A review of volunteer tutoring programs in reading

The America Reads Challenge, a U.S. Department of Education initiative, is an effort to increase the reading scores of school children by helping schools and communities develop volunteer tutoring programs. Barbara A. Wasik, Johns Hopkins University, points out that at the urging of the Department of Education, schools and communities throughout the country are establishing tutoring programs with little data about the kinds of tutoring programs that actually increase reading achievement.

Wasik reports that there is little research documenting the effectiveness of adult volunteers as reading tutors, although five tutoring programs using certified teachers and paraprofessionals have been carefully studied. These findings support two important conclusions.

First, one-to-one tutoring by teachers can be an extremely effective form of instruction; the primary drawback is the high cost of providing these services to students. Second, programs that use certified teachers as tutors appear to obtain substantially larger achievement gains than those using paraprofessionals. The programs that achieved good results with paraprofessionals were highly structured and provided rigorous training.

Programs using adult volunteers

In this review, Wasik examined 17 programs that used adult volunteers as reading tutors for kindergarten through third-grade students.* Some of these volunteer tutoring programs were based on the Reading Recovery program, while others were influenced by Success For All, a school-wide reading model that provides curriculum reforms, school-wide professional development, and family support services in addition to one-to-one tutoring by paid teachers and paraprofessionals.

Effect sizes, used to compare programs, were computed by subtracting the average control group’s score from the average treatment group’s score in each program. (Some programs did not have a control group because some schools were unwilling to deny services to students in need of help.) Wasik reports that successful programs showed several common traits that provided important insights on volunteer programs.
She defines these similar elements as:

1. A skilled coordinator who trains tutors and often provides daily, individual lesson plans for children.

2. Highly structured tutor-training activities, including scaffolding and explicit modeling.

3. Structured lessons that include reading new material, reading familiar books, word analysis and letter-sound relationship activities, and writing that emphasizes composition.

Wasik notes, however, that these programs lacked coordination between classroom instruction and the tutoring program. It is not possible from available data to judge the effects of inconsistent instruction. Further research is needed to explore the effects of inconsistent versus coordinated reading instruction in schools that use volunteer reading tutors to supplement classroom instruction.

These 17 programs included:

  • Howard Street Tutoring Program (Evanston, Illinois);
  • School Volunteer Development Project (Dade County, Florida);
  • Book Buddies (University of Virginia);
  • Connie Juel’s University of Texas/Austin Program;
  • Reading One-One (University of Texas/Dallas);
  • Help One Student to Succeed;
  • Reading Recovery AmeriCorps;
  • Intergenerational Tutoring Program (Jerome Kagan/Harvard University);
  • Reading Together / Vista (Temple University);
  • Early Identification Program (Reading, Ohio School District);
  • Books and Beyond (Solano Beach, California School District);
  • Read*Write*Now; SLICE/AmeriCorps (Kentucky);
  • Reach Out and Read; Cabrini-Green Tutoring Program (Chicago);
  • Hilliard Elementary School Tutoring Program (Houston);
  • Growing Together (Washington, D.C.).

“Volunteer Tutoring Programs in Reading: A Review” Reading Research Quarterly, Volume 33, Number 3, July/August/September 1998, pp. 266-292.

Published in ERN October 1998 Volume 11 Number 7

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