, about 10% higher than last year. I felt HELPS was going to help but I didn’t realize it would help that much.”
Robinson described the HELPS trainers as qualified, consistent and a needed complement to what the students do in their regular classes. He also likes how the tutors acknowledge the students successes.
“They celebrated success weekly, and they’re monitoring their progress, building that self-esteem week by week,” Robinson said. “A lot of these scholars are scholars that typically have not experienced a lot of success in school because they were behind grade level. So I think what HELPS has been able to do that incremental success for them to have that feeling that I can do this.”
A major challenge the program faces is finding enough volunteers to train. Reedy Creek officials say 20 additional students could benefit from HELPS if they had more volunteers. The shortage is also why not all students recommended get tutoring of three times a week.
“Some of our students had more sessions throughout the course of the year than others,” said Mark Dickmann, education director for Freedom Communities, a west Charlotte group that has a partnership with Ashley Park Prek-8 School. He says Ashley Park had 30 HELPS volunteers but needs more.
“We’re excited about launching this year with a full crop of trained volunteers right at the get go so that all 20 or so third grade students for instance this year get those three sessions right off the bat because we believe what the data will show is that those students will progress phenomenally.”
Dickmann says they plan to have 50 HELPS volunteers trained by September. CMS officials say they are reviewing the program’s results and are encouraged by the gains. But they have not made any decision on whether to expand HELPS to additional schools.