Children are inside the classroom having fun and playing games. Throw in some singing, too. What you hear is the sound of young children learning early literacy skills.

A new literacy program in progress at Square One, a multi-service agency for families and children located in Springfield and Holyoke, is based on a successful literacy intervention program, the Massachusetts Reading Corps, a replication of the Minnesota Reading Corps.

The Massachusetts Reading Corps is part of Springfield College’s AmeriCorps program, a state AmeriCorps program supported by the Massachusetts Service Alliance and the Corporation for National and Community Service. 

Although new to Springfield, the Minnesota program has a 10-year track record; in essence, it works in providing preschoolers with well-developed reading skills.

Cindy Recoulle, Assistant Vice President of Programs for Quality Assurance at Square One, said the program was first brought to her attention by Sally Fuller of the Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation. She had heard of the program and wanted to get it up and running in Springfield.

Recoulle was invited to view a comprehensive video about the program at Springfield College where AmeriCorps staff recruit students to serve as AmeriCorps Literacy Tutors and facilitate training on the Reading Corps model. “I first thought it was too scripted,” she said. “We in early childhood education like to put our own flavor on our teaching,” she laughed. But she was soon convinced of the spectacular success of the program. The Minnesota Reading Corps, the largest state AmeriCorps program in the country, had the data to prove it.

Two years ago, several preschool classrooms at Square One began using the program together with AmeriCorps tutors from Springfield College where Shannon Langone, program director of Springfield College AmeriCorps/Massachusetts Reading Corps and Master Literacy Coach, Elizabeth Miller, were deeply involved in adapting the program to this state and in training tutors. 

The program works like this. Literacy tutors are embedded in pre-K classrooms where they provide literacy-rich, whole-classroom interventions focused on the early literacy skills children need to become successful readers. They also use data to identify children who need more intensive intervention and provide extra support on a regular basis, either in a small group or one-on-one.

With the goal of developing a successful reader by Grade 3, the program has “a lot of integrity,” said Recoulle. “We saw reading scores improving dramatically. You can’t argue with the data.”

Children respond to the program because it incorporates fun, Recoulle said. Learning is imbedded in games, songs and rhyming. It’s a sly and effective way to get children to learn how to read.

They can’t wait to be with their tutor,” Recoulle said, all of whom work the entire academic year with their children. To prepare, each tutor goes through a rigorous training schedule which begins with a 3-day summer institute in August, Langone said, followed by full-day training once a month throughout the year. Staff members from the Minnesota Reading Corps, including the creator of the model, Kate Horst, travel to Springfield to provide training in assessment, program monitoring, interventions and socially, emotionally and developmentally appropriate practices, Langone added.

Tutors also receive support from a Master Literacy Coach and an Internal Literacy Coach (Recoulle at Square One). Standardized assessments are continually used to determine each child’s success in the program and whether they need more intervention to meet reading goals.

Parents are also involved in the process, Langone said. Talk/Read/Write bags are sent home weekly and include a book, dry erase board, journal and writing utensils including crayons and markers. Families are encouraged but not required to read the book with the child who may draw pictures about the book. The bag is returned each week for a new book and associated activities.

Recoulle remains convinced of the efficacy of the program and sees nothing but additional potential for literacy improvement among pre-schoolers. “We saw growth in every child in the program,” Recoulle said. “Even with the gas explosion (and the subsequent) one-month gap in the program, every child made improvement.”

The Minnesota program is also in place at the Boland and Ells schools in Springfield in addition to Head Start sites.

One astute aspect of the Minnesota Reading program is its use of “calming lotion.” No, it’s not a total spa experience, but lotion is provided to children during transition periods where they are shown how to massage their little hands and fingers allowing them to breathe deeply, self-relax and to focus on the task at hand. And that, would be learning.