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by Robert M. Head and Raymond LeBlanc

Image of a student reading

Strategy: An Ontario elementary community-based reading strategy: Rising Stars, for struggling readers.


The Learning Disabilities Association of Canada tells us that 1 in 10 Canadians have a learning disability, which may impact a person's abilities in the areas of listening, reading, writing, speaking, and/or mathematics [Click here to access the source].

Rising Stars is a locally developed reading program that utilizes reading mentors from the community. The strategy has been tested and adopted by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board's First Avenue Public School, in Ottawa, Ontario, and is based on a teacher-researcher project piloted at the Peel District School Board's Hawthorn Public School, in Mississauga, Ontario. This approach, based on more than 20 years of experiential research in reading, is supported by the Ontario Ministry of Education.

The strategy has been developed with struggling readers in mind and can be tailored for other students. How students can benefit from this program was tested, in a study involving 10 struggling grade 1 readers, between March and June 2007. On completion of the study, four students required no further intervention at the end of the term, with one participant reported as having gone from a "C" to a confident and enthusiastic "A-" reading decoding and comprehension letter-grade assessment level (Belluz, 2007).


The strategy calls for the elementary classroom teacher to identify students who are struggling readers, and then match them with volunteer mentors from the community. Volunteer Mentors (VMs) are parents, siblings, high school students, student teachers, retirees and others who have committed to spending one morning a week with four students for 20-25 minutes each 1:1, over a 6 to 7-week program session. The teacher organizes materials and suggests activities, trains VMs, guides, supports, and makes suggestions to VMs, monitors student progress, and communicates with parents. Starting from a baseline level, with respect to their reading, the strategy teaches at the students' reading level. The students meet with a VM daily.


Rising Stars counts on the involvement of volunteer mentors from the community at large. The Ontario Ministry of Education (2003) report, "Early reading strategy: The report of the Expert Panel on Early Reading in Ontario", tells us that:

"Effective schools do not exist in isolation; they are an integral part of the communities they serve...involve families in their children’s education and help them to connect with relevant resources in the broader community. They also work in partnership with community groups, service agencies, and postsecondary institutions to expand their knowledge, skills, and resources for helping all children learn to read" (Page 65).

What can non-professional mentors as teachers bring to the table that will benefit young struggling readers? The Ontario Ministry of Education (2003) report further shares,  "Parents...family members who...volunteer in the classroom can provide valuable support for the classroom reading program. For example, they can read aloud to children, help them with homework, and practise sight words and letter recognition" (p.66).

Miller, Connolly & Maguire (2011) report that 1:1 mentoring is both popular and effective as a form of instruction and can pre­vent early reading failure as well as improve academic outcomes. Further, such programs can be led by volunteers from the ranks of peers, parents and other volunteers. Interestingly, they mention that there is some evidence to support that college students and pre-service teachers tend to be highly effective as tutors.

Implementation and Recommended Practice

Goldberger's (2007) publication, "Rising Star Volunteer Mentor Kit", as it presents cornerstones to the strategy, and decoding and comprehension are carefully analyzed and explained.

For example, decoding straightforwardly means figuring out what a word says. There are a variety of ways to accomplish this:

  • Using picture clues in a text while reading.
  • Having students use knowledge of letter sounds to sound out words by asking themselves what are the first sound, next sound, and so on; stretching the letter sound to slowly sound out a word, and asking themselves which sounds they already now.
  • POP! -- thinking about the first sounds of an unknown word and then reading the rest of a sentence - and perhaps the word meaning will POP! into their head.
  • Skipping ahead of words they do not know, and then backtracking, can help a student develop a sense of context; the re-reading aspect of backtracking draws on their knowledge of syntax and helps with predicting next logical content.
  • Covering words up with a finger or ruler and thinking about their place in a sentence can be helpful.
  • It helps with decoding when big words are dissected into smaller familiar words, such as stair|way.
  • Patterning so that similar sounding words can be compared, such as "book" and "look", as does patterning word hide-n-seek where small words are located in bigger words, such as "eat|ing".
  • Using punctuation marks like traffic signs, emphasizing appropriate voice modulation, is also a helpful decoding strategy - read and finish each sentence with a question mark? Or exclamation point, for example!

Likewise, Goldberger (2007)  speaks to Rising Stars comprehension strategies as follows:

  • Previewing as a before reading strategy (for improved comprehension and reading enjoyment) by:
    • looking at a  title or book cover; noting the author and thinking about if they are familiar with them;
    • reading the first paragraph to see if the writing style is a good fit for them;
    • browsing through text pictures to get a sense of whether they like the story the pictures are telling or not;
    • reading the short description on the back of the book to see if they think it might be to their liking;
    • and using a Goldilocks' scale of if they think the text is too hard, too easy, or just right...
  • Identifying authors' purpose is and what the purpose of the text is.
  • Keeping track of their comprehension - self-monitoring.
  • Activating prior knowledge & making connections by considering:
    • text-to-self connection to something in their own life/experience
    •  text-to-text connections with something they have previously read
    •  or text-to-world connections with something that has happened/is of importance in the world.
  • Visualizing words used to create mental images of characters, scenes, events, and the literary landscape of the text.
  • Asking simple and complex questions of the text, such as:
    • What does this word mean?
    • How will this situation end in the text?
    • How does one topic relate to another?
    • Why did the text end this way?
    • How would I feel/deal if I were this character or if this happened to me?
  • Predicting and inferring, using prior knowledge or schema; text pictures and clues; asking and answering their own questions.
  • Determining the importance of a text or a text component:
    • look for visual clues that signal importance, such as font sizes and punctuation;
    • think about what is important to them and what might be important for the author;
    • think about how they would defend what they think is important.
  • Retelling and summarizing after reading, which for fiction would be to think of the elements such as the characters, goal, problem and solution; and for non-fiction would be the 5W's of who, what, where, when and why?
  • Taking what they have summarized, merging what was learned to create meaning for themselves.

Belluz's (2007) article on Rising Stars, "Ben's Journey - The Making of a Rising Star", recounts how Hawthorn Public School sought out members of the community to get involved by sending home brochures and newsletters, and making school announcements; parents, grandparents, and older siblings in college responded. It took three months to find, purchase, and catalogue materials, recruit and train volunteers. Belluz (2007) relates that mentors were shown a variety of decoding strategies, including:

  • teaching students to first recognize letter names, sounds and blends;
  • mentoring students to differentiate between b, d, and p;
  • having students trace a letter on a wire screen while sounding out the word or use Plasticine for a similar multisensory exercise.

Mentors took part in auditory blending exercises and learned chants. Each week, mentors emphasized one decoding strategy.  Mentors were introduced to the practice of using student binders and using reading logs and tracking sheets for books. Time, energy, and organization by the teacher were most important. Teachers needed to be available to answer mentors’ questions, which included keeping on top of student binders as communication tools between the teacher and the mentors.

For the mentors, responsibilities included:

  • Keeping the mentor's cart with texts, student files and logs; pencils and pens; decoding ring; tools and games; sentence strips; notes for parents; and ziplock bags carefully stored in the library.
  • Making their students feel relaxed, on first meeting.
  • Preparing for the session in advance by having chairs, texts, folders and logs ready.
  • During reading,
    • making sure student feels relaxed, that text has been previewed;
    • having the student read;
    • discussing strategies with the student;
    • being ready to try a different strategy if one does not work;
    • playing the game or activity recommended by the teacher.
  • After reading,
    • having students reflect on their reading with the mentor;
    • putting text in a bag with a note to parent for the student to take home;
    • recording observations in a log;
    • recording questions;
    • putting materials and equipment away.

Related Resources on the LD@school website

Click here to access the evidence-based article, Teaching the Brain to Read: Strategies for Improved Decoding, Fluency, and Comprehension

Click here to learn more about Commercial Reading Programs for Students with Learning Disabilities

Click here to access the evidence-based article, Direct Instruction of Reading for Elementary-aged Students

Click here to access the evidence-informed article, Improving Reading Fluency: Which Interventions are the Most Effective?

Click here to access the evidence-based article, Integrating Vocabulary Instruction with Reading Comprehension Strategies

Click here to access the evidence-based article, Strategies for Teaching Reading to English Language Learners with Learning Disabilities

Click here to read the answer to the Ask the Experts question, How can educators help parents to support reading skills acquisition and knowledge retention at home?

Additional Resources

  1. Helping your child learn to read: A parent tip sheet was created to provide parents with tips on how to encourage reading by their young children outside of school. Click here to access the tip sheet.
  2. Reading & writing with your child: Kindergarten to grade 6, A parent guide, was created by the Ontario Ministry of Education and the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat. Click here to access the guide.
  3. Helping Your Child Learn to Read: A Parent's Guide was created by the Manitoba Education, Citizenship and Youth. Click here to access the guide.
  4. Reading Rockets, a national (American) multimedia literacy initiative, offers information on how to help children learn to read. To access information on how to teach students skills in word decoding and phonics, please click here.
  5. Teen trendsetters is an American movement which recruits teenagers to mentor elementary-aged students. Click here for a short promotional video about the program.Click here for a more detailed video about this movement.
  6. Reading Heroes is a community-based volunteer program which helps second-grade students acquire valuable learning skills. Click here for more information about this program.


Belluz, S. (2007). Ben’s Journey: The Making of a Rising Star, The Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, VOICE, 9 (5). 24-25. reprinted 2012.

Goldberger, Dalya. (2007). Rising Star Volunteer Mentor Kit. EFTI, First Avenue Public School,  73 First Ave., Ottawa, ON,  K1S 2G1. 613-239-2261

Miller, S., Connolly, P., Maguire, L. (2011). The effects of a volunteer mentoring programme on reading outcomes among eight- to nine-year-old children: A follow-up randomized controlled trial, Journal of Early Childhood Research 10(2) 134-144.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2003). Early reading strategy: The report of the Expert Panel on Early Reading in Ontario. Retrieved April 19, 2014, from: http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/document/reports/reading/reading.pdf

horizontal line tealRobert M. Head holds a BA English Literature from McGill, a BS Secondary Education from the University of Maine at Presque Isle, and is a graduate student (MA/PhD) at the University of Ottawa. He is a licensed secondary school teacher (ELA - State of Maine), 8+ years of experience as an ELL/ESL teacher, 5+ years as Taiwan Natl. Dir. of Studies with GAC ACT ES Ltd. and Natl. Dir. for Cambridge English Education Centres (Taiwan), and is a Cambridge English Language Testing Authority (CELTA) YLE/KET/PET Examiner. He has authored and co-authored several articles for peer review, acts as an academic journal' peer-reviewer, and has presented at the 2014 Jean-Paul Dionne Symposium. Robert is particularly interested in Special Needs education through inclusive practices.

Dr. Raymond LeBlanc is vice-dean of research and professional development and professor in the Faculty of Education and a member of the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Studies at the University of Ottawa.  His research domain is special education, socio-cultural approach and differential teaching.  His research and scholarly activities are in ASD, developmental disabilities, learning styles, language and communication, learning disabilities, qualitative methodologies, cultural psychology and quality of life. He is co-director of a collection in neuropsychology and special education which has published 26 books.