Literacy First at UT Austin

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Grade Levels Group Size Tutor Type Qualifying Studies Average Effect Size
K-21:1Paraprofessional and/or AmeriCorps1+0.19

Contact Info

Claire Hagen Alvarado


Groups Studied
Asian American
English Learners
Free and Reduced Lunch

Communities Studied

NOTE: We are expanding into “ex-urban” areas of Austin, some of which are more suburban and rural—but urban is majority of our area right now

Program Description

Literacy First – UT Austin (formerly AmeriCorps for Community Engagement and Education, then A Community for Education) is an early literacy intervention program that provides trained tutors to students in kindergarten through grade 2 in Title I schools in the Austin, Texas area. The program identifies students reading below grade level each fall and provides tutoring across the school year. Interventions are focused on foundational reading skills (phonemic awareness, alphabetic principle, letter-sound fluency, phonics/decoding, and oral reading fluency), placing a strong focus on synthesizing sounds to decode text. Tutors receive more than 70 hours of training in best practices and weekly supervision and support from Literacy First experts and coaches. About 50% of Literacy First’s tutors are bilingual, allowing the program to provide support to both Spanish- and English-speaking students. Tutors work with their students daily in 30 minutes sessions that are tailored to address individual literacy/language needs. Literacy First is data driven, with tutors using a response-to-intervention model that involves benchmark assessments and weekly progress monitoring. In addition, attendance and program fidelity and implementation data are collected to inform both individualization for students and programmatic impact.



Tutors are paraprofessionals from the school community and/or AmeriCorps members. Tutors work in a full-time capacity, and each carry a caseload of 8-11 students. Tutoring is provided in-person. Tutors are trained in both assessments and interventions during a two-week pre-service training, and receive on-site coaching and supervision weekly throughout the year. Tutors and Literacy First staff conduct quarterly data meetings with school personnel to review progress monitoring graphs and individual student progress.


Students served by Literacy First evidence risk in foundational reading skills based on national and local norms for DIBELS/IDEL screening assessments. Literacy First is an effective Tier 2 and Tier 3 intervention for K-2nd grade students, and has been proven effective with English Learners and bilingual students (Spanish/English). Students receive 1:1 instruction daily until their weekly progress monitoring indicates that they have reached grade level criteria in critical early reading skills.


Literacy First has developed virtual options for both training and tutoring, but believes the in-person tutoring is most effective for K-2 students.


Literacy First interventions are based on research by the National Reading Panel and Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children. Our focus is on systemic and explicit instruction to develop automaticity in foundational reading skills (phonemic awareness, letter-sound knowledge, the alphabetic principle, word-level skills [phonics and sight words], and oral reading fluency. We are able to place students along a continuum of interventions based on their individual needs, and build to grade appropriate reading skills.


Literacy First trains tutors to conduct benchmark and progress monitoring assessments. Benchmark assessments are conducted at the beginning, middle, and end of the year for all K-2 students we screen. Literacy First staff conduct fidelity checks on each tutor prior to beginning assessments at BoY, MoY, and EoY. Weekly progress monitoring is conducted for each student in the program and this data is entered into an online data management system we’ve developed. Progress monitoring results and graphs are used to drive instructional decisions.

Data meetings are held three times annually with school staff (administrators, reading specialists, tutors, and teachers) to review and monitor each students’ progress. Literacy First provides timely reports to all stakeholders at BoY, MoY, and EoY, including comparisons of the outcomes for students in the program and those who do not receive tutoring.

Literacy First conducts an external program evaluation every three years as part of our AmeriCorps grant.

Program Operation

Literacy First conducts benchmark assessments on K-2 students in our partner schools at the beginning of the year. We work with school staff to determine which students who qualify will be best served by Literacy First, and which students might already be receiving support from school staff. Each Literacy First tutor carries a caseload of 8-11 students who they tutor 1:1 daily for 30-minute sessions. When students’ progress monitoring data indicates they have reached and sustained grade level criteria in foundational skills, they “graduate” from the program, and the tutor begins working with the next student on the waitlist. Because students make progress at different rates, each tutor typically works with up to 20 students across the year. When students exit the program, the tutor conducts a progress monitoring assessment for the next three weeks to ensure the student is continuing to demonstrate appropriate reading skills. In addition to helping students accelerate foundational reading skills, Literacy First is also able to help schools identify students in need of more intensive support and/or evaluation for potential learning disabilities. On average, fewer than 6% of students do not respond adequately to the program, and we can typically ascertain this within 30-40 sessions (six to eight weeks).

Professional Development, Progress Monitoring, and Follow-up

Literacy First provides intensive initial and ongoing training to tutors, including a two-week, pre-service training in September and weekly on-site coaching and supervision throughout the year. In addition, we provide tutors professional development in how to work effectively with young students, developing a growth-mindset, and encouraging independent reading. Tutors receive more than 70 hours of training, coaching, and supervision across the year.

In addition, Literacy First currently provides training to reading specialists and other school staff on how to effectively implement and sustain the Literacy First program at their campus. In this way, we are building the capacity of school district staff to evaluate, monitor, and accelerate early literacy skills for all students.

Literacy First has partnered with the Texas Education Agency’s Region 13 Teacher Certification Program for the past decade. Through this program, qualified Literacy First tutors can apply to and complete an alternative teacher certification program during their second year with Literacy First. More than 100 Literacy First alumni have become certified teachers, with most working in the Central TX area.


Annual Per Tutor Costs: Tutor is an AmeriCorps member (About 18-20 students served per tutor each year)

Annual Per Tutor Cost
-Tutor Training
-Ongoing Coaching
-Data Management
Funding Support (AmeriCorps resources and local fundraising)$15,000
Total Cost To School$10,000- $15,000 per tutor 

Annual Per Tutor Costs: Tutor is a school employee (About 18-20 students served per tutor each year)

$30,000, First Year
Includes professional development, weekly job-embedded coaching, program materials, and data management. Literacy First staff train the tutors and is on-site weekly to support them in the schools. The assigned reading specialist/coach for that campus is working side-by-side to learn how to administer the program.
$20, 000, Second Year
Literacy First continues to train/refresh tutors and is on-site 2X a month. Reading specialists do more of the administration of program with consultation from the staff as needed.
Maintenance Fee, Third Year
In the third year, Literacy First provides training and consultation, as well as support around progress monitoring and data collection.  

Research on Program Outcomes

An evaluation, employing a multisite randomized controlled trial, of Literacy First was conducted in grades K-2 within 22 elementary schools in the Austin Independent School District. Students scoring at the Tier 2 level on literacy assessments, were randomly assigned, within each grade at each school, to the treatment group that received Literacy First tutoring or the control group that conducted “business as usual,” which could include other types of assistance available in participating schools. The results on literacy measures in grades K and 1 were significantly positive but because tutors administered the post assessments to their students, introducing potential bias, only the 2nd grade sample is included in the overall program effects. Nearly 800 2nd grade students participated in the study – over 90% were identified as economically disadvantaged, 88% were Hispanic, 69% limited English proficient, and 10% received special education services. On average across sites, students receiving Literacy First tutoring scored significantly higher on the ITBS passage comprehension than students in these sites who did not receive Literacy First tutoring (effect size = +0.19, p < .05). A follow-up analysis was conducted in Grade 3 showing Literacy First students scoring higher on the STAAR Grade 3 Reading (effect size = +0.21). 

Key Studies

  • Caverly, S. & Stoker, G. (2021). Literacy First: Evaluation summary report. American Institute for Research
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