Low-cost volunteer tutoring program can be effective

iStock_000016876858XSmallOne-on-one tutoring by teachers can produce substantial gains in students’ achievement. Tutoring by trained adults who are not teachers has also been shown to be effective. Researchers in Oregon have been studying the effects on reading achievement of a large-scale volunteer tutoring program.

Scott Baker, Russell Gersten and Thomas Keating, Eugene Research Institute, Eugene, Oregon, report that the Start Making a Reader Today (SMART) program differs in significant ways from other volunteer reading programs. SMART was designed for rapid, wide-scale implementation. It currently serves over 7,000 predominantly low-income students. To make it easier to implement, it intentionally places minimal demands on teachers and requires little tutor training.

Given the high turnover rate of volunteer programs and the high cost of training, SMART trains tutors only briefly. They rely on the judgment and instincts of literate adults to work with struggling readers. Volunteers are simply expected to read with students twice a week for 30 minutes.

SMART administrators report that is easier to recruit tutors if it is clear that they are not expected to know or acquire specialized teaching skills. Tutors receive a handbook and attend a training session for one to two hours, observing a trained teacher tutoring a child.

No attempt is made to align the tutoring program with a classroom or district’s reading programs. Every school has a half-time coordinator (usually an Americorps volunteer or an instructional assistant) to recruit tutors, schedule tutoring times with teachers, arrange for sufficient books and places for tutors and students to meet.

Previous Studies of Volunteer Reading Programs

These researchers report that only three other programs – the Howard Street Tutoring Program, the Intergenerational Tutoring Program, and the School Volunteer Development Project — have been studied using controlled experimental-comparison group designs.

Training for tutors in these programs is intensive, ongoing, and highly structured. Studies found significant reading gains in each program but when they were studied each program served less than 150 students. Baker et al. sought to determine if SMART could achieve similar gains in reading achievement on a much larger scale at lower cost.

The SMART Tutoring Program

Teachers are asked to identify students whom they believe are at risk for reading failure. Students receive tutoring one hour a week for two years, and choose two books each month to keep and read at home.

From the beginning of the program, emphasis was placed on recruiting tutors from the business community. An initial training session is held at the beginning of the fall at a central location but tutors are trained informally as they volunteer anytime during the year. Thirty to 40 minutes is devoted to actual reading strategies that are detailed in more depth in a handbook. Logistical and administrative issues, school and safety rules are explained.

The training emphasizes reading to students and having them read. Tutors are encouraged to ask students questions during reading. They are told that it is important to increase students’ interests in reading and to make tutoring fun.

After the initial training session, volunteers are free to begin working with children on their own. Typically the coordinator will demonstrate some strategies during a reading session with the student before the volunteer takes over. Tutors’ key resource is the handbook. It states that children will improve their reading if:

  • they are provided the necessary background to appreciate the story being read,
  • they have the opportunity to read different kinds of books,
  • they learn something about letter-sound relationships to read unknown words,
  • they make predictions about the story, and
  • they derive meaning from illustrations.

The handbook explains that volunteers can read to the child, read together with the child, read a portion of the text that the child then rereads, and ask the child questions about the text. The handbook says that the tutor should review a book carefully before reading it with the child. Warm-up activities such as relating the book to the child’s own experiences, skimming the book before reading, looking at and discussing the illustrations are encouraged.

Measuring SMART’s Benefits

Baker et al. used an experimental design with random assignment to treatment and comparison groups to study the effects of the SMART tutoring program. Twenty-four first-grade classes in six schools across four school districts were included in the study. Schools came from a diverse range of communities (urban, rural, suburban) but were representative of Title 1 schools in western Oregon.

About half of the students were European American, 30 percent African American, 10 percent American Indian, and 6 percent each Asian American and Latino. Approximately one quarter of the students in each class was referred for tutoring. Half were randomly assigned to the tutoring program while the other half did not receive tutoring and served as a comparison group. In addition, teachers were asked to identify average-achieving readers to serve as a standard for assessing relative reading progress.

All students were administered a battery of pretest measures to ensure that there were no statistically significant differences between treatment and comparison groups before the program was begun. Students continued to follow their regular reading program. The only difference was that treatment students were pulled out for one hour of tutoring per week for approximately six months each year during the first and second grades.

About one-third of the students moved during the study. Only students who participated for the full two years were included in the analysis.

Students were tested three times during the study- at the beginning of first grade and at the end of the first and second grades. Subtests of the Woodcock Reading Mastery Test-Revised and the Expressive One Word Picture Vocabulary were administered. Pre-reading measures included phonemic awareness and alphabetic understanding. Students were tested on reading accuracy and fluency, word recognition and word and passage comprehension.


Tutored students earned significantly higher scores on reading fluency, but while they scored higher on passage comprehension than comparison students, the difference was not statistically significant.

The analysis of reading growth over time measured by the word recognition test revealed that SMART students made significantly greater growth than comparison students and had significantly greater growth rates than average-achieving students. However, the achievement levels of SMART students were still significantly lower than average achieving students, (30th percentile on average versus a range of 47th to 69th percentile for average students).

Comparing rates of referral to special education revealed that significantly fewer SMART students were given special education services – 26 percent of the SMART students versus 44 percent of the comparison students were placed in special education during the two years of the study. While the SMART students clearly benefited from tutoring, placement rates remain high for both groups.

A survey of more than 900 volunteer tutors revealed that many wanted more guidance, particularly in how to deal with students who have short attention spans, who are not motivated to read or who are unhappy or angry.

Some volunteers requested more opportunities to meet with teachers to receive guidance on reading instruction. Others complained that tutoring sessions were canceled with little or no notice due to other school activities. The quantity and quality of the space provided for tutoring was also a common concern.

On the positive side, a strong theme of emotional bonding emerged from these surveys. Many tutors described the intense, personal nature of the one-on-one tutoring experience. They praised the quality of the books available.

Many also expressed an increased understanding of the challenging job teachers face and recognized the limited resources available to schools. They were impressed with the efforts schools made to help students and many felt SMART tutoring should be required of all adults eligible to vote on school funding.

Observations of tutoring sessions revealed that tutors took their job very seriously and that students looked forward to their tutoring sessions. SMART was a positive experience for both the tutors and students who formed close personal relationships.


Baker et al. found that Oregon’s SMART program improved the reading abilities of students at risk for reading failure. On most measures, the performance of tutored students was significantly higher than matched comparison students who were not tutored.

Statistically significant differences were found on word reading, reading fluency and word comprehension (reading vocabulary). SMART students performed better on passage comprehension but the difference was not statistically significant.

These differences were at educationally significant levels. Despite the greater growth rate, however, tutored students were not able to close the gap with average-achieving students. SMART students remain at considerable risk of reading-related difficulties.

Although the SMART program was not able to erase the deficit of low-achieving students, it achieved improvements similar to those achieved by much more costly programs that serve many fewer students. The flexibility and ease of implementing the SMART program accounts for its rapid expansion.

This study demonstrates the positive impact of the program on very large numbers of students. These findings suggest that volunteers with minimal training can help students make significant gains in reading achievement. This is important for districts without the resources for intensive training.

“When Less May Be More: A Two-Year Longitudinal Evaluation of a Volunteer Tutoring Program Requiring Minimal Training” Reading Research Quarterly Volume 35, Number 4, December 2000 Pp. 494-519.

Published in ERN December/January 2001 Volume 14 Number 1

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