America’s Early Childhood Literacy Crisis

America is facing a literacy crisis. Our youngest students are falling behind, with only 47% of kindergarten students reading at grade level during the 2021-2022 school year. Pandemic school closures exacerbated the problem, but these challenges predate COVID-19. In the 2019-2020 school year, just 55% of kindergarteners were on track. 

But a new model of intense online tutoring shows remarkable promise in helping kids meet literacy markers, especially in rural and low-income schools. This is good news for kids and our nation. 

Literacy is critical to children’s personal and social development, helping them learn language and communication skills and fostering empathy and creativity. The earliest years of a student’s schooling set the stage for a student’s future success. Kids who lack adequate reading skills by the end of fourth grade are four times less likely to earn a high school diploma. 

Once a child falls behind in reading, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to catch up. Several studies have shown that even by the first grade, kids who lag in reading rarely get back on track. Reading difficulties lead to decreased motivation, confidence, and willingness to read. The deficiencies compound over time to impact every aspect of a child’s education and development.

There are ways to identify and help students before this downward spiral begins with a type of tutoring known as “high-impact” or “high dosage.” Whereas traditional tutoring typically happens once a week after school, high-impact tutoring occurs several times a week in very small groups or one-on-one, always during the school day. It’s most successful when led by a well-supported, consistent adult. 

The effectiveness of high-impact tutoring is no secret. But too often, it’s reserved for students in affluent districts, or whose parents can afford to pay for private instructors. The pandemic widened this disparity. As schools closed their doors, the demand for private tutors skyrocketed – and so did their rates, putting individualized instruction out of reach for most families.

Yet there’s reason for hope. A new study from Stanford University shows that virtual high-impact tutoring can achieve remarkable results for kindergarten through second-grade students in low-income schools.  

The researchers conducted the study across 12 elementary schools in the Uplift Education tuition-free, public charter school network in Texas, which I lead. Of our diverse 23,000 students, 82% are economically disadvantaged.

During the 2022-2023 school year, 12 of our primary schools implemented the program led by OnYourMark Education, in which students met virtually – either one-on-one or two-on-one – with trained tutors for 20-minute sessions, four times per week during the school day. The tutors focused on foundational literacy skills, such as phonics, phonological awareness, and fluency. More than 1,000 kids participated.

Following the nine-month program, the researchers reviewed compiled reading performance data of tutored students and a “business as usual” control group of the same size. Across the board, students in the program had higher literacy scores. Lower-performing students and first-graders assigned one-on-one tutoring showed the greatest improvement. Second-graders benefited less, underlining the importance of reaching students as early as possible.

Bolstered confidence in the classroom can help foster a love of reading, too. “She used to quit if she was struggling but now, she will actually sound out her words and she is reading her sight words. She is just more excited about reading. [OnYourMark] has definitely helped her in second grade with her scores. But I still keep going back to the confidence she has built, because without the confidence you can’t do anything else,” a parent of a student in the program remarked.

The positive results were surprising because literacy experts traditionally favor in-person learning. Though researchers have found that high-quality, in-person tutoring can produce better scores than OnYourMark, the fact that OnYourMark is virtual means it has the potential to reach vastly more students. Essentially, it makes it easier for schools to access intensive, individualized literacy coaching.

Today’s elementary schools face teacher shortages, budget constraints, and post-pandemic learning gaps, with rurally located districts and districts with a high percentage of low-income students especially challenged. But the study results demonstrate a solution that opens up opportunities for schools and students alike. High-impact, virtual tutoring can help students in all zip codes, and from all socioeconomic backgrounds, improve their reading ability and thrive. 

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At OnYourMark we want all children to have access to high quality, foundational skill instruction and become thriving readers.