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Theoretical Soundness, Proven Effectiveness, and Implementation Fidelity of the HOSTS Language Arts Program Among Children Identified As At-Risk in Urban Elementary Schools

August 29, 2008

By Senesac, Barbara V Burns, Matthew K

In order to fully evaluate the quality of evidence for any educational innovation, research is needed regarding consistency with theory, demonstrated effectiveness, and consistent implementation. The Help One Student to Succeed (HOSTS) Language Arts program was specifically mentioned in the No Child Left Behind act as a program that incorporates community involvement to improve student reading skills. However, few published studies exist with which the quality of evidence could be evaluated. The current study examined existing research regarding theoretic soundness and demonstrated effectiveness, and conducted a study to examine the large-scale fidelity of implementation. Participants consisted of 51 elementary schools in urban areas, and 1,354 students. Results suggested that a high level of fidelity was obtained significantly more frequently than could be expected, and students in HOSTS programs that were implemented in a consistent manner achieved better reading outcomes. Potential implications for practice are included. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) mandated research- based educational practices in American schools. As a result, there seems to be an increased interest in highquality research driving practical educational decision making (Berends & Caret, 2002; Eisenhart & Towne, 2003; Slavin, 2002). However, Berends and Caret (2002) claimed that informed educational policy debates require data from surveys or assessments from a representative sample of schools. Thus, it could be argued that both randomized or quasi-experimental and applied studies are needed to fully examine the utility of an educational program.

Ellis (2001) reviews research on several educational innovations and provides amodel with which research can be used to evaluate an innovation. Educational programs, according to Ellis, should be supported by research on three levels. Level I research is basic research, which leads to a sound theoretical base, or examines the consistency of an innovation with a given theory. Level II research is conducted in applied settings and examines the efficacy of the educational program in improving the education of children. Randomized controlled research could occur in either Le vel I or II, with controlled settings such as a laboratory being appropriate for Level I and applied settings such as schools being Level II. Level II research is also consistent with the NCLB call for data from quasi-experimental studies. Finally, Level III research examines the effectiveness of the innovation after wide-scale implementation. Innovations implemented on a large scale, but that lacked a sound theoretical base and/or researched effectiveness, could be considered an educational fad (Ellis, 2001).

In addition to mandated evidence-based practices NCLB (2001) advocated structured programs or learning systems that incorporate parent and community involvement to assist students in improving their reading skills and overall school performance. Singled out as a model of such a program is the Help One Student to Succeed (HOSTS) Language Arts Program; the only program specifically cited in the NCLB Conference Report (2001). The HOSTS Language Arts Program is a structured technology-based learning system designed to supplement the school’s literacy curriculum and is delivered by community volunteer tutor/mentors. With the NCLB requirement of making average yearly progress on state standards, some failing schools are implementingthe HOSTS Language Arts Program for supplemental educational services provided for under Title I funding.

Given that the HOSTS Language Arts Program is being used to as a supplemental service and is mentioned in the NCLB report (2001), it seems necessary to examine the evidence-base for this program. The purpose of the current article is to describe the research from Levels I and II (Ellis, 2001) for HOSTS Language Arts Program and to discuss a study which examined data from a state-wide implementation of the HOSTS program. The specific research questions that guided the study asked 1) Can the HOSTS program be implemented on a large- scale with fidelity, and 2) What effect did fidelity of implementation have on student reading outcomes?

HOSTS Language Arts

As the name of this program suggests, Helping One Student to Succeed (HOSTS) Language Arts Program is a one-on-one intervention for students at risk of reading failure. The basic premise of this program is that struggling readers can improve their reading skills when instruction is tailored to their individual needs and with tutoring by a caring mentor (HOSTS Corporation, 2000; Blunt & Gordon, 1998). Developed in Vancouver, Washington in 1971, this forprofit tutoring/mentoring program targets primarily K-8 students who need assistance in reading, vocabulary, writing, thinking and study skills. In addition, the program focuses on such affective goals as improving behavior, attitudes and self-esteem. Individual computer-based assessments are conducted with students experiencing reading difficulties in order to identify their reading needs. Based on this information and available instructional resources, personalized interventions are computer-generated for each student and are incorporated into daily and weekly lesson plans implemented by trained volunteer tutor.

Lesson plans are implemented by having the HOSTS teacher/ coordinator prepare a personalized weekly folder for each student that includes daily lesson plans along with the activities, strategies, books and other necessary materials that the tutor is to use with the student. The student receives 30 minutes of one-on-one instruction in a learning center setting Monday through Thursday and may have a different tutor each day. The tutor/mentors are recruited from the community and may include college students, office workers, salespersons, firefighters, police officers, ministers, engineers, administrators, military personnel, retirees, homemakers, parents, grandparents and others (Blunt & Gordon, 1998; Cardenas & Chahin, 1999). The HOSTS teacher/coordinator trains the volunteer tutors and is present during tutoring session to monitor the instruction, providing assistance and feedback to the tutors.

Level I: The Research Base

The HOSTS Language Arts Program is a diagnostic, prescriptive and continuous progress model derived primarily from behaviorist theories of learning. Basic to the HOSTS Language Arts Program are mastery learning (Bloom, 1968) and direct instruction (Rosenshine, 1979, 1986; Rosenshine & Stevens, 1984). Both of these approaches are essentially behaviorist in orientation because they focus on objective and observable outcomes, and emphasize events in the individual environmental events such as reinforcement, frequent assessments, rapid feedback, and incentives (DeGrandpre & Buskist, 2000).

Bloom (1968,1987) described mastery learning as task-oriented with content and skills broken down into sequenced units for study, formative quizzes, feedback, and corrective procedures until the student can pass the test at an acceptable level of mastery (80%100%). Recognizing individual differences, the assumption is that nearly all students can reach mastery if provided quality instruction and adequate time. Rosenshine (1979, 1986) describes direct instruction as a teacher directed, skills-oriented approach involving clear goals, sequenced and structured tasks and materials, sufficient time for instruction, high student engagement, monitoring of student progress, immediate feedback, and an atmosphere of warmth and cooperation. Fundamental to both mastery learning and direct instruction is the philosophy that there is a core of fundamental knowledge and skills to be mastered. Some are prerequisites for more complex skills and others are important each in its own right.

Reductionism is the key to the systematic approach of HOSTS Language Arts Program as literacy is broken down into a taxonomy of skills and subskills (HOSTS, 2000). In accordance with the essential components of reading instruction identified by National Reading Panel (2000), each student’s personalized reading prescription addresses phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Each 30minute tutoring session includes activities in reading and discussing a piece of literature, vocabulary, writing, and skills development (HOSTS, 2000). Although the amount of time engaged in learning has been found to correlate with the amount and degree learned (Brophy, 1988), tutoring has the potential to maximize the time on task when focusing on one student’s needs and directing the student’s attention and efforts by demonstration, guidance and feedback.

While the HOSTS Language Arts Program has clearly a behaviorist theoretical basis, it also draws on elements of social interactional theories of learning and development. Vygotsky’s (1978) theory suggests that by interacting with more knowledgeable and responsive people who provide supportive assistance, students are able to perform tasks at a higher level than they could do independently. Within this zone of proximal development, the student learns how to perform tasks with guidance and feedback until able to internalize the process and function autonomously. HOSTS uses a continuous student assessment model with the intent that each lesson be designed for the student’s zone of proximal development. The role of the tutor is to provide scaffolding guidance and feedback on an as- needed basis until the student reaches mastery of the skill. Tutors are trained in scaffolding techniques such as breaking the task down into smaller steps, prompts, hints, modeling, and encouraging the student to verbalize thinking involved in the task (HOSTS, 1999). As part of this process, another goal of HOSTS is to increase the student’s self concept related to learning or self-efficacy and, as a result, motivation to master reading skills. Social cognitive learning theory (Bandura, 1977, 1986; Schunk, 1989) suggests that students who believe they are capable of doing well on an academic task are motivated to attempt similar tasks thus leading to higher achievement in that particular domain. While providing,scaffolding and feedback to support the student in mastery of the task, the HOSTS tutor also gives encouragement conveying the belief that the student can achieve the goal. In then-training, tutors learn a variety of supportive statements and body language to show their confidence in the student’s ability and to encourage the student to persist (HOSTS, 1999). Level II: Efficacy in Applied Settings

In order to adequately evaluate an educational innovation, research in applied settings is needed to examine the efficacy in improving educational outcomes for children (Ellis, 2001). Although numerous evaluations have examined effectiveness of HOSTS on reading achievement for at-risk populations, independent research is in its infancy.

Studies conducted by HOSTS and school districts in which HOSTS was implemented consistently found significant gains in student reading skills. Amultistate study compared normal curve equivalents (NCE) gains for first, second and third graders who participated in HOSTS to schoolwide and statewide gains. Results suggested gains that exceeded schoolwide and statewide gains by 15 points for first- grade, and 25 points for second and third graders (HOSTS, 1994). Single school district evaluations also reported substantial gains in the reading achievement of at-risk students receiving HOSTS tutoring (Gallegos, 1995; HOSTS, 1994,1998). Moreover, a study of six exemplary HOSTS sites found that most students in the HOSTS program achieved grade level reading proficiency in one year and those who did not reached grade level within the second year of participation (Cardenas & Chahin, 1999).

Although the number of independent evaluations of HOSTS effectiveness in an applied setting is comparably fewer than the number of those conducted by HOSTS or HOSTS schools, results also suggest positive outcomes (Bryant.Edwards.&LeFlies, 1995; Wilbur, 1995). The largest of these studies examined data for over 6,600 students at 136 schools in Delaware, Michigan and Texas. Resulted suggested average reading gains of 2.0 grade levels for students in grades 2 through 4 as measured by pre- and post-test scores on an informal reading inventory (Holden, Simmons, & Holden, 1998).

Only one study found in the literature examined HOSTS effectiveness with an experimental and control group design. Burns, Senesac, and Symington (2004) compared gains on standardized measures of reading, using a 5-month test-retest interval, between 129 students who participated in the HOSTS program to a control group of 127 students who were identified as at-risk for reading failure, but did not participate in HOSTS. Analyses of covariance suggested that reading growth experienced by the experimental group significantly exceeded that of the control group on measures of reading fluency, reading comprehension, initial sound fluency, and overall reading skills (Bums et al.,2004). Therefore, although more research is needed including field-based randomized controlled trials, data support the effectiveness of the HOSTS program in improving reading skills of children identified with reading difficulties.

Level III

Research at Level III examines the effectiveness of an innovation after wide-scale implementation (Ellis, 2001). As stated above, the purpose of this paper is to examine existing research for Levels I and II, and to collect data with which Level III could be examined as well. The two research questions addressed were can the HOSTS program be implemented on a large-scale with fidelity, and what effect does fidelity of implementation have on student reading outcomes? These questions were examined by collecting reading data from 51 elementary schools, in 10 school districts in Michigan that began the HOSTS program during the 2001-2002 school year. Each school was classified into two groups according to the HOSTS Success Indicators (HSI) score, which is a measure of implementation fidelity, and reading gain scores were compared. The two groups were High Implementation and Average to Low implementation.


The HSI scores for a majority of the 51 schools (n = 32,62.7%) fell within the High Implementation range, with only 19 schools (36.3%) being rated within the Low to Average Implementation category. Atotal of 1,354 students participated in the HOSTS program within these 51 schools, with 897 in the High Implementation group and 467 in the Low to Average Implementation group.

As shown in Table 1 ,the two groups were generally equal for all variables. AfricanAmerican students were overrepresented in both groups as compared to national norms, but prevalence rates were consistent with previous research among mostly urban and at-risk populations. Both groups had a high representation of students eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program equaling 80.0% of the High Implementation group and 70.5% of the Average to Low group. However, only 2% and 3.6% of the students respectively were eligible for special education services.


Gains in reading skills served as the dependent variable for the study. In September and May of the 2001-2002 school year each student in the study was administered the Basic Reading Inventory (8th ed.; BRI; Johns, 2001) to assess reading levels. The BRI is an individually administered reading assessment tool used to estimate a child’s instructional reading level (IRL) that results in grade level scores (e.g., 2.0, 2.5, etc.). Like most assessments developed from an informal reading inventory paradigm, the BRI involves orally reading passages written at various grade levels and answering comprehension questions. IRL scores for September were subtracted from the May score to create a reading change score that served as the dependent variable.

The HSI score served as the primary independent variable for the study. Each school completes an HSI form in the spring with the assistance of a consultant from HOSTS. The HSI is a scale consisting of six components with three to five items in each. Components consisted of Diagnostic Assessment,Individualized/ PrescriptiveStrategies, Mentoring, Communication, Administralive Support, and Program Impact. Each item within the components was rated on a four-point scale labeled as superior, strong, developing, and incomplete. Although those labels seem subjective, each is linked to objective data. For example, the first item for Diagnostic Assessment addresses how many of the students were administered the BRI with at least 90% within the first 2 weeks being superior, at least 80% within the first month being strong, fewer than 75% within the first year was developing, and less than 50% was incomplete. Acoefficient alpha was computed to estimate reliability of the scale. The resulting coefficient of .76 suggested adequate reliability for research purposes.

After completing the scale, the score is summed and divided by total possible points and multiplied by 1OO to obtain a percentage. An HSI score of 90% is considered high implementation (HOSTS, 2003). As stated earlier, 32 schools met or exceeded 90% and were classified as High Implementation. An additional 15 schools scored between 80% and 89%, and four schools were rated between 70% and 79%. Therefore, to better assure a comparable number of schools within groups, all schools that scored less than 90% were grouped together as one group called Average to Low Implementation.

In addition to BRI and HSI scores, the number of student absences and mentoring sessions for the year were collected and recorded. Themeannumberof student absences were 10.65 (SD = 9.72) for the High Implementation group and 11.12 (SD = 10.20) for the Average to Low group with the difference between the two groups not being significant t = (1429) .83, p = .41. Students in the High Implementation group averaged 59.43 (SD= 31.77) mentoring sessions during the school year, as compared to 44.76 (SD = 27.29) in the Average to Low group. Therefore, the average number of mentoring sessions was significantly greater f (1465) = 8.43 ,p


The HOSTS Corporation was contacted to generate a list of elementary schools that implemented the HOSTS program during the 2001-2002 school year. Next, the principals of those buildings were contacted to recruit participation and get HOSTS scores. Finally, the schools sent September BRI data in October and May BRI data in June. The data received in June also included number of student absences, number of mentoring sessions, and demographic data. Schools were provided a report that detailed data analyses for their particular HOSTS program in exchange for participating in the study.

The first research question examined how frequently high implementation ratings occurred by conducting a chi squared analysis with the number of schools rated between 90% and 100%, between 80% and 89%, and less than 80%. The second question asked if level of implementation fidelity wouldaffect reading gains and was examined by conducting an analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) between reading gains scores of schools in the High and Average to Low Implementation groups. The number of sessions was used as the covariate because there was a significant difference in mean frequency of sessions between groups. All analyses required an alpha level of less than .01 to establish significance. Table 1

Demographic Data for Students in Two Implementation Groups


The first research question asked if the HOSTS program can be implemented with fidelity. Almost two-thirds (n = 32) of the schools had ratings that exceeded 90% and were considered a High Implementation group. The remaining schools were considered Average to Low implementation, with 15 of the schools receiving an HSI score between 80% and 89%, and four between 70% and 79%. A chi squared analysis revealed significant results X^sup 2^ (2) = 23.41, p

The second research question asked if level of implementation fidelity would affect reading gains. As shown in Table 2, students in the High Implementation group outperformed their peers in the Average to Low group using the number of mentoring sessions for each student as the covariate. The difference between groups was also examined by computing Cohen’s (1988) d, which equaled .29 and suggested a small to perhaps moderate effect.


A review of research suggested that the HOSTS tutoring program was developed from sound theory and data exist to support its effectiveness. However, consistency of implementation is also needed to assure success when using an educational innovation (Ellis, 2001). The current study suggested that a high level of implementation occurred on a large scale. Moreover, given that these schools were within the first year of implementation and were still frequently rated highly in implementation fidelity, it would seem that consistency in implementation would be somewhat easily obtained perhaps due to HOSTS’ structured and frequentlymonitored model.

The literature is replete with evidence that one-on-one tutoring can be a powerful intervention in accelerating the literacy development of struggling readers (Cohen, Kulik, & Kulik, 1982; Elbaum, Vaughn, Hughes & Moody, 2000; Wasik, 1998; Wasik & Slavin, 1993, Shanahan, 1998; Morrow & Woo, 2001). However, implementation fidelity must also be considered when evaluating effectiveness data (Elbaum et al., 2000), especially given that previous research suggested that some tutoring programs were implemented in a manner that was inconsistent with expectations (Roe & Vukelich, 2003). The current study found that children participating in programs rated to be implemented with high fidelity demonstrated larger gains than students in schools with moderate or low implementation. This finding supports the importance of implementation fidelity and suggests confidence in data supporting the effectiveness of the HOSTS tutoring program as intervention for struggling readers . However, the small effect size suggested that both groups experienced gains in reading scores. The effect size may have been larger if comparison groups were high, moderate, and low implementation instead of high and low to moderate implementation, but this was not possible given the infrequency of a low implementation rating.

Table 2

Mean Gain Scores and ANCOVA Results Two Implementation Groups

The Peer Assisted Learning Strategy (PALS; Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathes, Simmons, 1997) is an often referenced tutoring model that relies on peers to deliver classwide tutoring for children experiencing academic difficulties. PALS, like HOSTS, is often implemented with high fidelity (Mathes, Torgesen, & Allor, 2002; Mathes, Howard, Alien, & Fuchs, 1998) and presents a cost effectiveoption for tutoring students. Research on PALS as an intervention for Iow achieving readers in elementary grades found effect sizes similar in magnitude to the .29 standard deviation units found in the current study (.33, Fuchs, Fuchs, Mathews, & Martinez, 2002; median of .23, Fuchs et al., 1997; median of .42 Mathes et al., 1998). It should be noted that the Moreover, the current effect size is also consistent with previous research using adult tutors with children experiencing reading difficulties (median of .27Allor & McCathren, 2004; median of .44, Baker, Gersten & Keating, 2000).

Although data in the current study suggest some implications for practice, limitations of the data need to be considered. First, the data were obtained from the BRI, which is an informal reading inventory with unknown psychometric properties (Bums, 2003). It can probably be assumed that data from the BRI were sufficiently reliable for research purposes (Burns, 2003), but that would be an assumption without empirical support. secondly, data were collected by the teachers who implemented the program, which suggests the potential for bias. Finally, these data were from one school year and do not address the program’s sustainability.

NCLB requires schools deemed in need of improvement to use 20% of their Title I funds for tutoring. However, the potential costs to provide expert teacher tutoring for students to achieve grade level standards is staggering.far exceeding available funds (Allington,2004). HOSTS may provide a more cost effective option in that trained volunteers provide the one-on-one structured tutoring under the supervision of a trained teacher. Moreover, given that high levels of implementation appear somewhat easily obtained and level of implementation affected results, the likelihood of implementing a successful program could be high.


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Barbara V. Senesac, Central Michigan University. Matthew K. Burns, University of Minnesota.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Barbara V. Senesac at kirklbj@cmich.edu

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