Research has shown the effectiveness of one-to-one tutoring on the development of literacy in young children. Individual tutoring is expensive, though, especially in sufficient amounts. One school district in Virginia reports success with an economically feasible tutoring program that uses community volunteers. With collaboration and commitment within both the school and the community, the Charlottesville Volunteer Tutorial program has helped close the gap between high and low achievers.
This volunteer tutoring project grew out of a district-wide reading initiative that aggressively targeted first-grade literacy. Literacy became the focus of staff development, and student peer coaching was implemented. A partnership between the schools, the reading center at the University of Virginia and the community created the Charlottesville Volunteer Tutorial as an integral part of the long-range reading initiative.
Goal of improving reading and writing for at-risk children
The goals of the tutorial were to improve the reading and writing of at-risk children and to establish the community’s involvement in and responsibility for the education of all children.
A volunteer recruiter solicits interested members of the community, who are trained in two-hour sessions three times a year. Each session incorporates videotapes of actual tutorials and a walk-through of the lesson plan.
A reading coordinator at each school provides ongoing training and support for tutors by writing lesson plans, providing materials and giving feedback about activities, techniques and pacing. Each coordinator works 17 hours per week supervising 15 volunteer tutors. Tutors instruct children twice a week in 45-minute sessions.
These sessions usually take place outside the classroom at times when students will not miss instruction in core subjects.
During the three years the program has been in effect, it has served 359 children. Some children continue to receive tutoring in second grade. The school district pays the salaries of the reading coordinators and the volunteer recruiter, as well as expenses for books and materials.
The reading coordinators are key members of the program. All are current or former graduate students in reading education. They are responsible for assessing students individually twice a year to design appropriate instruction for each child and to monitor their progress. They provide ongoing training for the tutors, coordinate the program with the classroom teacher through biweekly meetings and write individualized lesson plans.
Most of the children in the program are first-graders with little or no alphabet knowledge, no concept of word and little or no phonemic awareness. The tutoring lesson consists of reading, writing and phonics, arranged in a sequence of four core activities. Each time, the tutor and child reread familiar story books, do word study, write, and read a new book in each lesson. The tutor gathers words from familiar stories for the child to identify.
Words are written on cards to form a word bank, and these are used for alphabet, spelling and phonics lessons. Word study uses a compare-and-contrast approach. For example, cards are sorted by beginning or ending sounds, consonant blends or short vowel sounds. For writing, tutors dictate sentences from familiar stories or children compose their own sentences relating to stories they have read. Children are encouraged to produce “sound spellings,” even if these are incorrect. However, they are held accountable for things they have been taught. Each new book is introduced by modeling ways to anticipate the content and wording of the book using titles and picture clues. The tutor talks about vocabulary and key concepts and encourages the child to make observations and predictions about the story content.
The tutorial’s success is measured by pre- and post-testing carried out each year, as well as child and tutor surveys and annual cost analyses. One additional benchmark of first-grade reading success is the ability to read Minarik’s Little Bear with better than 90 percent accuracy. Test scores show that the program is becoming more successful each year. At the end of the first year, only 50 percent of the children could read Little Bear with more than 90 percent accuracy. The second year 72 percent succeeded and 86 percent at the end of the third year. Several improvements have been made to the program during the three years: tutoring begins earlier in the year, volunteer training procedures include more small-group seminars, and lessons plans include more word study.
Cost analyses of the first three years show an average cost per child of $595. This is considerably less than other one-to-one interventions such as Reading Recovery, which costs more than $3000 per child. The number of children served by the program is growing each year.
This research demonstrates that with training and support, community volunteers can make effective tutors for first-grade children. This program continues to show sustained commitment from the community.
“A Community Volunteer Tutorial That Works”,The Reading Teacher, Volume 50, Number 4, January 1997 pp. 304-311.
Published in ERN January/February 1997 Volume 10 Number 1