Digitally Trained Volunteers Tutor Kids in Literacy

Elementary school girl reading to classmates

Disparities in children’s reading ability exist as early as Kindergarten. Factors such as race, economic level, and family member involvement all contribute to a child’s ability to read when they enter school (NCES, 2015). Unfortunately, many children struggle to catch up with their peers. That’s why Experience Corps, an award winning AARP Foundation literacy program, is working to help students become great readers by the end of third grade. The program utilizes highly trained volunteers age 50 and older to mentor young students. During the 2014-2015 school year alone, 2,063 volunteers tutored 30,162 students in 226 schools.

In 2012, Experience Corps set ambitious goals to significantly increase the amount of students reached within 10 years. In order achieve sizable growth; they began looking for a digital solution to expand the scale of their volunteer training. In 2014, Experience Corps collaborated with Pearson to build their internal online training program, which includes standardized training content, training videos, and eventually online course modules.

This innovative approach to increasing the effectiveness of their program, and bringing it to a larger scale, is a model other non-profit organizations can potentially learn from. We reached out to Libra Riley Johnson, Education Strategy Advisor for Experience Corps, to ask her to share how they created their digital learning strategy that is designed to train volunteers to be literacy tutors and mentors for students in mostly disadvantaged schools.


Q. What was the impetus to develop a digital learning strategy for your Experience Corp initiative?

Libra: We knew that we needed to improve and expand our existing volunteer training in order to reach our goal of significantly increasing the number of children that we serve. Since we provide extensive pre-service training as well as workshops for our volunteers throughout the year, a blended delivery strategy, inclusive of digital learning was critical to being able to maximize our training capacity.   

Q. Specifically within the project of training adults to become literacy tutors for K-3 grade children, how did you decide upon the strategy of online tutorials?

Libra: We wanted to maintain the existing face-to-face component of our training, which is very important to our volunteers; but also include new components like online training videos, and eventually incorporate e-learning technologies to support the in-person training experience. The availability of resources online will greatly increase staff capacity to train more volunteers, and ultimately increase our ability to help more children reach reading proficiency.

Q. When you were first developing the Experience Corp initiatives, what led you to decide to implement digital learning options?

Libra: We knew that supporting our expansion plan would require standardizing our content to increase consistency of impact across our network. Developing a blended learning strategy, inclusive of digital learning, allows us to expand our reach and training capacity far beyond what in-person training alone is able to do.  

Q. Now that the digital training resources are in place, how have they been used?

Libra: The new training resources were completed this summer, and will be implemented across our network this fall. We will use the next six to twelve months to provide training and technical assistance to our network, and assess and evaluate impact periodically to inform next steps along the way.

Q. What future plans do you have for expanding your digital learning strategy?

Libra: The plan from the beginning of the project was to standardize our training content, then use these new resources (two modules/ten lessons of training content and nine training videos), to develop and make available e-learning content via our learning management system within the next year.  

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Libra: I would encourage other organizations to invest in expanding their training into the digital space. For us it will be ongoing and paced to align with the needs of the demographic of volunteers we serve. I would also say finding the right partner, one who is committed to the success of the project, is critical. This kind of project, with lots of moving parts and many stakeholders, does not come together overnight; but with focus on the end user and end goal, success can be achieved.  



National Center for Educational Statistics. (2015). Early Childhood Longitudinal Study. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved September 22, 2015 from